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International Socialism, Summer 1968


Ian Macdonald

Housing – The Struggle for Tenants’ Control


From International Socialism, No.33, Summer 1968, pp.7-9.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


At the present time most working-class families live either in private rented accommodation or in Council housing. A few are lucky enough to own their own homes, and the rest are struggling to meet high-interest mortgage repayments. This article is concerned with those in the first two categories. Among private tenants there are three main classes

  1. Controlled’ tenants who have their rents fixed under the old Rent Acts. These are low rents being generally fixed at twice the rateable value of the dwelling, irrespective of the age or condition of the house. Increases are only allowed to take into account increases in rates or where certain improvements are carried out. All controlled tenancies date back to before the Tory Rent Act of 1957.
  2. Furnished Tenants. Rent Act control was never given to furnished tenants, the theory being that a tenant who had no furniture needed no protection; he could easily go and find another place. These tenants were given some measure of protection by Labour governments in 1946 and again in 1965 but are still hopelessly insecure. Their rents can be fixed by a Tribunal which can also give protection from eviction for periods up to 6 months but this only happens if the tenant applies to it.
  3. The third class of private tenancies are nearly all post-1957 ones. They are known as ‘regulated’ tenants. Since the Labour Government’s Rent Act, 1965, these have the same legal protection against eviction as ‘controlled’ tenants; their rents are fixed at the rent office by Rent Officers.

Of the three classes of private tenants, there is no doubt that ‘controlled’ tenants (group 1) enjoy a far greater measure of protection than the other two groups. This is no accident. Their protection is derived from the first Rent Act. This was passed in 1915 directly as a result of the great Glasgow rent strike of that year. There the landlords had tried to raise the rents. Quite spontaneously a group of women had got together and decided not to pay. Alone they had fought off the bum bailiffs sent in by the landlords with dustbin lids and broomsticks. They had removed their trousers and chased them out of the area. The tenants for the first time were in control of their streets and their homes. They then got the backing of the powerful shop stewards’ movement, which ensured full industrial support. Having failed with the bailiffs the landlords then tried the courts, but this simply resulted in a massive show of strength by the whole working-class of Glasgow. Workers from the munitions factories, foundries and shipyards stopped work and came to the court in their thousands. Glasgow was in a state of insurrection. Faced with this and with threatened mutinies at the front and rumblings of similar things to come in other cities, the Government stepped in, to save the situation for themselves and the landlords. They passed the first Rent Act. This froze rents at the pre-war level and prevented the landlords evicting tenants at their whim. Many tenants are still living on the fruits of this great working-class victory.

The second period of open struggle came in 1938-9. By then landlordism had regained some of the ground it had lost in 1915. A number of houses had been decontrolled and more were on the way. All control was to be abolished by 1942. In many places the landlords openly abused the law. The first signs of the tenants’ fight back came at Quinn Square, Bethnal Green in London. In July 1938 240 out of 246 ‘decontrolled’ tenants struck, demanding lower rents and proper repairs. In two weeks the landlords capitulated. Within months a whole new movement had started, which included not just private tenants but council tenants and mortgage payers. The spearhead of the movement was in the East End of London. During the strikes the tenants put pickets round the buildings. Tradesmen and friends were allowed through the picket line but no one else. If the rent collector or any of the landlord’s agents came, they were followed round by women with pots, pans, whistles and rattles. In some places they were kept out completely. In one tenement block in Stepney the police had to negotiate with the tenants’ committee in order to get in, to interview a man in connection with a crime that he had committed.

In strike after strike, the tenants took complete control of the buildings in which they lived. At the end of the strike, the tenants often signed a clause with the landlords so that, if the landlord did not carry out the repairs properly, the tenants would take complete control of the management and would themselves collect the rents for this purpose. In at least one case in the East End this actually happened. The strike movement spread throughout the country, culminating in a conference of all tenants in Birmingham in the summer of 1939. Tenants had demonstrated time and again their complete mastery of the situation. In the end, they regained all lost ground. A new Rent Act was passed by the Tory government towards the end of 1939, extending rent control for private tenants. Council tenants also gained and it was established that instead of increasing rents, contributions should be made from the rates to the housing revenue accounts of the Council. The principle was actually enshrined in law until removed by the Tories in 1956. It should be clearly understood that the laws passed at the end of the rent struggles of 1915 and 1939 were passed by hostile governments, forced to make concessions to the victorious tenants. The same cannot be said for the laws passed by the Labour Party in power. They were passed as part of the electoral bargain between the Labour Party and its supporters in the polling booths. The result is (a) that they are much less effective, and (b) they depend upon the intervention of a new class of housing bureaucrats for enforcement.

