Rent controls are officially on the agenda in Scottish politics. But, argues Aaron Sheridan, only struggle can advance housing rights, as the history of social class and housing in Scotland shows.
The publication of the SNP-Green coalition agreement on 20 August, after months of speculation over its details, sent Scottish and British political commentary into a flurry. Unionist and right-leaning voices focused on proposals surrounding the future of the North Sea oil and gas industry and the Scottish Green’s environmental proposals, continuing to forecast catastrophe for the Scottish economy and the destruction of jobs. SNP-aligned voices chipped-in with the usual lines, praising the agreement as a sign of political seriousness – “grown-up politics” was the maxim. For many on the left, including this author, the bickering was ignored for excitement.
Much of this focused on the section devoted to housing. After 41 years of market-oriented policy, rising costs and falling living standards, it seemed renters could now look forward to the introduction (or reintroduction, as many have missed) of rent controls in Scotland, along with greater rights for tenants and stricter oversight of housing quality in the private renting sector. Coupled with the Scottish Government’s ‘Housing to 2040’ plan, under which a certain amount of neighbourhood democracy was promised alongside greater emphasis on the ‘placemaking’ qualities of new developments, it seemed as though the future of housing in Scotland was going to be affordable, resident focused and in control of communities.
However, in the days that have passed since the proposal was released, causes for concern emerged. The first appeared in the document itself. The proposal to introduce rent controls gave the government until the end of 2025, almost to the end of our current parliament, to get an effective system working. Green MSP Ross Greer confirmed this on 26 August, defending the proposal in a tweet which pointed to the Scottish parliament’s committee system and internal workings as an influence on the late deadline. Another concerning development came in the form of an article in The I newspaper by Green co-leader Patrick Harvie on 25 August in which he explained that the rent control system could take several forms.
He wrote: “That system could be based on affordability, in terms of average incomes. It could be based on a proportion of market value, with an element to cover landlords’ costs like insurance and maintenance. Or it could be designed to achieve overall house price stability, ending the overheating in some areas. If the agreement is approved by our membership, Green ministers will take the lead on consulting and legislating for this change.”1
“Between 2010 and 2020, eight of Scotland’s 18 ‘Broad Rental Market Areas’ have seen rent increases of more than 20%, the two highest increases of 40.9% and 45.9% being seen in the Greater Glasgow and Lothian regions. 13 of these areas, a clear majority, have seen an increase of more than 10%.”
The urgency many tenants feel over their constantly rising rental costs and diminishing standards of living is not reflected here. Between 2010 and 2020, eight of Scotland’s 18 ‘Broad Rental Market Areas’ have seen rent increases of more than 20%, the two highest increases of 40.9% and 45.9% being seen in the Greater Glasgow and Lothian regions. 13 of these areas, a clear majority, have seen an increase of more than 10%2. How much more will they have increased by 2026, when the rent control measures are slated to come into force? The influence of powerful lobbyists who will be working tirelessly over those four years to water down the extent and efficacy of any rent control legislation will also take its toll. Without a commitment to affordability in the legislation or a break with market logic, rent controls may simply be ineffectual in providing affordable living for Scottish renters. It would all have been for nought.
Responsibility rests once again with the activists and communities who have consistently fought for better tenant’s rights in recent years. The tenant’s union Living Rentand its UK-wide counterpart ACORNhave grown considerably in recent years and are the driving force behind the inclusion of progressive housing legislation among the proposals of this agreement. Unfortunately, this work is far from over; we will need to redouble our efforts as the housing legislation works its way through parliament. Direct action has the potential to bring this legislation forward in time through keeping up pressure on the Scottish government. History shows us that organised pressure and people power are often the most effective drivers behind housing reform.
Social class and housing have been interlinked in Scotland throughout history; in fact, the birth of the modern Scottish working class begins with the loss of homes and their attendant way of life. Unlike in England, the Scottish agricultural and industrial revolutions occurred concurrently and over a much shorter period of time. The marketisation of agriculture saw the remaking of rural society along more profitable lines. Gone were the cottars, a landless class of workers holding – at their social superiors’ consent – small homes on small plots in exchange for seasonal labour and craft skills. In the eighteenth century, between a third and two-fifths of all Lowland Scots belonged to this class. By the early decades of the nineteenth century, only the landowners and the tenants of the largest farm steadings remained in place, as larger farmsteads absorbed smallholdings and the land reserved for cottar’s dwellings, to be used as further arable ground. Their homes in many cases demolished, cottars and farm servants had the choice of seeking to be rehired as year-round waged labourers or making their way into the towns and cities where industries in textiles, coal mining, ironworks and shipbuilding could provide work. Many chose the latter.
