Tenant activism has a rich history, but has the age of confrontation between landlords and tenants now come to an end? Kate Murray reports
It was one of the largest tenant protests ever seen. And it was certainly one of the most violent. When thousands of St Pancras tenants descended on their town hall to protest over the forced evictions of two rent strikers, a pitched battle broke out. Many were injured and many more arrested as the police fought on the streets with angry tenants.
The events of September 1960 were characterised by many at the time as the result of extremist agitation. Labour MP Bob Mellish, later chief whip, accused ‘outside elements’ of exploiting the situation and ‘wanting to start a mood of revolution’. Others saw it as a proud moment in the fight for tenant power.
One left-wing commentator, writing a few years after the event, described the north London St Pancras protests as: ‘The highest point that the tenants’ struggle has reached so far. There has never been a greater mobilisation of the forces of the state against any group of tenants.’
Whatever your political perspective, the events in St Pancras were a milestone in the development of the tenants’ movement both in London and elsewhere. Before the rent strike, evictions and riot, there was little tenant activism in St Pancras. The rents issue mobilised tenants as never before, leading to the formation of a United Tenants’ Association. The current Camden Federation of Tenants’ and Residents’ Associations traces its own roots back to the ‘indelible legacy of militancy’ left by 1960.
Now tenant activists in Camden – which takes in the old St Pancras – are among the key movers in the big debate over the future of tenant involvement. Should tenants, as the activists believe, build on the ‘long and rich history’ of tenants organising ‘on a militant basis’? Or has the age of conflict and confrontation in landlord/tenant relations come to an end?
The debate comes as the government promises greater tenant involvement through the Tenant Services Authority and the National Tenant Voice. But some claim the initiatives risk sidelining all but a few tenants. According to Camden tenant and Defend Council Housing chair Alan Walter, tenants are turning against this ‘controlled tenant participation bandwagon’ and instead reviving independent tenants’ organisations.
‘They want to treat us as individual “consumers of social housing” – instead of as council tenants who are part of a movement that has 100 years’ history as active bedrocks of local communities and politics,’ he says. He is particularly critical of the way the National Tenant Voice, an organisation which the government has pledged will give tenants a real say in policy making, is being set up. Tenants are not being allowed to be responsible for their own organisation, he says, and those who will speak for tenants have no mandate to do so.
‘The great and the good are going to be looking after and monitoring the tenants on the National Tenant Voice. What’s all that about?’ he asks. ‘Does that happen in any other part of civic democratic life in Britain? The representatives are going to be appointed, not elected. There is no link between the people who are going to be talking to the government and ordinary tenants.’
DCH opposes what it calls the ‘industry of tenant participation’, which it claims has taken control of and sanitised tenants’ organisations. But one of the key figures in that ‘industry’, Phil Morgan, chief executive of the Tenant Participation Advisory Service England, says the way tenants are being involved now is down to a big change in the relationship between landlords and their residents. ‘Fundamentally, there’s been a major shift over the last 15 to 20 years which has been away from the conflict model to a much more co-operative and unified approach,’ he says.
For tenants with good landlords, the idea of old-style confrontation is ‘alien’, he says, while for those unhappy with their landlords, conflict resolution, as promoted by TPAS, can have impressive results.
Michael Gelling, chair of the Tenants’ and Residents’ Organisations of England, believes there has been good co-operation between landlords and tenants for ‘many, many years’. But he says the wave of stock transfers from the late 1980s onwards created some conflict. ‘
There are one or two organisations that are still entrenched in historic dogma,’ he says. ‘I don’t think that helps because I think it alienates other tenants. Working in partnership is much easier to do than working in conflict.’
Mr Gelling says the advent of the Tenant Services Authority, the National Tenant Voice and the Homes and Communities Agency offers a real opportunity for tenants. ‘For the first time someone’s got it right,’ he says. ‘Obviously we have got to see how it pans out. It is down to individuals to make it work and at the moment the individuals within those organisations are all pulling together.’
Mr Gelling adds that it is unrealistic to expect an entirely bottom-up tenant involvement regime, given the way the country is governed. ‘There will always be a top-down approach – that’s the way the world is. The gov ernment makes decisions,’ he says. ‘But there will be more tenants than ever before dealing with those decisions.’
Meanwhile, TPAS has been involved both in the project group setting up the National Tenant Voice and in running consultation events for tenants on the new body.
Mr Morgan says tenants are generally positive about the initiative, albeit keen to see that the reality will match the official rhetoric. He feels that some of the division over the new organisation is down to confusion about what it is designed to do. And that confusion is not helped by its name.
‘As envisaged it is not a fully democratic organisation, nor can it be. Its role is to ensure there is a nationally representative movement and a regionally representative movement that is substantially stronger than it is now,’ he says.
Some claim that it is people like those in Defend Council Housing who are defending the tradition of the tenants’ movement. Academic John Grayson, for example, has said that DCH’s campaigning against stock transfer is getty ‘the continuation of long tradition which tenants and their organisations should take heart from’.
But, Mr Morgan insists, most tenants would shy away from old-style confrontation. The new co-operative approach comes alongside unprecedented statutory requirements for tenant involvement through the TSA and NTV, he stresses. And, if tenants are really unhappy, there is another route: ‘If tenants are really hacked off with their landlords, they can look at models of tenant management to do it themselves.’
A history of tenant action
Rent strike in the east end of London as dockers strike . ‘When a black flag bearing the words “no rent” floats over a single slum, when streets are torn up and barricaded, when from the windows and roofs of the houses there comes a shower of hot water and storm of stones and brickbats, what can the police or bailiffs do?’ John Greaghe writes in the Anarchist Commonweal in 1891.
Glasgow rent strike forces government to introduce rent restrictions.
Government moves to deliver ‘Homes fit for heroes’ – apparently seeing the money to be spent on housing as ‘an insurance against Bolshevism and revolution’.
Big rise in tenant associations and the formation of a national tenants’ federation.
Leeds rent strike: the first such action against a local authority, rather than private landlords. Tenants’ federation secretary James Jenkinson says: ‘We are prepared to continue our resistance to the furthest limit.’ But the strike collapses in two weeks.
Wave of campaigns against high rents and eviction.
More than 40,000 families squat empty homes and army camps. Winston Churchill calls them ‘vigilantes’.
Residents form campaigns over clearance plans.
Camden rent strike sees fighting on the streets as tenants are evicted for refusing to pay their rent. After tenants march on the town hall, the government uses the Public Order Act to ban marches.
Ringleader Don Cook says: ‘The Tory council in St Pancras now stands condemned as the instigator of the most violent attack on ordinary people witnessed for many years… The barricades of St Pancras have only just begun.’
Rent strikes in London over the Greater London Council’s market rents.
A wave of rent strikes over ‘fair’ rents in a campaign which also saw councillors in Clay Cross surcharged and disqualified from office for failing to implement the rents.
Protests over tenants’ choice legislation and housing action trusts. First anti-transfer campaigns.