“A blueprint for cities outside London”: The UK’s National Infrastructure Commission on its new cities programme

Works ahead. Image: Getty.

A commissioner, on the National Infrastructure Commission’s regional development programme.​

Last summer the National Infrastructure Commission made transformational investment in cities a central part of the UK’s first ever National Infrastructure Assessment. By 2040 cities across the country – small and large, and not just limited to cities with a metro mayor – will need more help if they are to realise their potential as great places to live and work. This means giving them further powers along with around £43bn of additional local transport funding.

The case for this additional investment and devolution is pretty clear. Cities in every region are growing, but run the risk of experiencing increased congestion in addition to greater pressure on housing. Travelling by car or bus in central Manchester or Bristol can already mean delays of more than 100 seconds per mile, compared to 78 seconds on urban A roads and or 22 seconds on rural A roads. Urban congestion will only get worse without an increased focus on transportation needs within cities.

Our recommendations give the government a blueprint for supporting cities outside London as they develop integrated plans for transport, housing and employment. All of the country’s 45 largest cities require stable, long-term infrastructure budgets, set at the spending review. Then it should be down to elected city leaders to formulate priorities, and city residents are best placed to hold them to account for having a strategic vision and delivering on it. Our proposal replaces the government’s current patchwork of funding sources for cities, which make it difficult for cities to formulate and commit to transformational plans to support growth and well-being.

And there is a need for being more ambitious on funding levels– £43bn of additional investment by 2040 compared to current spending levels. This would mean that devolved budgets in every city would be up 30 per cent over current spending allocations. However, it also means that funding would be available for transformational new projects in the fastest growing and most congested cities across the country in much the same way that London has benefited from additional funding for Crossrail. This would enable metro or bus rapid transit projects in the cities that need them the most.

The city leaders that we have spoken to are excited about the possibilities that more devolution and funding can create, improving the quality of life for people who live in cities as well as increasing productivity, recognising that 60 per cent of jobs are located in cities. We have also found a strong appetite among cities to understand better what makes for a successful local infrastructure strategy. Here, there is value from learning from best practice.

To help with this, we are launching a new partnership scheme with cities – supported by the Centre for Cities and the What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth – that will help bring cities together to share their experiences and to learn from each other about how to put together and deliver ambitious, effective strategies for transport, homes and jobs.


This will include a series of events where leading experts from city authorities, academia and other fields share what they know about successful transport and planning. These will be hosted in cities across the country and tackle themes such as integrating plans for transport and housing, making the most efficient use of road space, clean city air, and harnessing emerging technologies.

The National Infrastructure Commission’s work plan in this area will include working closely with five different cities from different parts of the country and of different sizes and local governance structures, to help them to develop their long-term transport strategies incorporating the delivery of new homes and job opportunities. The five – West Yorkshire, Liverpool, Derby, Basildon and Exeter – will also serve as case studies to demonstrate the difference that long-term funding certainty and additional powers could make to their areas. As well as receiving advice from the National Infrastructure Commission, they will also have the chance to work with other cities that are already developing long-term strategies to improve infrastructure for their communities.

As our cities have grown, so too have demands on their infrastructure from increasing numbers of people looking to live and work in these vibrant communities. This means breaking with business as usual, looking to give local leaders the tools they need to tackle the issues they face in the cities they know and represent.

We are eagerly awaiting the government’s planned response to all of our recommendations when it formulates a National Infrastructure Strategy next year – an important first for this country. And we are certain that cities are also looking forward to finding innovative ways of working towards delivering a new vision for infrastructure.

Professor Sir Tim Besley is a commissioner with the National Infrastructure Commission, and holds academic posts at Oxford and LSE.

 
 
 
 

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.