On Britain's left, there's growing talk of a national rent strike

The Wilkins Building at University College London. UCL is currently the scene of a student rent strike. Image: Diliff/Wikimedia Commons.

“As far as I’m concerned, all rent is theft,” says David Dahlborn, union accommodation officer at University College London (UCL). “But we’ll take it one step at a time.”

Dahlborn is addressing a meeting led by the Radical Housing Network (RHN), as part of the Brick Lane Debates. We’re here to discuss rent strikes; their feasibility, the legal implications, the practicalities of organising, the possibility of change through a mass refusal to pay landlords.

UCL students are doing this right now. Since 8 May, around 60 students have refused to pay rent, on the grounds that conditions are unliveable in halls of residence.

The strike has got messy, with the university refusing to meet its demands. Students have been told that, unless they pay, they won’t be allowed to graduate and may be expelled from courses. Nonetheless, the recent success of student rent strikers at SOAS suggests a win isn’t impossible.

Students may not be the perfect model on which to base ideas of a wider rent strike, however. Lots of the strikers have “gone home for the summer,” Dahlborn admits. Not an option for everyone.

Still, the mood in the room is that something needs to give. A show of hands suggests that pretty much everyone here would be up for a rent strike, were it properly organised.

“We all know the state of the housing market, especially in the south-east,” RHN’s Theo Middleton tells me. “Renters are paying half their income to rent shoe-boxes with mould on the walls, families are being forced out of the city, and a two-tier society is emerging with an unbridgeable chasm between those who own property and those who do not.”

She adds that renters in both the social and private sectors “are being forced into conditions of spiralling insecurity, stripped of all rights and protections – and politicians are doing nothing about it because so many of them are the beneficiaries. The exploitation of renters must stop: the conditions for rent strike are now.”

The logistics of organising a rent strike in the wider population are daunting. Aside from student actions, there has been no large-scale rent strike action for decades. Crucially, those who are most vulnerable – families, people with uncertain immigration status, those already on the brink of eviction – may be reluctant to make their position any more precarious. When you don’t have a back-up option, withholding rent is a dangerous option.

Rent strikes have a history in Britain, however. This year is the centenary of the 1915 strikes which began in Glasgow, led by Mary Barbour. Protesting over slum landlords, evictions and soaring rents, the strikes eventually helped force the government to introduce private sector rent controls.

Again, in the early 1970s, tenant action swept the country, this time in protest at the Conservative government’s Housing Finance Act. Rent strikes took place in 80 local authorities. In Kirby, Liverpool, the strike continued for six months, and was captured in Nick Broomfield’s film, Behind The Rent Strike. “If we all pull together, all pull our belts in, all produce more, put our backs into it, then it'll be a better life for all of us,” spits the documentary’s furious, sardonic star, Ethel Singleton.

Singleton’s anger at the farce of being “all in it together” rings true today. And so, too, the situation in 2015 echoes that of 1915: today, private renting is at its highest level in 100 years.

Some people are benefitting from all this. This March, rents on private homes in the UK increased by 2.1 per cent year on year. Buy-to-let landlords are seeing record £14bn in tax breaks. Election victory for the Tories sent the share prices of Barratt Developments and Foxtons soaring. Meanwhile, government spending on social housing and the housing budget for local authorities has been cut by more than 40 per cent since 2009.

However, the housing movement is gaining strength. The success of the New Era estate in fighting off eviction and the widespread support for the Focus E15 mothers proved there is power in organising.

Dan Wilson Craw of Generation Rent tells me rent strikes are something he hears mentioned with increasing frequency. “The pressure is building,” he says. “Outlets are needed for that rage, and rent strikes are definitely a prospect.”

What form these would take remains to be seen. The RHN is suggesting an online pledge which, once it reached a critical mass, could trigger a mass rent strike. Building on the growing number of housing campaigns across the UK, the possibility of creating a national tenants union is thrown around.

But questions remain unanswered. I asked the National Landlords Association what withholding rent would mean for striking tenants. The answer: an appearance in court and eviction. The fact that you were part of a strike would likely be immaterial.

