The Buses Bill gives England’s cities a chance to make real and immediate improvements to their residents’ lives

...then four come along at once. Image: Getty.

The thing about major pieces of legislation on UK city devolution is that you wait decades for one to arrive, but then two come along at once. And just like buses, while the first may be packed and likely to make its journey slowly, the second looks may reach its destination more quickly.

As you’ll no doubt have worked out by now, I am of course talking about the Bus Services Bill, which underwent its third reading in the House of Lords last week. It may not have been heralded to the same extent as the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act (CLGDA), with its focus on high profile metro mayors, Northern Powerhouses and Midlands Engines. But the immediate impact of the Buses Bill on the lives of millions of English city-dwellers will probably be greater than anything the CLGDA can deliver in the next few years.

Essentially, the Buses Bill will give combined authorities – even those without a metro mayor – the power to franchise bus services, which London alone has held in recent decades. That means they’ll be able to set out the routes, frequencies and quality standards that councils determine will best support their residents and firms. The idea is that this will help to reduce the complexity and cost that passengers face.

Simple fare structures and tickets across cities, with routes and stops closer to where people live and want to go, will have a tangible impact on people’s everyday lives – meaning less strain on their wallets, less time walking to and waiting at bus stops, and opening up journeys they may not have previously made.

Why is this important? As anyone who lives outside London will tell you, catching a bus in most parts of the country can be an expensive and confusing experience. All day tickets bought on one bus-line won’t work on another, while some destinations within a city can still require a brisk 20-minute walk from the nearest bus stop. Knowing when, and how often, that bus is running can be a struggle to find out – and a shock when you realise how infrequently they do. As a result, passengers are voting with their feet, with fewer and fewer bus journeys are taken across English cities beyond London.

Most local bus companies were owned and run by local councils from the 1930s until 1985. That year’s Transport Act, which deregulated and ushered in the privatisation of these companies, was intended to “to halt the decline that has afflicted the bus industry for more than 20 years” as more people bought cars.

Since that act was introduced, however, passenger journeys in provincial English metropolitan areas have gradually halved, from over 2bn per year to 1bn. In London, by contrast, they held up at around 1.1bn journeys per year, before growing rapidly to nearly 2.5bn after Ken Livingstone became London’s first directly elected mayor.

When the new metro mayors take office next May, they will no doubt be keen to address these issues as part of a broader city-region economic strategy, addressing skills, housing and other economic challenges their areas face. But while most of those policies will take years to come to fruition, the Buses Bill  will enable combined authorities to take immediate action to improve bus services in their places – offering tangible signs of progress for voters who may still be unconvinced about the benefits of devolution.

For example, mayor of London Sadiq Khan gained considerable political capital as result of being able to enact his “Hopper” fare within months of coming into office. By contrast, realistically he may struggle to implement his other election promises over housing and air quality in one term in office.

Beyond the obvious economic, social and environmental improvements that a better bus service would bring, a unified bus system helps develop a shared identity of a place. In Greater Manchester, the Metrolink with its distinctive yellow and grey trams, helps to connect the city not only as a means of transport, but as a symbol shared by those who use it or see it every day, from Oldham to Altrincham. A similarly unified bus network would reach further and faster than any Metrolink extension ever could, and would help consolidate the new combined authorities in the minds of local residents.

The ongoing developments around the new metro mayors will continue to grab the headlines in the months running up to the election next May. But local leaders should not overlook the opportunities that the Buses Bill could offer to have an immediate impact in the everyday lives of the communities they represent – as well as to convince potentially sceptical voters of the advantages that devolution can offer.

Simon Jeffrey is a researcher and external affairs officer at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.

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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.