“A bloody fraud”? The problem with Transport for the North’s £70bn transport masterplan

Mmmm, northern. Image: TfN.

In April, Transport for the North (TfN) formally comes into existence as a statutory body, charged with helping people and goods get about the northern third of England.

This is all very exciting – at least, it is if you’re the sort of person who reads CityMetric, and if you’re not then what on earth are you doing here? What’s especially exciting is that, last week, we got the first proper glimpse of what the new body intends to do with itself, when it published its first strategic transport plan, complete with maps and everything.

I’m going to get into the weeds on that a little below, but if you’re the sort of person who can’t be bothered to read the words and really just wants to look at the maps, then the quick version is:

  • This looks like a big step forward in terms of the north planning for its own future;
  • Except when you dig into the detail it’s not that ambitious;
  • And it’s ignoring a major issues;
  • And TfN doesn’t really have any money anyway;
  • So it isn’t that big a step forward at all actually, which renders the whole exercise a teeny bit disappointing.

Anyway, chapter and verse. The report is being reported as a £70bn plan to overhaul transport across the north. It proposes enough road and rail upgrades to keep us busy for 30 years, and those who’ve produced it have claimed it could create 850,000 jobs and add £100bn to the economy. If you buy the idea that a big problem with the economy of the north is that it’s a pain in the arse to get people to jobs, then it should be a big deal.

The report, as stated, is festooned with maps, but here are the big two. First up, here’s the most important: the seven corridors in which TfN is hoping to improve infrastructure:

Click to expand.

Those corridors cover a lot of ground – almost all of it, in fact, although I think there’s a chunk of the Yorkshire Dales that isn’t included. So at first glance suspiciously, it looks like the big strategy for the north is to invest in transport in the north.

The individual maps are slightly more informative, but not as much as you’d think. Here’s the one for the “improving road links between Yorkshire and Scotland section:

Click to expand.

There’s not a huge amount of detail about particular projects in there, is there? Basically it’s just a shiny map to show the region needs better roads and, well, yes. There’s no big ask in terms of extending the M1 or some such. (For what it’s worth, the full report references long-standing proposals to upgrade the A1 to motorway standard as far as Newcastle, but doesn’t go much further.)

But what you really want to know about is rail, right? So here’s the rail map. It’s less depressing. Slightly:

Click to expand.

Talk of HS3, or Crossrail for the North, a brand new line from Liverpool to Hull, seems to have been over-stated somewhat. There’s a new section proposed from Liverpool to Manchester Airport via Warrington; and another form Manchester to Leeds via (woo!) Bradford. But the rest of the route will have to make do with some slight upgrades, and Sheffield has been forgotten altogether.

I don’t want to whine too much, though, because it’s silly building new lines if you don’t have to (no, really, I honestly think that). And if this is accurate this is a significant step up in terms of the region’s connectivity:

There are, though, two big gaps in all this. One is local transport. TfN has focused on improving links between cities. But as the Centre for Cities’ Paul Swinney has argued:

If increasing commuting is the aim, we should be looking at improving transport connections within city regions and to their surrounding hinterland, better linking residents in and around cities to the jobs within them.

That’s not a job for TfN, it’s one for the local transport authorities which are its constituent parts (county councils, combined authorities and so on). But most of these guys clearly don’t have the money or the power to do the job. Faster trains between Liverpool and Leeds are great and all – but if most of the residents of those cities can’t get to the central station, they’ll have a limited effect.

The other gap in the TfN report is, somehow, even bigger: unlike Transport for London (TfL), TfN doesn’t have any way of generating its own income. That leaves it with no way of obvious funding its big schemes, other than smiling sweetly at the Treasury and hoping.

So it is that at the report’s launch, this happened:

During the event, former Deputy Prime Minister Lord Prescott stormed out, shouting that TfN is “a bloody fraud.”

He said: “It was promised to have statutory powers. Now we know, and it’s been confirmed by government, it will have no powers.

“It can talk to the treasury along with the strategic bodies but it can’t make a decision and it doesn’t get any money. It’s a bloody fraud.”

Prescott is, among other things, a former transport secretary.

When TfN was first announced back in 2014, I compared its scope to Verkehrsverbund Rhein-Ruhr (VRR), which oversees public transport in the Cologne/Dusseldorf/Dortmund conurbation of western Germany. But like TfL, VRR gets to actually do things. It  runs over 50 railways, 45 street cars, 19 light rail lines, as well as buses, trolleybuses, and the Wuppertal suspended railway.

I concluded that, “If HS3 is really going to transform Britain’s economic geography, [the government] may need to go further.”

It didn’t – and this report is the result. Lord Prescott may have been unkind – but TfN has a lot of work to do to prove that it’s anything more than a talking shop.

The report is now out to consultation. We shall see.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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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.