What is Siôn Simon’s vision for the West Midlands?

Birmingham's Bull Ring shopping centre. Image: Getty.

Last week, Siôn Simon was selected as Labour’s candidate for next year’s inaugural election for West Midlands Metro Mayor. The West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner covers the same electorate, and David Jamieson won just under 50per cent of votes in the first round this year, going on to win over 60per cent of votes in the second. It seems fairly safe to say that Siôn has, at the very least, a strong chance of being elected in May.

The mayor will have many powers and responsibilities, some of which are still being negotiated, covering areas including jobs, transport, and housing. If elected, Siôn could fundamentally reshape how the lives of people in the region.

So let's look at his vision for the region.

Economy and employment

National statistics state unemployment is falling, but the West Midlands is experiencing an increase. To combat this, Siôn promises 300,000 apprenticeships across the region to increase employability, skills, and productivity.

However, the region also suffers from over-qualification. There are ten universities in the West Midlands Combined Authority, but not enough graduate jobs for all those who study here. So many choose to leave – if they can.

Siôn says he will create a West Midlands Employment & Skills strategy that matches skills to the needs of businesses and supports sectors with greatest growth potential. Through working with social enterprises, he hopes this will bring down the high levels of unemployment. Considering the mayor will control any additional business rates raised through economic growth, it’s in his interests to do everything he can to boost the local economy.

Additionally, under Siôn, every public body would pay the West Midlands Living Wage and only buy from suppliers who pay it too. The Living Wage Foundation states that the current living wage, outside of London, is £8.25 an hour. The minimum wage, at the time of writing, is £7.20 an hour. For someone working full-time on minimum wage, Siôn's policies would mean a pay increase of over £2,000 a year.

Road and rail

On transport, Siôn plans to cut journey times and make the region better connected. Combined authorities with a directly elected mayor are to be given powers to franchise bus services in their areas, like in London. These franchising powers will give mayors the ability to set bus routes, and the cost of fares. The cost of franchising these services remains to be seen.

Once they are all under combined authority control, Siôn wants to move towards a cashless system, as seen in other cities. This is proven to greatly reduce the time buses spend at each stop.

The proposed metro mayor's domain covers the cities of Birmingham, Wolverhampton and Coventry. Image: Google.

But, rather than emulate the London-style Oyster card, Siôn has stated he wants to focus on new technology, such as contactless payments through credit and debit cards, or smartphone apps.

A one-year freeze on all bus, rail, and metro fares, is also on the cards, as are subsided fares for job seekers. However, Siôn also wants invest in creating a 24/7-transport system. It’s hard to envisage how he could both generate money to spend on infrastructure, while also freezing fares.

At the moment, the West Midlands has very few night buses. For the majority of night and shift workers, the only alternative to driving is to pay for a taxi. What’s more, low average wages that haven’t matched a higher cost of living leave many workers unable to save for a car, and earning little more than they pay to get to and from their jobs, making work feel futile.

Introducing 24/7 bus services on key routes would be a huge financial help to those earning the least. It would create an incentive for further transport expansion, too.

All these improvements to the transport system are designed with the ultimate aim of bringing everyone in the region being within 30 minutes of quality arts, culture, sports, and leisure facilities, as well as green spaces, throughout the West Midlands.


And the rest

On the subject of the environment, Siôn argues that, as the home of automotive research and engineering, the West Midlands should lead the way in the manufacturing and usage of electric and hybrid cars. This, along with segregated cycle routes, and more efficient public transport, forms his overall plan for reduced congestion and air pollution.

Like transport, forecasts for a population increase in the West Midlands will put further pressure on a housing market that isn’t keeping up with demand. The government is planning a £250m fund for shared ownership schemes (where tenants buy a percentage of a home and pay rent on the remainder).

Siôn wants this brought under regional control, so he can use it for council and social housing, as well as for private homes. His goal is build 3,000 houses in the West Midlands Combined Authority every year.

 Siôn Simon. Image: UK national archives.

The biggest challenge here is the lack of available space; however, he may be able to achieve this if he can find a way to force developers to build on the vast amounts of brownfield sites throughout the urban areas in the region.

If Siôn can oversee this level of construction, it will allow him to clean up the private-rented sector, make homes genuinely affordable, and end homelessness in the region.

A combined policy platform that expands public transport to run 24/7, creates more jobs with better pay, and builds housing for all needs, would raise the quality of life for everyone living, working, and traveling in the West Midlands, and, most of all, those hardest-hit and hardest-working.

Given Labour’s strong electoral base in the West Midlands Combined Authority, delivering on this vision depends less on Siôn winning an election and more on whether or not he can be the strong regional leader he says we need.

Why not listen to the CityMetric team discuss Simon and Labour's other metro mayor candidates on their latest podcast?

Also, you can follow us on Twitter or Facebook, if you like.

 
 
 
 

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.