“I asked all the Greater Manchester mayoral candidates if they planned to build a £3.7bn maglev to Leeds”

A maglev in Shanghai. Image: Getty.

The maglev could one day float its way across northern England, if Direct City Networks has anything to say about it. Earlier this month, the firm unveiled its £3.7bn plan to connect Manchester to Leeds with a train that levitates off the track using magnets. Travelling at speeds of up to 350 miles per hour, the 36-mile journey would take just 11 minutes. The eventual network could enable journeys from Liverpool to Hull in just 29 minutes.

It didn’t get a great reception. Transport for the North (TfN), the government body that looked at the firm’s scheme, told the Manchester Evening News that it highlighted areas in need of “substantive additional development work” before they could seriously consider it.

Tony Miles, a writer for Modern Railways, was even more scathing. Claiming that the acceleration and braking involved would “vaporise the people inside the train,” he told the BBC: “I think serious scientists would fall about laughing at it.”

It’s not a totally inconceivable idea. Birmingham actually played host to the first commercial maglev system back in 1984, and high-speed maglevs operate today in China, Japan and South Korea. All the same, seeing as TfN responded with the professional equivalent of a stifled laugh, this plan in particular probably isn’t great.

A concept image for the Maglev network. Image: Direct City Networks.

But what do Greater Manchester’s mayoral candidates think? The first ever election to the post is just weeks away, and one of the first choices the winner will need to make is whether to blow billions on a floating train. What will they do?

Independent candidate Marcus Farmer did not return requests for comment before publication. Neither did the Labour Party, although the MEN reports that Andy Burnham has looked at the scheme. But what of the others?

Conservative Party

Sean Anstee is hot on the hyped-up rail ideas. His manifesto includes a commitment to commission a study into how new transportation methods could benefit the city. Anstee names the Hyperloop as one option he would explore: that’s the system designed by Elon Musk that could shoot pods through vacuum-sealed tubes at speeds of up to 700 miles per hour.

“This study will naturally include technologies such as the maglev trains solution,” said Anstee. Studying the maglev should be a bit more straightforward for his team: unlike the Hyperloop, the maglev actually exists in a ride-able form.

Liberal Democrats

“This is the sort of proposal we should be exploring further,” said party candidate Jane Brophy. “Making sure it environmentally meets low carbon, low polluting goals. Technology is moving fast and greater Manchester needs to be leading, not following, if we’re to become the great works city we aspire to be.” So, thumbs up from Brophy.

Green Party

The Green Party’s candidate is not a fan of the project. Will Patterson instead wants to focus on fusty old ideas like bringing electricity to trains and making sure rail companies stick to their promises on adding rolling stock.

“While we’re talking about maglev trains for intercity commutes, passengers on services across the region are still stuck on underfunded, overcrowded diesel trains that should have been decommissioned years ago,” he said.

Patterson went on to describe both High Speed 2 and maglev as “vanity projects”, as if sticking magnets onto trains to see what will happen isn’t a good use of the mayor’s time.

UK Independence Party

Shneur Odze had not heard of this magnetically levitating train plan beforehand. He did, however, confirm his wholehearted opposition to the “spending black hole” of HS2, “as it drags the jobs and growth to London, rather than away from it.”

Like the rest of his party, Odze is excited by Brexit and the opportunities it affords. He’s also positive about plans to connect Greater Manchester with the city centre.

“The real economic boost however will be when we can connect our great northern cities, so we can work collaboratively on global trade,” said Odze. No word on whether he’ll connect these cities with giant magnets.

English Democrats

If you want to vote for a party totally in favour of the maglev, look no further than the English Democrats. Candidate Stephen Morris has looked at maglev systems for a number of years, and has come to the conclusion that it is a viable idea for linking up Manchester and other northern cities.

In fact, not only would Morris support the maglev (with minimal cost to the taxpayer and involvement from private investors), but his party has planned out a high speed freight system to move goods to port towns and out to the continent through the Channel Tunnel. This is different to HS2, which he is against.

“My vision is that Greater Manchester will become a 21st [century] ‘Silicon Valley’ to push solar, wind and other forms of renewable energy,” Morris said, “and the maglev system would be part of that vision.”

We hope this has told CityMetric readers everything they need to know.

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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.