HS2’s left-wing critics feed the “maxed-out credit card” myth at their peril

London Euston. Image: Getty.

The UK’s new railway HS2 is set to swoosh unsympathetically through the countryside just eight years from now. As such, it has attracted the usual clutch of opponents

But amid the concerned villagers, one group stands out. These critics hail from the left, and their issue is not the green fields, but a feeling that the money would be better spent on local transport networks in the cities. By killing HS2, goes this argument, its £56bn budget would be liberated for local causes.

Coming from the left, this is a curious way to frame an argument about spending. By linking the fate of HS2 to improvements in local transport, it reinforces the view that the barrier to local investment is the national finances. The implication is that, as things stand, there is no capacity left in the budget for local projects.

This is a frame of thinking straight from George Osborne: the “maxed-out credit card” which he skillfully deployed to cull a host of public projects and shrink the state. It also runs against Labour’s own economic position that austerity is a political choice, not a necessity.

In practice, the amount of money available depends on which infrastructure projects the government thinks worth investing in. It borrows what’s necessary to pay for them, because as long as the economic gain is more than the borrowing costs, the project will – eventually – pay for itself through increased activity.

The route. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Borrowing too much could eventually increase costs. But many economists argue we are far from that point. With the cost of public borrowing currently at a historic low, they say there’s plenty of room for more long-term public investment. The money is there for improvements in local networks without needing to take from HS2.

Virtuous circles

The real barrier to investing in local transport was that, until recently, the Treasury’s definition of “worth investing in” did not account for the cumulative effect that improved transport would have on local economies over time. Too much emphasis was placed on the effect projects would have in isolation, instead of seeing investment as part of a regional industrial strategy.

While poor connections held Northern cities back, London’s stronger economy justified higher public spending. But each project strengthened its economy further, which in turn strengthened the case for future investment – and so, it kept getting more and more.


That situation is now starting to change. Investing to improve the productivity of the “left-behind” parts of the country is high on the minds of Tory and Labour politicians alike. Strategic factors beyond the usual cost/benefit calculations are recognised as an important part of decisions. Ambitious plans are being drawn up in many cities.

The cheap money is out there to fund these plans. But HS2 or no HS2, cities won’t be able to take advantage of it until the government decides a sustained progamme of local investment is a political priority that will deliver growth.

Those who would simply switch out the budget from HS2 also have little to say on how to solve the issues that it’s needed to fix. Namely, more people travelling between Birmingham and the North; freeing-up space for manufacturers to import materials and export goods along existing lines; and relieving the unreliable and congested West Coast artery. Spending on local transport, while also vitally important, can’t resolve these.

Whether HS2 is technically the cheapest way to achieve the goals is a fair question. Endless reviews return the same conclusion: it is cheaper to build from new in the fields than pouring concrete around the current route, the most intensively used in Europe, while it’s still running.

More often, though, those who would see “the money” simply reallocated are silent on the goals, or argue that local networks are more important.

This is a shame, because it reinforces the myth of a zero-sum choice between equally important priorities. It implies that financial constraints, the “maxed-out credit card” is the problem. In fact, the long-running undervaluing of the importance of a balanced economy is to blame. It sets up the idea that local and national prosperity are mutually exclusive. Building a sustainable economy along the Green New Deal model demands both.

HS2’s critics on the left are right to fight for fairer investment in all parts of the country. But tying that need to HS2’s budget makes no sense – and risks feeding a dodgy spending myth that helps neither.

 
 
 
 

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.