Mother Glasgow? – A brief history of tenants’ rights in Glasgow

Mother Glasgow? – A brief history of tenants’ rights in Glasgow

[Written by Amy Jackson (She/Her)]

[Photo by Ross Sneddon at Unsplash]

Content Warning: death, race/xenophobia

If you ask any student in Glasgow about what it’s like renting here, I guarantee they’ll spout at least twenty horror stories before you can even blink. Some awful anecdotes from yours truly include gas leaks, dead mice and being chased by a landlord up Havelock Street. All of that for the reasonable price of £470 a month. With the pandemic afoot, the tenancy
nightmare is only exacerbated: Living Rent recently reported a landlord changing the locks of a flat when tenants were unable to pay rent due to COVID.

This is no new phenomenon — Glasgow has a long history of neglecting its vulnerable residents. Between 1851-1931, its population grew from 340,000 to over a million. Existing housing was overcrowded, and to address this, ‘Public Health Inspectors’ could raid homes between 11:30PM to 5AM. Meanwhile, private enterprise built 100,000 houses in the inner city, compared to a measly 2,000 built by the Glasgow Corporation, a predecessor of the City Council. At one point, tenants displaced from slum clearance were without accommodation for twenty-two years.

One historian, Charles Johnstone, claims that Glasgow’s ‘practice and ideology’ of ‘customer care’ toward tenants didn’t improve until the early 1980s, which is debatable in itself. It took the appalling negligence of one Glasgow landlord and the subsequent deaths of two students, James Fraser and Daniel Heron, in 1999 for the Housing in Multiple Occupation (HMO) legislation to be introduced. That said, HMOs are for the most part toothless and ineffective. Usually, any improvements in how landlords operate, whether private or social, comes from the tenants directly. For instance, in March 1915, residents in Govan successfully prevented the eviction of a tenant due to debt by blocking the landlord’s access to the flat. When private landlords attempted to increase rent by 25%, local women,
organised by Mary Barbour, blocked landlord access and carried out marches and rent strikes. In November 1915, 20,000 households were involved in the rent strike.

Women’s ability to have such a far-reaching impact across the city alarmed Westminster and, for the first time ever, the government implemented rent freezes in the private sector. It’s both amazing and disheartening that it took that much back-breaking, uncompensated effort for the government to intervene. Surely, it should be mandatory that all accommodation is affordable, safe, clean and comfortable? Evidence that city housing took
notice of Barbour’s achievement is its sudden obsession with ‘tenant participation’, i.e. the council’s feigned interest in tenants’ needs and opinions. This took the form of ‘area management committees’ which really were ‘buffers’ between tenant representatives and ‘the real decision makers in the council.’ In the 1990s, the most influence tenants had in the ‘community renewal’ programme was the colour of their kitchen units.

Although Barbour’s legacy – the 1919 Housing Act – introduced state subsidised housing, it didn’t take long for it to be manipulated by landlords. The Corporation began a housing scheme in the inter-war period to tackle the city’s housing crisis. However, it seemingly did little other than divide Glasgow’s lower classes. Those affected by inner city slum clearance or on low, unfixed incomes constituted the ‘rehousing’ scheme, which moved tenants out of the city to areas such as Blackhill and Moorepark, and post-1945 to Easterhouse, Drumchapel and Castlemilk. Meanwhile, ‘ordinary’ schemes lead to what we would consider now to be more ‘white-collar’ work, such as teachers, clerks, businessmen and professionals. ‘Ordinary’ tenants also had the benefit of being able to pay rent in person at Trongate, whereas ‘rehousing’ tenants were harassed by resident factors. It also seems that ‘ordinary’ tenants had choice in where they lived, likely as the professionals would pay for close proximity to the university, ushering in our era of gentrification and the geographical class divide of Glasgow.

Reflecting on this history, then, it is evident that landlords and housing managers remain largely unchanged. Nonetheless, tenants of any demographic in Scotland are undoubtedly lacking in voice and protection, none more than those made homeless and seeking asylum. Nearly 30,000 households were reported as homeless between 2018-19, and Glasgow City Council illegally refused 3,365 requests for temporary accommodation in the same period. At the beginning of lockdown, refugees and asylum seekers were forcibly displaced to hotel accommodation by Mears, with no access to their funds, no means of social distancing and no edible food. Despite nourishment and housing being a human right, our city’s treatment
of these vulnerable people claimed the lives of Adnan Olbeh and Mercy Baguma. Information like this can make optimism seem futile, and, of course, I’ve outlined a number of issues with housing as the common denominator. However, there are ways we can use our resources to work toward a Glasgow that lets all tenants flourish:


● Creating a GU Society promoting tenants’ rights— the organisation Rent Strike is a network of rent strike groups uniting students across the UK. They have a handbook for students renting for the first time/wanting for form groups at their own universities on their website: https://www.rent-strike.org/
● Joining Living Rent – Scotland tenants’ union. You can donate monthly or volunteer. Currently, they’re supporting their members affected by the lockdown. https://www.livingrent.org/action
● Positive Action in Housing – a Glasgow-based independent, anti-racist homelessness and human rights charity. You can donate here: https://www.paih.org/donate/ Alternatively, you can volunteer with their Refugee Help scheme here, which aims to help asylum seekers contact-free through the pandemic: https://www.paih.org/volunteer/
● Room for Refugees – a community hosting network offering homes and pastoral support for refugees, asylum seekers and vulnerable groups. You can host, volunteer or donate here: https://www.roomforrefugees.com/#help

Sources:

Baker, Beatriz Grace. ‘Glasgow Rent Strike: 1915’ Global Nonviolent Action Database, 08/02/2015.
<https://libcom.org/history/1915-glasgow-rent-strike> [accessed 11/09/2020]

Johnstone, Charles. 1992. The Tenant’s Movement and Housing Struggles in Glasgow, 1945-1990 (Glasgow: Glasgow University) pp.47-146 Ebook.
<http://theses.gla.ac.uk/3487/1/1992JohnstonePhD.pdf > [accessed 09/09/2020]

Qureshi, Robina. ‘Glasgow’s “hotel asylum seekers” and the “unexplained” death of Syrian refugee Adnan Olbeh,’ 11/05/2020.
<https://www.paih.org/statement-about-mr-adnan-olbeh-syrian-refugee-who-died-in- glasgow/> [accessed 14/09/2020]

‘Glasgow: Mears Group Evades Responsibility as Asylum-Seekers in Hotels Refuse Food and Call for Protest Action’ 13/06/2020
<https://freedomnews.org.uk/glasgow-mears-group-evades-responsibility-as-asylum- seekers-in-hotels-refuse-food-and-call-for-protest-action/> [accessed 11/09/2020]

‘’Death trap’ landlord had no licence,’ 04/04/2018.
<https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-glasgow-west-43640615> [accessed 14/09/2020]

Leave a Reply