Furnished tenants got protection in 1946, but they receive it only through the intervention of a three-man Rent Tribunal, which sits in each area and employs a staff of civil servants. ‘Regulated’ tenants are in much the same position. The Rent Officer, who fixes their rents, acts as a kind of arbitrator between the landlord and tenant. He also has a staff of civil servants. If a landlord or tenant does not like his decision, they can appeal to a Rent Assessment Committee. This consists of lawyers, estate agents, and others likely to be sympathetic to the landlord case rather than the tenant’s. The decisions emanating from the new machinery certainly suggest this. From January 1966 to 1 March 1968, 64,981 rents were fixed. The previous rent was increased in about 51 per cent of these cases, reduced in 32 per cent, and left the same in about 17 per cent. [1]

The struggle between landlordism and tenants is a continuous one, and will continue so long as the provision of housing is dominated by profits. Any gains made by tenants are continuously being attacked and eroded. The 1957 Rent Act was the most notorious example, and led to the era of Rachman, Alsatian dogs and evictions. Today controlled tenants look like having their rent control swept away, if ever the Labour government’s new White Paper, Old Houses into New Homes, is ever put into effect. This proposes that rent control be abolished in all houses which have the basic amenities, such as a bath, inside WC, etc. This is obviously a subject for attention by Tenants’ Associations.

But by far the biggest attack is on Council tenants. Council rents are being increased all over the country every year. Municipally owned homes now account for 27 per cent of all houses in the country. They are administered by 1,352 local housing authorities in England and Wales and by 233 in Scotland. [2]

In addition to providing Council homes these authorities are also responsible for overseeing housing conditions in their areas. They draw up the slum clearance programme; they are responsible for enforcing the Public Health Acts, and preventing the harassment of tenants by their landlords. Every class of tenant is thus brought into contact at some stage or other with town hall officialdom. At all levels they dominate the housing scene.

The Town Hall is rapidly replacing the private landlord. According to a recent government White Paper private landlords own 12 per cent of the housing stock, whereas town halls own 27 per cent. One of the reasons for this is that private landlordism is not nearly as profitable as it used to be. The old private landlords have turned to the more profitable fields of shop and office development or building housing estates for sale to the middle and lower-middle classes. So they are quite content to leave the housing of the working class to the town hall.

In the past, tenants have thought of a council house as something approaching the millenium. They thought that Council housing was the solution to the housing problem. Indeed up until 1959 municipalisation was the central theme of Labour Party policy on housing. But now that a council house is part of reality for a very large proportion of working-class families, they realise it is not all it was thought to be. The mantle of private landlordism has passed to the town hall and government. Except with regard to amenities, council tenants are today in exactly the same position as their grandfathers in 1915. Their rents are subject to change at the whim of the Town Hall, and they have no protection from eviction. Their interests are completely subordinated to those of the town hall bureaucracy and the District Auditor. Bureaucratic expediency dictates what rules and regulations shall govern the management of estates, where children may play, who shall have dogs, etc., where tenants should live, and what repairs shall be done. Rents are fixed, not according to tenant’s wishes, but according to the dictate of the Housing Revenue Account and the District Auditor.

It is true that Town Halls are not supposed to make a profit out of their housing operations, although many do. But nevertheless the housing operations of any council are subordinated to the interests of profit just as much as private housing. Before the first council tenant can move in, the ‘market’ has already dictated the kind of rent he will have to pay. Like any private landlord, the Council has to pay market prices for the land and building materials, and the money it borrows to finance the whole project. So long as municipal housing operates within a capitalist system, local housing authorities and their tenants can be held over the barrel by the landowners, the builders, and the money lenders. [3] The tenants may revolt against the system, as they have in the past, but not the town hall bureaucracy. The town hall bureaucracy will never revolt against the system, because they have the same class interest as their opposite numbers in the big companies like Tersons, Wimpey, etc., with whom they negotiate to build the new houses; with the armies of solicitors and estate agents who act for landowners whose property they acquire. Even if tenants’ representatives won control of the town hall, they would still find that they were operating with a set of officials whose class interests were continuously in conflict with their own. If history is anything to go by these representatives would quickly be absorbed, and would soon become the obedient mouth pieces of the town hall bureaucracy, like all the Labour parties who have ever won more than temporary office in local government. Thus in 1939, at a time when members of the Labour party in opposition at Birmingham were leading a rent strike, Labour in control at County Hall in London wrote to LCC tenants at the Bellingham Estate, Lewisham, who were threatening a rent strike, as follows:

‘I would, however, take this opportunity to point out to you that no useful purpose is served by your endeavouring to raise the question of rents under a threat of a rent strike, and I must make it quite clear to you that if any such rent strike is attempted the Council will be compelled to take legal action to obtain possession of any house in respect of which the tenant declines to pay his rent.’ [4]

Similarly the Labour Party which had campaigned in St Pancras in 1962 in support of the tenants’ case, had no sooner won the election than it succumbed to the pressure of being ‘in power’ and increased the rents.