“Social class and housing have been interlinked in Scotland throughout history; in fact, the birth of the modern Scottish working class begins with the loss of homes and their attendant way of life.”
Particularly in the nineteenth century, catastrophic clearances in Ireland, where British rule promoted famine, hunger and the wholesale brutalisation of rural communities, and the highlands – rapidly transformed by the integration of highland elites with British capitalism – generated additional migration to an increasingly urban central and southern Scotland.
Homes for the workers in urban Scotland were, in many ways, not much different from that of the countryside: made up of one-or-two rooms without specialised function, lacking indoor plumbing or toilets and crowded with much larger family sizes than what is usual today. Urban living, however, brought additional challenges. Not only were water sources outside, but often down multiple flights of stairs and through winding alleys within the cramped urban tenemental blocks. The water had also to be used to clean the closes as well as one’s own home, spreading thin a finite but crucial resource and extending the labour, principally of women and girls, needed to maintain a home. Further, with the close proximity of several polluting industries a guarantee in the early nineteenth century, soot and smoke made it incredibly difficult to keep one’s single-end clean for very long. As more people entered the urban realm and the population of cities entered an upward trend that would not be broken until the mid-twentieth century, space came at a premium.
The middle-classes of urban Scotland did not enjoy sharing neighbourhoods with this new proletariat, whom they castigated as drunkards, heathens and criminals-in-waiting. They considered them a deleterious influence on the character of urban neighbourhoods and held them at fault for the growth in poor living conditions due to these negative stereotypes. Given the chance, they moved in large numbers to newer, more genteel areas of Scotland’s cities and their vacated homes were often subdivided and let out to the seemingly endless stream of workers seeking lodgings. A very early example can be seen in Edinburgh’s Old Town where for centuries the different social classes often shared buildings with one another before the construction of the New Town in the latter half of the eighteenth century. Those who could afford it left for the greater space and amenity offered to them, leaving behind what they now referred to as a ‘slum’. As Edinburgh expanded southwards in the nineteenth century, a similar process of ‘slumification’ would beset the Canongate and Southside districts. In Glasgow, a two-fold process occurred: the Blackfriar’s district (rebranded in the late twentieth century as the Merchant City) saw its middle-class leave for the model suburbs of the Gorbals, Hutchesontown and Tradeston to escape the influx of workers in the early years of the nineteenth century. However, with the appearance of increased industry south of the River Clyde in subsequent decades, working people followed and again shared their buildings and closes with better-off neighbours. Newer developments in Blythswood and further afield in the city’s new West End again drew well-to-do men and their families away from the less fortunate classes. By the middle of the century, the Gorbals was noted as one of Europe’s most notorious slumlands.
“The growth of working class neighbourhoods occupied the minds of the middle classes of Scotland well into the later Victorian period. Once an area became known as a slum, it was never long before its streets were haunted by social reformers.”
The growth of these working-class neighbourhoods continued to occupy the minds of the middle classes of Scotland well into the later Victorian period. Once an area became known as a slum, it was never long before its streets were haunted by social reformers seeking to spread their religious, social and personal views to a population they viewed as ignorant and dirty. Often these groups would withdraw charitable assistance until the people they intended to ‘help’ met their behavioural standards, leaving many to perish due to personal distaste for their manner. In other cases, a whole building would be regimented into cleaning groups and made to labour under the watch of these moral reformers. This was the result of an ideology commonly held among the middling strata that held the poor were the source of their own suffering and that only by teaching them better manners, acquainting them with modern sanitary practices and making them attend church could their situation be improved. It ignored their material conditions, their low wages, high rents and restrictive systems of letting as this ideology also held that interference in the market and class relations was forbidden.
Reluctance to intrude into the workings of the market essentially stalled living conditions for much of the latter nineteenth century. Municipal leaders in Scottish cities, many of them being landlords themselves, had engaged in a bevy of urban reforms throughout the nineteenth century. These included the introduction of freshwater systems, municipal ownership of public transport, electrifying street lamps amongst many other things aimed at improving the urban realm. However, using municipal power to construct better housing for workers, despite rampant illnesses caused by poor living conditions, was completely out of the question. Instead, after much squabbling, Scotland’s city governments created ‘Improvement Trusts’ from the 1860s onward to investigate the slums, regulate their inhabitants and demolish the worst of the tenements. No provision was made for the families left homeless by these demolitions. In Glasgow and Paisley, the Corporations there made use of a system of ‘ticketing’ whereby houses were measured, and their inhabitants counted. If the number of inhabitants was found to exceed spacial limits, the front door of the flat would receive a metal ticket bearing the limits and the residents would be subjected to regular police inspection until, the Corporations hoped, they moved home. In reality, all this did was compound the stresses of living in Victorian Scotland with the stigma of criminality.
