Is Crossrail for the North really the biggest priority for the north?

Those were the days: Stephenson’s Rocket. Image: Rischgitz/Getty.

For the last few years, one of the big ideas in the world of urbanism has been ‘agglomeration’: the theory that, when it comes to city economics, bigger is better. In a 2011 speech, the theoretical physicist Geoffrey West unveiled research showing that, the bigger the city, the higher its growth rate, and the faster it produced all sorts of helpful things like patents. (Also unhelpful things like crime, but who’s counting?)

All this presented Britain with a problem. London aside, none of its cities are that big in global terms. (The urban areas of Birmingham and Manchester just about sneak into the top 200.) 

So in 2014, Britain’s coalition government came up with a plan. Between them, the urban areas of Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield and Leeds have a population approaching that of London. By improving transport links within and between those cities, so the theory ran, they would be able to act like a single urban area, rather like Germany’s Rhine-Ruhr or the Netherlands’ Randstad – two other multipolar urban regions which are, pleasingly, rich. Finally, the north would be able to act as an economic counterweight to London and the south east. And all we had to do to make it happen was to build a new trans-Pennine train line that we probably should have built years ago anyway.

A lot of people loved this idea, for fairly obvious reasons. It meant a big new investment in transport in the north, rather than in London. The benefits would be shared by a number of cities, making it much easier to build support for the idea. Bored transport journalists would tweet out crowd-sourced maps of potential routes.

And yesterday, at a transport summit in Leeds, the region’s political and business leaders called on the government to honour its promise to build Crossrail for the North/HS3/the Northern Powerhouse Rail, the proposed new rail link which has been blessed with rather more names than funding commitments.

On the whole, then, it’s distressing to learn that, just possibly, we’ve all been wasting our time.

Paul Swinney is the chief economist at the Centre for Cities, and an occasional contributor to CityMetric. (Full disclosure: the Centre has sponsored us since 2015.) He’s a northerner himself – a good Sunderland lad – and a man who spends a lot of time thinking about how to rebalance the British economy.

And yesterday, he tweeted out a pretty convincing argument that the cross-north link is really not the biggest priority. It’s worth reading the entire thread – but here are the key points.

1. London’s situation is unique in Britain

Both wages and house prices in London are high. As a result, people will commute from very long distances to get to jobs in the capital, and making it easier to do that will produce a big economic benefit.

That logic doesn’t apply in most of the northern cities, where housing is affordable, and wages are lower, however. That means it’s more possible to live in the city, and less attractive to commute from elsewhere to get there.

2. Northern commuters aren’t going from city to city

People do commute into Manchester, of course: but they’re more likely to come in from the rural areas to the north or south, rather than the other cities to east or west.

After all, if you want to live the urban lifestyle while working in Manchester, you might as well just live in Manchester.

3. Transport isn’t the big problem

I’m not going to lie to you, this one breaks my heart. But the numbers suggest we’ve all been stariing at the wrong problem:

The data gets even more depressing when you look at the picture internationally.

4. Crossrail for the North is a distraction

Finally, the government only has so much bandwidth (even more so, in the age of Brexit). The time and energy that goes into a big project like a new railway line is time and energy that isn’t spent fixing the region’s other problems.

Or to put it another way: perhaps my whole life I’ve been living a lie.

Paul’s prescription is that cities need devolution (so, in practice, mayors), so that they can tackle the skills gap and sort out transport problems within, rather than between, cities. It’s not the agglomeration theory is wrong, exactly: but weak transport networks mean that a city of 1m people will punch below its weight, simply because it can’t connect people with jobs.

In fairness, Jim O’Neill’s Cities Growth Commission, which kicked off much of this debate back in 2014, made many of the same points. HS3, or whatever we’re calling it in this paragraph, was never meant to be a panacea, but part of a much bigger package of investment in both transport and skills.

So how did the debate come to focus on this one grand projet? I suspect the answer is jam-spreading. Pouring money into a tram network for Leeds, say, would get backs up unless it was accompanied by similar investments elsewhere.

A new trans-pennine rail link, though, would seem to benefit a lot more people: that makes it easier to sell. It feels significant that Newcastle – a very long way from the four other big northern cities – ended up folded into the Northern Powerhouse scheme, simply because it was too awkward to exclude it.

None of which is to say that HS3 (I’m sticking with that name) is a bad idea: the existing trans-pennine links are shocking, and it’s pretty gross that transport secretary Chris Grayling scrapped plans to invest in rail in the north in literally the same week he called for another £30bn railway line for London. But if money is scarce, there may be better things we can do with it.

You can read more on this subject in “Building the Northern Powerhouse”, a report Paul Swinney produced for the Centre for Cities in 2016.

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

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook


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.