What does the Police & Crime Commissioner for the West Midlands actually do?

Bobbies on the beat in Foxton Road, Birmingham, in 2007. Image: Getty

At 6pm on Thursday 21 August 2014, I walked to my local polling station, a small primary school, to vote in the West Midlands Police & Crime Commissioner (PCC) by-election. When I entered the school’s hall the two poll clerks looked at me in surprise: one put down their book; the other told me I was the first person to cast their ballot there that day.

This was typical of the election’s low turnout: 10.41 per cent across the West Midlands Conurbation, which has a population of just under 2m. I heard of at least one polling station in Birmingham that received zero visitors all day. However, of those who voted, over half chose to elect Labour’s David Jamieson, who was re-elected in a landslide victory on 5 May 2016.

The 2014 by-election was called shortly after the sudden death of Bob Jones. Once David became the Labour candidate, he pledged to improve road safety by reactivating speed cameras; he promised to increase neighbourhood policing by hiring more police officers. David was previously the MP for Plymouth Devonport for 13 years, then a councillor in Solihull for four. He’s affable on the phone, despite us speaking the evening after the funeral of his friend, Darren Cooper, the former leader of Sandwell Council.

He tells me every PCC’s main responsibilities are threefold: to write a strategic plan for police priorities in the area; to hold the chief constable to account; to engage with the public: translating what they want from the police into the force itself.


Listening to and being accountable to voters are the aspects most similar to being an MP or councillor, as well as needing to utilise all media to keep the public aware of what you’re doing. One significant difference is the West Midlands PCCs being solely responsible for a budget of £540m. Even as a junior minister, David explains, you have very little say in how budgets are spent, but this role requires him to oversee large amounts with relatively few barriers. For this, the West Midlands PCC is paid £100,000 a year, compared to the £74,000 basic salary of an MP.

The PCC role itself is often seen as vague, leading some to mould the job to suit their ideologies. Like any other PCC, David is responsible for dismissing and hiring chief constables, but he also wants the public to judge how well he holds the police to account. To achieve this, he created a cross-party board, which acts like a select committee and cross-examines the chief constable’s reports every month; this is streamed publically via live webcast. As far as David is aware, no other PCC has done this.

It’s also his intention to integrate the work of the police with other aspects of West Midlands politics, like the economic agenda; “High levels of employment and aspiration,” David says, “draw people, particularly young men, away from crime”. He believes in creating a healthy economic environment, which will manifest itself in a healthier social environment.

Looking at the other PCCs, David says, “None have done wildly stupid things”, but concedes, “one or two have made a mess”. The biggest challenge for any of them, he states, is overcoming the huge size of their constituencies and maintaining contact with their electors. This is made harder by the shifting dynamics of such large areas and the variety of communities one person has to represent.

In terms of fighting crime, David believes organised crime and radicalisation are major problems for any PCC, but he says the biggest issue facing us all is that of cyber crime, which requires greater international cooperative, as the criminals are often abroad. As a result of this, he supported remaining in the European Union. He gives the example of a West Midlands chief and a Spanish counterpart leading Europe in tackling gun crime. A vote to leave means that the level of cooperation we currently have, such as European arrest warrants could be lost, and trying to combat these criminals would be, “endlessly more difficult”.

As part of further devolution to city regions, in 2017 there will be an election for a West Midlands metro mayor, who will cover Birmingham, the Black Country, Coventry, and several smaller towns on the outskirts of these cities. There are reports that the metro mayor will absorb the PCC’s role. This would mean that in 2017, some of these cities would have voted four times in five years for the political head of the second largest police force in the country.

However, David says whoever does get elected is more likely to launch a joint bid with the him, transforming the PCC role into that of a deputy mayor, who would retain power over police and perhaps even incorporate the fire service. This will only happen, David stresses, if we elect a strong mayor who can deliver a plan the central government can trust, and even then it won’t be discussed until 2018.

I ask him if he honestly believes anyone other than Labour could win the metro mayor election and he says, tactfully, that anyone who gets complacent about their election tends to lose their seat. He’s applied this thinking to all of his elections; even those to his old safe seat in Plymouth, where he had a 19,000 majority, but says he always fought it like a marginal.

Before interviewing him, I met David on the campaign trail, where he joined with my local Labour candidate for Birmingham City Council in speaking with voters. His brother, a former Labour councillor, ran against Labour in the ward, as the Green Party candidate. “Labour was too successful,” David laughs, “he fights elections to lose”.

Our time is running out, so I ask him about his beginnings in politics. In 1963, at the end of a long period of Tory government, David, aged 16, saw the state of housing in the West Midlands was still suffering after the war, with widespread slums. There were many children around whose parents worked, but didn’t have shoes as they walked to school. David thought there had to be something better. At the same time, a cousin was the first child born in the family after the NHS, which meant that baby was the first in the family not to impoverish them due to doctor, hospital and midwife fees.

Fifty three years later, David says, “We’ve got to refresh ourselves, and start talking about the things the public are talking about again”. He feels the last Labour government did great things in health and education, but didn’t get it right on housing, something that needs to be addressed now. “We started talking in a way that politicians talk with each other, but not in a way most people speak”, which created distance with the public; he criticises himself for this too.

Ultimately, he feels, “We need to find better ways of getting the message out there”. He lives in Solihull, a wealthy suburb of Birmingham where the Tories have a large majority. However, Labour Party membership there has more than tripled. This gives him hope Labour can do better: that the party can speak with more of electorate than it did in 2015. Achieving that will require all factions of the parliamentary Labour Party to put their differences aside – and work together with the membership.

This article is part of our Midlands Engine series. Click here for more

It's an edited version of an article that appeared on our sister site New Statesman in May.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.