A quick reminder: renters’ rights, like just about any other rights, were not handed to us on a plate. Campaigns for fair rents and against horrific conditions have been waging for over a century and some of them feel so familiar it’s uncanny. I wouldn’t be surprised, for example, if the Focus E15 mums turn out to be direct descendants of Mary Barbour, a firebrand Glaswegian who banded together hundreds of mothers to organise city-wide rent strikes leading to some of the first legislation on rental rates in the UK.
The decade-long campaign which led to the Housing Bill of 1979, meanwhile, was prompted by a raft of Tory cuts to housing which were continued by Labour. Sound familiar? That 1979 Housing Bill, by the way, was the first to introduce security of tenure to council tenants. I grew up in a council house and my family still live there. I assumed that any child today doing likewise enjoyed the warm safe bubble I always did, of having a permanent family home you knew you were going to grow up in. I was stupid to assume that, it turns out, because the residents of the Sweets Way estate are council tenants and loads of them are now out on their ear, offered disgusting alternative accommodation, because Barnet council was clever enough to stick them on temporary tenancies.
Looking at the fate of an estate like Sweets Way when you know that 100 years ago people were fighting the same battles can be depressing. It’s also hugely heartening because, just like they did 100 years ago, people are winning. Last year, tenants of the New Era Estate, after finding themselves bought up by a multinational company planning to raise their rents to market level (unaffordable to many of them), launched a determined campaign to keep their homes. Russell Brand and the mainstream media caught wind of it and the company was forced to sell the estate to a charitable organisation who, niggles aside, are carrying on in the ethos the tenants wish for. In other words, a few dozen poor people in London took on capitalism and won.
Those few dozen, like the Focus E15 mums and Mary Barbour before them, didn't stop when they got what they wanted. They went on to shore up other tenants campaigns, broadcasting other's goals on their own social media channels and providing feet on the ground wherever possible. New Era and Focus E15 are currently part of the groups down at Sweets Way. One year ago a tenants campaign group was something out of a history book. Now they're part of everyday life. And they're starting to effect change.
This isn't just in terms of getting political parties to put housing back onto their agendas - but in actual, tangible change on a local level. Whilst some councils like Barnet are siding firmly with big business, others like Labour-controlled Brent are proudly taking big steps forward to securing tenants rights. “Landlords operating in Brent could be fined up to £20,000 if they fail to apply for property licences”, says Roxanne Mashari, Labour Councillor for Welsh Harp Ward and Cabinet Member for Employment and Skills. “We brought this policy in because some of the appalling housing standards across the borough for those in the private rented sector. These poor conditions have an impact on the mental and physical health of our residents.” 5000 landlords, who Mashari is quick to point out also benefit from the scheme by having an accredited reputation, have already signed up and the council are actively pushing the rest to do likewise.
On a national level too, small but steady change is happening. Last autumn, campaigns from Shelter and a loose coalition of Generation Rent, my own GMB Young London and tenants groups from across the capital focused determinedly on getting the House of Commons to pass a bill which would help put a ban on Revenge Evictions, stopping landlords evicting tenants complaining about bad conditions. The bill at that point was filibustered by two Tories, one of whom just happened to be a private landlord, but due to the concerted pressure inflicted before this, it was added to a consumer rights bill and passed as law only a few weeks ago.
It was a small step but an important campaign. A number of housing activists met for the first time over the Revenge Evictions campaign, helping strengthen and build what Short points out is a "new housing movement emerging, uniting council and private tenants, squatter and homeless campaigns, Barge Travellers, housing workers, trade unions and many others." It is, as she says, a "radical force actively challenging policies causing soaring rents, loss of social housing and rising homelessness."
Groups like the Radical Housing Network provide a space for different groups to come together and work, whilst activist groups like my own are pledging support to other campaigns and lending a hand whenever possible. Most activists are in agreement with Short that there is still a need for a "united movement, combining political demands with mass direct action" - it's vital that we get bigger and more organised than we already are.
But whether or not anyone actively sets out with the aim to do this might not matter. It looks like it's happening organically. Housing campaigns, egged on by the success of activists in the capital, are exploding everywhere from Bristol and Manchester to Woking and Hastings. Generation Rent has deliberately set up their pre-elections hustings all over the country, seeing a large appetite for discussion in cities and towns other than London. The only thing the capital has worse than anyone else is the prices.
Bristol has seen large marches for council houses and a mass campaign against an estate agent who wrote to landlords encouraging them to whack up rents. In Woking, residents of the Sheerwater estate are campaigning against the demolition of their 500 homes. In March, Mancunians marched as part of the Homes for Britain campaign, protesting against the run down and overcrowded housing in their city. It may be, then, that all that's left to do is for campaigners to tie up the loose ends, something which is always easier said than done but which does mean the most important thing, the framework, is already there.
It was when their campaigns went national that people like Mary Barbour and the tenants groups of the 70's started to see the avalanche of change that their small pebbles had caused. Once a whole country was united in arms, politicians had no choice but to listen. The various campaigns all over the UK are a hairs' breadth away from becoming a truly united front and once we are, it's us who will have our places in the history books.
Article written for The Peoples Assembly by Rebecca Winson. She can be found on Twitter @rebeccawinson.