Who will be the first mayor of the West Midlands?

The obligatory picture of Birmingham's bullring shopping centre. Image: Getty.

The first thing to say about the West Midlands: don’t call it Greater Birmingham. It’s perhaps best, indeed, that we don’t even call it a city.

The area – first defined as a metropolitan county in 1974, abolished in 1986, and resurrected last year as the sexily named West Midlands Combined Authority – includes three cities (Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Coventry), plus four other boroughs (Sandwell, Walsall, Dudley, Solihull).

There’s not really a good name for what it is. It’s not really a conurbation because there’s a rather large gap between Coventry and the rest. Some involved in West Midlands politics prefer the term “region”, but to confuse matters there is a much broader West Midlands Region, which includes five of the surrounding counties.

Whatever it is, though, it’s about to get a metro mayor, so who’s it going to be?

The odds

Before we look at the candidates, let’s get one thing straight: this should be a walkover for Labour. The party holds 21 of the region’s parliamentary seats, compared to just seven for the Tories. It also has healthy majorities on the three city councils and Sandwell, and pluralities on Dudley and Walsall. (It’s admittedly nowhere in Solihull, where it’s Tories as far as the eye can see.)

The obligatory map: the seven boroughs, and their predecessor councils. Image: Wikipedia.

What’s more, in the last West Midlands-wide election to take place on the supplementary vote system – last year’s vote for the police and crime commissioner – the second round run-off saw Labour’s David Jamieson beat Tory Lee Jones, 63 per cent to 37. So, Labour has got this, right?

Well, possibly not actually. Bookies Ladbrokes currently have the Conservative Andy Street as the 4/9 favourite, with Labour’s Sion Simon at 15/8. And, to be cynical about this, of the three big city regions about to elect metro mayors, this is the only one the Conservatives can actually win.

The governing party is thus likely to throw everything at the West Midlands so they can say they’re even beating Labour in the cities: it was no coincidence that Street was given a prime speaking spot at the party’s conference in Birmingham last October.

In the blue corner

Andy Street is best known for his association with John Lewis. After graduating from Oxford (PPE, obviously), he joined the department store’s graduate training scheme in 1985, and worked his way up the ranks before becoming managing director in 2007. All this means that he can point to impressive business experience, but because it’s cuddly, cooperative, sentimental Christmas ad-producing John Lewis, it’s going to be hard to paint him as a heartless capitalist.

Street in 2010. Image: Getty.

Street’s pitch is likely to be a technocratic one: “I’m the best man for the job,” basically. His campaign is pointing to the amount of investment he’s brought to the region, through his role as chair of the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership. There’s talk of performance related pay, and a focus on getting youth unemployment down, too.

What the Street campaign seems to lack at the moment is a single, big policy that the new mayor could push through in his first hundred days: the sort of signature achievement that will a bored electorate see why it’s worth having a mayor in the first place. That said, the election is still over two months off and the manifesto hasn’t been published yet, so this may materialise later.


In the red corner

Sion Simon hasn’t published his manifesto yet either, but already has at least one policy that could play that role: his pledge to nationalise the M6 toll road, which he’s described as “a six lane motorway with hardly any cars on it”. At the moment, he argues, cross-country freight traffic is clogging up the West Midlands’ roads because the toll is too expensive. Nationalise the road and scrap the toll, and all those lorries should go round the conurbation rather than through it, thus relieving the region’s roads.

This isn’t a completely potty idea – the road is up for sale – but the Tory-controlled Department for Transport doesn’t seem keen. That said, even if the bid for nationalisation fails, this will be a neat way of showing that the new mayor is fighting for the West Midlands interests against a distant Whitehall elite.

All of which fits nicely with the Simon campaign’s oddly familiar slogan, “Taking back control of the West Midlands”. It’s also talking a lot about Englishness, and including the England flag on its campaign materials. How all this will play in a diverse region, where much of Labour’s vote comes from the BME community, remains to be seen.

 

Sion Simon's 2006 look was surprisingly similar to the author's 2006 look. 

Simon is another Oxford PPE grad (of course he is), with a fairly diverse CV: advisor to Tony Blair, associate editor of the Spectator, two years working for Guinness. He was MP for Birmingham Erdington from 2001 to 2010, before standing down to run the campaign for Birmingham to have an elected mayor. That didn’t come off, though, so in 2014 he was elected a member of the European Parliament.

It’s an impressive CV – but you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who thinks that Simon is a Labour big beast like Andy Burnham in Manchester, or that he has the popularity of Steve Rotheram in Liverpool. (The party’s obvious candidate in the West Midlands, I fear, was Tom Watson, who’s busy being deputy leader.) Sion Simon could very well win this thing – but the fact he’s seen as the underdog says something about both him and the state of his party.

The others

The Liberal Democrat candidate is Beverley Nielsen, the only woman in the race. (This is happening in Manchester, too: what gives, guys?). She’s spent much of her career in business, including a stint as director of the CBI West Midlands, and today is executive director of the Institute of Design and Economic Acceleration (IDEA) at Birmingham City University.

Unsurprisingly, Nielsen’s priorities are mostly in the realm of economic development: she wants better transport to help people reach jobs, better links between employers and education, and some kind of local investment bank to encourage growth. She’s not likely to win, but the supplementary vote system means that, should she come in the top two, it is at least possible.

Three other candidates have declared so far. UKIP’s Pete Durnell is opposed to HS2, not to mention the entire office of mayor, but has magnanimously decided to stand anyway. Green James Burn is promising a new industrial revolution, through investment in low carbon industries. 

Then there’s the communist Graham Stevenson. Not sure what his policies are, but I hope one of them is greater investment in web design skills because look at this:

The election will be held on 4 May. I can’t wait.

If you’re involved in any of these campaigns, or any others that I may have missed, please do drop me a line.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason.

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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.