On strike!

Across the country, students are rebelling against high rents and lack of tuition. Over 20 universities are now affected.

This week I received an email from University of London students who are organising a rent strike, angered by rising rents, arbitrary quarantine measures, poor maintenance (“urine-stained shower curtains, mould, toilets shut for months, and forcing entire floors to share 4 or 5 toilets”) and a lack of tuition during the pandemic.

Many students feel they’re being treated as cash cows by universities that increasingly resemble hard-nosed commercial enterprises, often paying their vice-chancellors huge salaries: the president of Imperial College is receiving over half a million pounds annually.

This isn’t new. Between 1972 and 1985, students at the University of Sussex went on rent strike several times to protest at rent rises and the construction of new accommodation without consultation (my daughter went there, I can vouch for some of the awful stuff they put up). In the 1970s, dozens of universities were hit by rent strikes, and student protestors achieved some success in limiting rent rises or changing policies.  

(This doesn’t quite chime with my experience as a student in the seventies. We had local authority grants to cover fees, rent and most living expenses. Perhaps we didn’t realise how lucky we were!)

More recently, in 2016, over 1,000 students at University College London went on rent strike and won over £1.5 million in concessions in the form of rent cuts, compensation and bursaries.

Beyond the university sector, there’s a powerful history of rent strikes in the UK. In Glasgow during World War One, there was an influx of workers, mostly women, into the munitions factories and shipyards, and private landlords tried to hike rents by up to 25% to profit from the rising demand for space.

Women workers formed the Glasgow Women’s Housing Association and organised a rent strike that was supported by 25,000 tenants. The protests spread across the country to Northampton, Birmingham, London, and Birkenhead where one protest banner read, “Father is fighting in Flanders, We are fighting the landlords here”.

In November 1915, the government, scared about the impact upon wartime production, caved in and passed the Rents and Mortgage Interest Restriction Act, which limited rent increases and the amount of mortgage interest that could be charged. The rent strikes were partly responsible for the Addison Act of 1919 which promised “Homes fit for Heroes”.

The 1915 Act was the first time that rents had been controlled in the UK. It was meant to be a temporary measure but the pressure from activists, and the threat of future rent strikes, was such that some of its measures were not repealed until 1988, during Margaret Thatcher’s premiership.

During the twenties and thirties, the militancy continued with rent strikes across the country to protest about rent levels and poor conditions. These actions undoubtedly had an impact upon government pledges to build more council houses. 

In 1958, tenants in St Pancras borough went on a rent strike to protest about rising rents. There were marches, a 16,000-person-strong petition, and riots, until the strike was defeated with mass evictions and the Public Order Act was invoked, banning all further protests.

More recently, Ted Heath’s Housing Finance Act of 1972 sought to increase council rents by making them closer to private rents. It was met with protests and rent strikes across the country. Nearly 50 councils refused to implement the Act, but the one that held out the longest was the Urban District Council of Clay Cross in Derbyshire where 11 Labour councillors refused to increase average rents of £1 and 12 shillings a week by £1 a week.

Tenants organised a rent strike and the district auditor was sent in, but the council refused to co-operate. A year later, all 11 councillors, including two of Dennis Skinner’s brothers, were found guilty of ‘negligence and misconduct’, fined a total of £6,985 plus £2,000 costs and disqualified from office. They were bankrupted.

Lord Denning, in confirming their disqualification from office, declared “They are disqualified. They must stand down…I trust there are good men in Clay Cross ready to take over”. There were. A year later, by-elections returned ten out of 11 councillors who pledged to continue the resistance! But that same year Clay Cross UDC ceased to exist as it was merged into North East Derbyshire council under local government re-organisation. The new council complied with the law.

The 1972 protests had an echo in the rate capping protests in 1985 when 15 councils refused to set a legal rate, caving in one by one until only Liverpool and Lambeth were left.

Are there any lessons for our sector in this brief history of rent strikes? I think so. One lesson is that tenant militancy can produce results. In some respects, going on rent strike is the ultimate manifestation of tenant involvement and activism. In the past, it’s led to government putting more money into council housebuilding.

But the recent housing White Paper also has a heavy emphasis on treating residents with fairness and respect. The way that rents are set is at the core of fairness and respect, and there’s a danger that some of the recent changes in rent policy have deviated from both principles.

To my eye, charging “Affordable” rents of over £400 a week is neither fair nor respectful and I’m surprised that there haven’t been more protests, especially when tenants living in identical neighbouring properties are being charged widely differing amounts. Once the rent is set, increases are capped, of course, but tenants have no say in the rent that they’re charged at the outset.

Rent strikes have had a patchy record of success, but there’s little doubt that they’ve pushed though changes in national and local housing policies.

As a sector, I’m fairly sure that we’d not wish our residents to withhold their rent, so the lesson is that rents and the way that they’re set should be kept under close review. Any changes need to be incremental, proportionate and grounded in a sense of fairness. 

(This blog was first published by the Housing Quality Network on 10th December 2020)

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