“Difficult decisions are now due”: the transport challenges ahead

A high speed train, of the sort Britain will not be seeing any time soon. Image: Getty.

The new chair of the transport select committee on the challenges ahead.

If Chris Grayling’s re-appointment was intended to project an image of steady continuity, the reality for transport in this Parliament is anything but.

Difficult but necessary decisions have been postponed for two elections. They are now due. Coupled with problems on existing programmes, the challenges facing the Department for Transport are significant.

A decision on runway expansion is now critically overdue. A final vote was expected this summer, but all bets are off while the Parliamentary arithmetic remains so fragile. Any further delays would be deeply damaging for both the UK economy and an aviation industry already beset by uncertainty over the possible loss of international landing rights after Brexit.

HS3 – or Northern Powerhouse Rail – has reached the point where it must make the transition from a drawing room blueprint to a properly defined and funded government-backed plan. Official enthusiasm for Crossrail 2 seems to have waned, despite the critical and growing capacity constraints on the London rail network. Grayling’s support for a diesel car scrappage scheme has raised expectations, but the plan may experience Treasury resistance. And, of course, the legislation to extend HS2 from Birmingham to Manchester and Leeds via the East Midlands is also due in this parliament. 

As new programmes begin, existing projects are slowly unwinding. The DfT and Network Rail committed to a multi-billion pound investment programme without a clear understanding of its costs or deliverability. Important investment programmes, such as main line electrification and freight schemes, are now delayed, over budget, and at risk of cancellation. Maintenance work is now being cut back despite serious safety concerns raised by the regulator and rail workers. Highways England’s Road Investment Strategy – which includes the flawed policy of removing the hard shoulder from motorways – looks set to suffer a similar trajectory.

Every region has a long list of promised or half-promised projects, the delivery of which now looks in doubt. In addition, the new Bus Services Act is about to come into contact with reality for the first time, and it is likely that some operators will fight tooth and nail to defend existing, de-regulated structures. And, as Labour’s frontbench has said, a Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy has finally been produced, but there is precious little investment attached, raising serious questions over how the government will meet its target of increasing the share of sustainable transport journeys.


One of the Department for Transport’s most significant tasks has been its management of the rail franchising programme. Political attention has understandably focused on the question of ownership, but the existing franchise model is struggling on its own terms. Operators are exiting the market and the average number of bids is now below the department’s own target for realising value for money. Behind closed doors, it has been acknowledged that the risk of an operator defaulting has risen.

Ministers must make a significant choice. The status quo of direct awards to incumbent operators delivers neither the competition they want nor value for the taxpayer, but the alternative management contract model has failed on such a scale on Southern that it is not a politically viable option. Direct operation, which was successfully employed on East Coast and was championed in the recent Labour manifesto, is probably out of the question under a Conservative administration. And of course, the planned extension of Driver Only Operation – an assumption of future franchise awards – will be more difficult in a hung Parliament, which should lead to a reassessment of the Department’s industrial relations priorities.

Change is needed, but there are dangers associated with the remaining options that need to be taken into account. If a sudden decision was taken to radically change the existing franchise model – such as by auctioning off lucrative intercity access rights, as proposed by the Competition and Markets Authority – then there is a real danger that timetables could become unworkable. The UK’s world class rail supply chain thrives on certainty and contracts without it. With service quality and jobs at stake, effective scrutiny of rail policy will be even more important in this Parliament than in the last.

These are some of the imminent policy decisions facing ministers, but passengers may see things differently. Transport costs are an inflationary pressure on household budgets: regulated rail fares are up by 27 per cent since 2010; bus and air fares have risen by a third.

Proposals from the last parliament to improve travellers’ experiences, from advertising the cheapest available prices at petrol stations to motorway drivers and flexible rail ticketing, are in danger of falling off the agenda. Cuts to bus routes, investment delays arising from Network Rail’s financial difficulties and de-staffing proposals all have a negative effect on disabled passengers. These voices must be represented in the months and years ahead.

With so much going on, it’s welcome that more controversial proposals inherited from the Cameron administration – such as the planned privatisation of the government’s remaining stake in national air traffic control services – look unlikely to be pursued in a hung Parliament. The challenge for backbench scrutiny is to ensure that other important but stalled policy areas, such as updating the antiquated law on taxis and private hire vehicles or level crossing safety, are not left permanently in the ‘too difficult’ box.

As we head into this new and uncertain parliament, the transport agenda is crowded and congested. With no overall majority, effective scrutiny on a cross-party basis has become even more important – but I’m confident that backbenchers can play their part in improving infrastructure and services for passengers, drivers, and all other transport users.

Lilian Greenwood is the Labour MP for Nottingham South, the former shadow transport secretary and the new chair of the transport select committee.

 
 
 
 

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.