Mary Barbour fought for rent controls: an open letter to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon

If the Scottish government wants to honour the woman who fought for rent controls, it should bring them back.

Gordon Maloney
6 February 2015

Hi Nicola,

I was delighted to read about your support for the Remember Mary Barbour campaign. 100 years ago, when unscrupulous landlords and factors tried to take advantage of the influx of people into Glasgow by hiking up rents, Mary Barbour fought back. Spreading across Scotland, tens of thousands of tenants took on their landlords and won.

The history of working class struggle in Scotland has no shortage of superhuman bravery, but there is also no shortage of tragic defeats. Mary’s story is absolutely one of the most astonishing victories; the rent controls that she won stayed in existence in one form or another until 1989, when Thatcher’s government ripped them up.

Mary’s legacy is a beacon of light and the struggle she led is a continuing inspiration, but the fight isn’t over. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has shown in detail how more and more people in Scotland are being threatened with poverty as they are forced into the private rented sector and spiralling rents eat up their income.

The Scottish Government has led the way in improving tenants’ rights, scrapping letting agent fees and introducing mandatory tenancy deposit schemes. There’s no doubt that these have been steps in the right direction, but they miss the elephant in the room: cost. In fact, last year, since these schemes came into force, rent went up faster than anywhere else in the UK. It feels like we’ve stopped landlords from exploiting tenants in one way, so they’re just doing it more in another.

The problem’s not new, though. While it’s true that rent in some parts of Scotland has gone up by below inflation, most people’s income and wages have also gone up by below inflation. In other areas, though, the private rented sector is out of control. In the last four years, the average rent for a 4-bedroom flat in Aberdeen has gone up by more than 65%.

The Government’s latest consultation on private sector tenancies opens up a welcome discussion on the cost of renting, and you’ve suggested a cross-party consensus on doing something to tackle it.

The answer is obvious and the Living Rent Campaign have been all over Scotland arguing for it: take the decision on rent levels out of the hands of landlords and out of the hands of the market altogether. There are lots of models that don’t go far enough: simply putting a cap on the top rate of rent, or on annual increases, risks being seen as a target, rather than a limit, for landlords. Far better would be a system like the Dutch one, where rent is assessed against a points system based on things like the location, size and energy efficiency of the property and set at a fair level for tenants.

There is clear public support for rent controls, but landlords and dubious right-wing, free market think tanks tell us that such a move would reduce the number of homes in the private rented sector and cause more problems than it’d solve. Instead, they say, if we just cut red tape, somehow more homes will come on the market. “Give more money to those at the top and it’ll benefit us all” sounds familiar, doesn’t it? There are other, better ways - building more council homes is the obvious one, but even short of that there are things we can do. The Scottish Government’s policy of allowing council tax increases on empty homes has seen over a thousand homes brought back into use in Fife alone, either being sold or let.

This year, on the centenary of Mary Barbour’s rent strikes, Scotland’s landlords are still exploiting their tenants. Thatcher scrapped the rent controls Mary Barbour fought for and won, let’s honour her legacy properly by bringing them back.

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