“Politics is a question of power – not simply of ideas”. On Scotland’s proposal for rent controls

Interview with Gordon Maloney of Living Rent


Last week, announced as part of the power-sharing arrangement between the Scottish National Party and the Scottish Greens were proposals to introduce rent controls in Scotland. If implemented, this would be the first time rent controls were in place in Britain since the 1970s.


Yet this policy didn't drop out of the sky – it was the result of over 7 years of tenant organising spearheaded by Living Rent. To discuss what the deal means, how it came about, and what the next steps are GMHA sat down with Living Rent's Gordon Maloney. 



What has been won?


The deal announced last week outlines a number of major victories for the tenants’ movement – including a commitment to a national system of rent controls, greater and more effective penalties for illegal evictions, a ban on winter evictions, a new housing regulator, and greater rights for tenants – including to have pets in their homes.


It’s important to note that the Government haven’t done these things, just promised to do them – and that the deal published is quite light on detail – and so there is still a lot of work to do. We’re particularly concerned that landlords and their lobbyists will be working hard to water down any new measures, but even with those caveats this represents a dramatic step forward for tenants’ power.


Why is this such a significant victory?


On one hand, that remains to be seen - there is still a long way to go and a lot of work to be done to make this a reality. We are also clear that not all models of “rent controls” are the same – and so it will take a huge amount of effort to make sure that we secure the radical, transformative model that tenants in Scotland so desperately need.


On the other hand – and even with those caveats – this is a perfect example of the power of working class organising. When the campaign began almost 7 years ago, rent controls were still considered by many to be a fringe idea and tenant organising was at its lowest ebb in decades. We have turned that around completely, and secured an enormous concession from the government in the face of furious and well-resourced lobbying from landlords and their allies. It is proof positive of what can be achieved by patient, persistent and uncompromising organising.



How does this represent an advance over ‘rent pressure zones’?


The truth is that almost anything would have been an advance over rent pressure zones.


It was widely acknowledged that rent pressure zones had failed, not just by us but by the housing sector more broadly, including by organizations like Shelter. We've written a lot about why that was, but the short version is that in order for councils to use the rent pressure zone powers, they needed to provide a level of detail that simply didn't exist – and that councils alone couldn't collect.


For us, however, the question was always deeper than just implementation. We believe that RPZs were far too limited and weak in scope to meaningfully impact high rents. For instance, RPZs don't touch on the quality of rented housing at all – which is one of the things that we think is most important.


What rent pressure zones were, however, was an acknowledgement from the Scottish government at the time that market forces alone couldn't be relied on to make sure housing was affordable for everyone. The challenge we have now is to make sure that the new measures put in place are not simply RPZs repackaged and tweaked, but a radical and transformative model of rent controls that actually reigns in and brings down rents.



How was it won? How long was the battle?


It’s been a long campaign, so we could probably spend all day reeling off all the things that we’ve done over the last 7 years. It involved all sorts of traditional campaigning tactics, like petitions, opinion polling, holding demonstrations and protests, and social media campaigning. It's also involved a huge amount of lobbying and working with supporters within the main parties in Scotland. In particular within the SNP, there is a big grassroots movement amongst their members in favour of rent controls – for example, a few years ago their youth wing affiliated to the campaign, and in 2016 the SNP conference even voted – unanimously – in favour of a national system of rent controls. We’ve also worked well with supporters in Labour and the Greens.


But in my view, the one thing that has helped the campaign more than anything else has been building an independent power base of organised tenants up and down country, able to fight and win. For us, politics is a question of power - not simply of ideas. That means that whatever glossy policy documents we've produced have been far less important than the slow work of building power in communities and neighbourhoods up and down Scotland. Rent controls have always been a common sense policy solution with overwhelming public support, so what has changed isn't the policy idea – but the social forces behind it.


What has the reaction of the landlord lobby been? 


The formal landlord organisations have been relatively silent about this - but that’s not surprising. It is widely understood that rent controls are an extremely popular measure, and that landlords are not a group of people who enjoy much public sympathy. Because of this, we often see that they are reluctant to have these sorts of discussions in public, preferring instead shady backroom chats where their misrepresentations and blackmail can’t be so easily challenged.


The reaction from individual landlords, on the other hand, has been in some places utterly hysterical. One landlord went so far as to post online, in response to the news: “In the 60s, the Chinese murdered our kind. Fact.”


Do you foresee any challenges ahead in terms of turning the policy into law? And afterwards – legal challenges etc?


I think we have been right to celebrate the announcement itself as a big victory – it’s important that we do celebrate the wins we get. But we are under absolutely no illusions about what happens next.


There is a long way to go before we actually have rent controls in place, and the proposals are in many ways very light on detail. It would be possible for the Scottish government to implement something that, on paper, fulfils their promises – but in practice fails utterly to help tenants in any meaningful way. So there is a sense in which the work is just beginning.


So over the years to come, we will need to match the lobbying efforts of landlords and their allies, and force the Scottish government not to water down or weaken or drop the proposals. That is a huge task – and in some ways is harder than the campaign to win the principle of rent controls, but I believe that we have demonstrated the power of an organised tenants moving and I'm extremely confident that we can do this too.


What is Living Rent’s strategy for dealing with this?


Our strategy for the next 5 years isn't likely to be particularly different from our strategy over the last 5 years. The way we will win is not by coming up with some particularly innovative idea – the proposals we’ve been making for rent controls are basically just copy-pasted from systems elsewhere in the world – but by building power.


That means that, yes we will need to get into the weeds of the policy detail and will need to be feeding into consultations and working groups and things like that, but much more important than any of those dates will be building working-class, tenant power in every community in Scotland.


That's also important because it will help not just in winning rent controls, but in winning all the other demands we’re going to be making over the next five years and beyond as well. By focusing on organising, rather than just campaigning, we can build a permanent infrastructure of tenant power that can absorb victories not as something that takes the wind out of our sails, but as something that emboldens tenants to demand even more.


What are the next policy priorities for Living Rent?


Post-election, we're going through a process now of developing those priorities, so I'm reluctant to pre-empt that process, but we are clear that even once the proposals outlined in the co-operation deal are in place, there will still be a long way to go. Even if rents come down, the private rented sector is still going to be exploitative and tenants will still face abusive power imbalances. 


But once it’s recognised that landlords cannot provide affordable housing themselves – and need to be forced to lower rents by legislation – to me, it begs the question of why we have landlords at all.


What is your message to tenant organisers elsewhere in the U.K. and beyond in light of this victory?


I speak to a lot of people outside Scotland who seem to believe that we've been pushing at an open door, and that because we don't have a Tory government everything has been clear-cut simple and easy. That is nonsense.


When we launched the campaign seven years ago, people thought we were mad – even people in the housing sector and on the left were telling us what we were demanding was impossible. A prominent housing NGO even told us that by demanding rent controls, we were undermining other demands for greater security for tenants.


But over seven years of uncompromising organising, and by facing down the lies and misrepresentations of our opponents publicly, we have completely changed the political space in Scotland. Rent controls are now political consensus in Scotland, alongside many of the other demands we've been making around housing.


This was only possible by building an organisation that wasn't going to let the demand go, and that refused to content ourselves with the halfway measures offered by the government – for instance when rent pressure zones were introduced. 


All the usual caveats about seeing it through, of course, but what we have already won demonstrates – undeniably – the power of organising. It’s impossible to see that and feel pessimistic. If tenants can beat landlords, then the working class can beat anyone.



Gordon Maloney sits on the national committee of Living Rent, Scotland's Tenants Union.



27 August 2021