The only people likely to revolt against the system therefore are the tenants. Resentment against the inefficiencies and high-handedness of officials is never far below the surface. But this resentment does not usually burst into a movement except on the issue of rents.

Often nothing much more than a protest is registered. The tenants march to the Town Hall. A deputation is received. The local paper has a picture. Sometimes the police have to remove the tenants. Then the rents go up and business at the Town Hall returns to normal.

But on other occasions something different happens. In Birmingham in 1939, there was a full scale rent strike of 49,000 tenants. They decided to take on the whole town hall. They won. But to win they had to take complete physical control of their estates. As in the private tenants’ rent strikes in the East End, they had to put pickets on the estates, armed with whistles; they had to know the business of all who came in. And finally they had to repulse the forces of ‘law and order’ – the bailiffs and police. Sufficient support was mobilised and they won. But at the same time it should be remembered that the strike took place in May and June and an election was in the offing in November. The Labour opposition was in the forefront of the strike. Therefore the Tory party in control of the Town Hall may have soft-pedalled. It is true that bailiffs were sent, but they retreated pretty quickly and were not sent again. This is a very different story from the St Pancras rent strike in 1960 where the full force of the State machine, bar the army, was used. There 7,000 tenants were involved and they lost. The turning point of the struggle was after the eviction of Don Cook and Arthur Rowe, the two tenants who had barricaded themselves into their flats. Immediately after the eviction the street outside Kenistoun House where Don Cook lived was full of tenants and police. Then several hundred workers from the South Bank Building site arrived. In the ensuing battle with the police, the police were completely routed. Kenistoun House belonged to the tenants, if they had only taken it. But Don Cook refused to go back into his flat; instead the tenants decided to march down to the Town Hall, where the police were waiting for them in strength. Obviously this was a mistake and in the confusion of subsequent months, the political parties were able to move among the tenants to get them to fight along constitutional lines for the return of a Labour Council. In the Brady Street and Langdale Mansions strike in 1939 a similar thing had happened. There, after 20 weeks of strike, the police and bailiffs had broken through the pickets during the day and evicted 5 families. But as soon as the men came back from work the families were reinstated; the tenants then took the offensive. The Stepney Tenants’ Defence League threatened to call 7,000 tenants out on strike if the landlords did not negotiate. A big demonstration took place outside the police station. This happened on the Tuesday. By Friday the landlords had capitulated.

In all these struggles the tenants began by fighting their landlord, but ended up fighting the whole apparatus of the State – the Town Hall, the Courts, the police, the bailiffs, and the press. In St Pancras the eviction of the two tenants was planned at Scotland Yard. 400 police assisted the 28 bailiffs, and afterwards the Treasury agreed to pay for all damage to clothing. Against the full barrage of the forces of law and order, it is not surprising that St Pancras lost. Apart from the South Bank building workers and the Camden Goods Yard, they had very little of the industrial support which had been so decisive in the Glasgow Strike in 1915. There were only 7,000 of them. What therefore is remarkable is that they were able to come anything like as close to victory as they did. Although the tenants in St Pancras lost, it is 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. But against this, the skill, inventiveness and courage of all those who took part was tremendous. The bailiffs report [5] shows this. Speaking of Arthur Rowe’s eviction it said:

‘However, the flat proved a tough nut to crack. The original door had been removed and a bulkhead lined with steel plates six inches thick fastened in its place, buttressed with heavy baulks of timber. The windows too, were firmly secured with thick planks. Work was commenced on the door, but no impression made. Attention was then turned to the window and a hole made, through which the defendant kept up a steady fire of bottles ... There was a quick consultation. If the door would not come out of the wall, then the wall must come away from the door.’

... That is how they got in.

St Pancras must be the point of departure for any future struggle. It is especially relevant to the present GLC battle. If 7,000 St Pancras tenants can get that far, surely 240,000 GLC tenants can do better?


1. Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Housing, answer to House of Commons question, 11 March 1968,

2. National Board for Prices and Incomes, Report No 62, Increases of Rents in Local Authority Housing, Cmnd 3604.

3. For the extent to which this happens in London, see the GLC pamphlet, Not a Penny on the Rent, by Ian MacDonald and Ken Lowe.

4. Letter of Herbert Morrison, quoted in Daily Worker, 24 April 1939.

5. County Court Officer, Journal of the County Court Officers’ Association, 21 October 1960.

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