Here are four thoughts on Birmingham’s new tram plan

Oooh, shiny. Image: Transport for the West Midlands.

Last week on our Facebook page (you like that already, right? You should definitely like it), we received a complaint, of sorts: that we don't write enough about Birmingham.

If there's any validity to this, it's for a simple reason. Much of our most widely-shared content is about transport. And Birmingham's transport is pretty, well, rubbish: a few commuter rail lines, an extensive but under-regulated bus network, and a single, solitary light rail line which, let's be honest about this, makes for a rubbish map.

To make matters worse, for most of its life, the Midlands Metro – the light rail line in question – didn't make it into Birmingham City centre at all. From its opening in May 1999 right up until 2016, trams terminated on the northern fringe of the city's central business district at Snow Hill. At the other end of the line, they didn't make it to the heart of Wolverhampton, either.

The line as it was. Click to expand. Image: Transport for the West Midlands.

All of which was great for passenger numbers, obviously.

But that is, gradually, changing. In May last year, the route was extended to three new stations, ending at the recently renovated Birmingham New Street station. And over the weekend, the Department for Transport announced it was chucking £60m into the pot to help pay for the £149m extension which will take the line another mile or so through to Birmingham's rapidly redeveloping Westside.

Here's a map of where the five new stations will be:

Click to expand. Image: Transport for the West Midlands.

Some observations, in no particular order:

Those names suck

I'm not convinced those names will stick. For one thing, the stop labelled "Stephenson Street" on that map is already open, except it’s actually called "Grand Central". (The rather grandiose name refers to the shiny new shopping centre on top of New Street station.)

For another, there already is a Five Ways railway station, not particularly close to the Five Ways tram stop (the original Five Ways is a roundabout). And Edgbaston is more than a little vague, since Edgbaston is a fairly big suburban district which taken as a whole is probably bigger than the entire city centre. So my guess is at least some of these stops will ultimately open under different names.

What's with the hair-pin turn?

The result of this extension will be a slightly odd shaped line, which heads south east into the city, then turns abruptly south west.

This makes a lot more sense when you see the city centre chunk of the route as something as yet unbuilt suburban routes can later plug into – rather than simply a weirdly circuitous route from the Jewellery Quarter to Five Ways.

Where to next?

As to where those later extensions might be, in his manifesto, the region's metro mayor Andy Street promised to

“Start the construction of the Midlands Metro extension to Brierley Hill and gain agreement to extend it to North Solihull and Birmingham Airport.”

The former of those is a more orbital route, that'll leave the mainline at Wednesbury and head south west through Dudley.

The latter sounds a lot like the oft-proposed East Side extension. That would leave the main line at Corporation Street, probably serve the existing station at Moor Street and the proposed High Speed 2 terminal at Curzon Street, and then run through the eastern suburbs towards Solihull, the airport, even Coventry.

Although nobody's talking about it yet, a western line seems plausible as well. That "Edgbaston" terminus on Hagley Road would connect up nicely with the proposed SPRINT line: a bus rapid transit route which would run the length of the Hagley Road, towards Bearwood and Quinton. It would seem strange to me to go to the trouble of building a segregated bus lane on that busy arterial, rather than to spend a few more quid and make it part of the tram network.

That said, I'm clearly speculating here. And artist's impressions of how Sprint would look clearly show it next to the tram at Edgbaston, so who knows:

Image: Transport for the West Midlands.

Oh yeah, and in the north the powers that be are finally extending the line to Wolverhampton proper. Good show, lads.

Why now?

Why the sudden government enthusiasm for spending money on public transport outside London? Doesn't this seem to go against everything transport secretary Chris Grayling seems to stand for?


Well, yes. But I suspect there's a simple reason. Of the big secondary English cities, the West Midlands is the only one with a Conservative mayor. Consequently, the Tories in national government would really quite like to see Andy Street succeed.

This extension has been on the table for some time, so I'm not saying this is the entire motivation. Nonetheless, I suspect the current management at the DfT will have been rather more easily persuaded of the value of this one than they would be of a £60m transport project in, say, Liverpool.

Anyway. The new line should be open by the spring of 2021. Which is nice.

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

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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.