Unsurprisingly, by the end of the century housing had become a common issue discussed in working class organisations. Trade unions ranging from the bustling industrial heartlands of Govan to the rural coal country of East Lothian, where homes were often owned and provided by the mining companies and where it was still possible to find man and beast sharing a roof, campaigned on housing improvement. In the early twentieth century they were joined by an ascendant Labour Party in their calls for the provision of decent housing and rent controls. The identity and sense of commonality that had grown in these organisations was the result not only of shared suffering at the hands of the bosses at work, but also at the hands of the landlords and their factors at home. The struggle in these nominally separate realms was increasingly being seen as one. Class consciousness was on the uptick well before the events of 1915.
“Class consciousness was on the uptick well before the events of 1915. The stresses of the First World War compounded the worst problems of the Scottish housing market.”
The stresses of the First World War compounded the worst problems of the Scottish housing market. Overcrowding remained as, though many of the men were away fighting, a wave of migration into the cities by people searching for work and a need to replace missing wages saw many families take in lodgers. Rents were hiked as landlords attempted to take advantage of the scarcity of housing. Eviction notices were served to struggling women, not only then in charge of the home but commonly also expected to work full shifts in war industries, who could not pay these rents. Evictions were enforced by groups of Sheriff Officers and factors. This proved to be the final straw and, in 1915, several housing associations, co-operatives and political groups in Glasgow, led by Red Clydeside heroes such as Mary Barbour, Helen Crawfurd and Agnes Dollan among others, were joined by industrial unions in a campaign of eviction resistance and non-payment of rents. Violence was used as often as creative sloganeering to ensure that evictions would be halted. The protestors ended up numbering in the tens of thousands and by the end of the year the Rent Restrictions Act 1915 had been passed to appease their demands. The rent strike and radicalism on the Clyde are also credited as being a driving force behind the introduction of council housing in the Addison Act of 1919.
It remains a heroic example of the power of campaigning and solidarity in instigating significant social change. Scotland would go on to be a nation of council tenants by the middle of the twentieth century and council housebuilding would make up a majority of Scottish housebuilding following the war. Private letting, for much of the twentieth century, was diminished and unprofitable. This is often where historians end this saga, but activism and protest in housing continued in earnest across Scotland. Helen Crummy recalled in her memoir that resistance to eviction was often a community undertaking in the early years of the Niddrie and Craigmillar housing schemes in Edinburgh.3 Sean Damer’s From Moorepark to Wine Alley and his more recent work Scheming explore the social life in Glasgow’s interwar housing schemes and the ways in which the municipal authorities continued to stigmatise and attempt to control the populations of the new schemes, but also the existence of significant pockets of radical sentiment, symbolised by the several residents of Hamiltonhill who fought and died in the Spanish Civil War, and community solidarity in the face of continued adversity. Historian Ewan Gibbs has pointed to a history of protest in Scotland stemming from the Rent Strike of 1915 based upon community mobilisationand a ‘moral economy’understanding of housing. In an article for Labor History he links this tradition to actions throughout the twentieth century, in both private and council housing, such as continued eviction resistance and non-payment of rent, but also successful campaigns in opposition to council housing sales and to the introduction of the Community Charge, also known as the Poll Tax, in 1988.4
“Today the housing market is subject to both intense transformations and growing class conflict. Financialisation, with British capitalism as an exemplar, has made speculative house prices a major driver of economic activity.”
Today the housing market is subject to both intense transformations and growing class conflict. Financialisation, with British capitalism as an exemplar, has made speculative house prices a major driver of economic activity. A new class of landlords has developed with an expectation for low-risk investments and compliant tenants. These exploited tenants are organising and pushing back.
History should serve as a lesson to those in charge of housing in Scotland. The Scottish working class’ ability to endure suffering is remarkable and can be attributed to a strong sense of community and a shared identity. However, this tolerance is not unlimited; eventually the horse bucks and as we have seen, it can buck hard. While the working class in Scotland has come a long way since the days of the single-end, significant challenges remain and if the powers that be continue to neglect the growing crisis in rents, debt and other growing costs in the rental market, then they do so on borrowed time. Thatcher may have decimated the strong links between housing, the unions and industrial organisation and our houses now are coated in off-white shades of brown and grey instead of soot – but the discontent is still there. Scotland’s housing movement is growing – continuing to delay even the smallest relief will only see it grow until it cannot be ignored.
3 Helen Crummy, Let the People Sing! (1992, Craigmillar Communiversity Press, Edinburgh), p.27