Women have traditionally taken the lead in rent strikes, which span the domestic and the political spheres. Arnie of the London Black Revs, a revolutionary socialist group, says that close-knit communities like Brixton, currently facing destruction, would be good places to start; he suggests street-by-street canvassing as a means of rallying support. But although benefit sanctions, rising rents, evictions and the extension of the right-to-buy scheme mean the anger is there, who would dare risk their home?

“The key is solidarity,” Middleton says. “We need to build networks of public and private renters across the country that can support each other to take rent strike and resist evictions. The more of us there are, the harder it will be for them to take punitive action against us.”

A nationwide rent strike is a tantalising idea. In the meantime, RHN is calling for support for the striking UCL students. “It’s important we don’t just leave UCL students hung out to dry,” says the organisation’s Ben Beach. “If we can win the UCL rent strike, it would do a lot to validate the idea that rent strikes can be effective."

 
 
 
 

The tube that’s not a tube: What exactly is the Northern City line?

State of the art: a train on the Northern City Line platforms at Moorgate. Image: Haydon Etherington

You may never have used it. You may not even know that it’s there. But in zones one and two of the London Underground network, you’ll find an oft-forgotten piece of London’s transport history.

The Northern City line is a six-stop underground route from Moorgate to Finsbury Park. (It’s officially, if confusingly, known as the Moorgate line.) But, unlike other underground lines, it not part of Transport for London’s empire, and is not displayed on a normal tube map. Two of the stations, Essex Road and Drayton Park, aren’t even on the underground network at all.

The line has changed hands countless times since its creation a century ago. It now finds itself hiding in plain sight – an underground line, not part of the Underground. So why exactly is the Northern City line not part of the tube?

The Northern City line, pictured in dotted beige. Source: TfL.

As with many so many such idiosyncrasies, the explanation lies in over a century’s worth of cancellations and schemes gone awry. The story starts in 1904, when the private Great Northern Railways, which built much of what is now the East Coast Main Line, built the line to provide trains coming from the north of London with a terminus in the City. This is why the Northern City line, unlike a normal tube line, has tunnels wide enough to be used by allow mainline trains.

Eventually, though, Great Northern decided that this wasn’t such a bright idea after all. It mothballed plans to connect the Northern City up to the mainline, leaving it to terminate below Finsbury Park, scrapped electrification and sold the line off to Metropolitan Railways – owners of, you guessed it, the Metropolitan line.

Metropolitan Railways had big plans for the Northern City line too: the company wanted to connect it to both Waterloo & City and Circle lines. None of the variants on this plan ever happened. See a theme?

The next proposed extensions, planned in the 1930s once London Underground had become the domain of the (public sector) London Passenger Transport Board, was the Northern Heights programme. This would have seen the line would connected up with branch lines across north London, with service extended to High Barnet, Edgware and Alexandra Palace: essentially, as part of the Northern line. The plans, for the main part, were cancelled in the advent of the Second World War.

The Northern Heights plan. The solid green lines happened, the dotted ones did not. Image: Rob Brewer/Wikimedia Commons.

What the war started, the Victoria line soon finished. The London Plan Working Party Report of 1949 proposed a number of new lines and extensions: these included extension of the Northern City Line to Woolwich (Route J) and Crystal Palace (Route K). The only one of the various schemes to happen was Route C, better known today as the Victoria line, which was agreed in the 1950s and opened in the 1960s. The new construction project cannibalised the Northern City Line’s platforms at Finsbury Park, and from 1964 services from Moorgate terminated one stop south at Drayton Park.

In 1970, the line was briefly renamed the Northern Line (Highbury Branch), but barely a year later plans were made to transfer it to British Rail, allowing it to finally fulfil its original purpose.


Before that could happen, though, the line became the site of a rather more harrowing event. In 1975, the deadliest accident in London Underground history took place at Moorgate: a southbound train failed to stop, instead ploughing into the end of the tunnel. The crash killed 43 people. The authorities responded with a major rehaul of safety procedure; Moorgate station itself now has unique timed stopping mechanisms.

The last tube services served the Northern City Line in October 1975. The following year, it reopened as part of British Rail, receiving trains from a variety of points north of London. Following privatisation, it’s today run by Govia Thameslink as part of the Great Northern route, served mainly by suburban trains from Hertford and Welwyn Garden City.

Nowadays, despite a central location and a tube-like stopping pattern, the line is only really used for longer-scale commutes: very few people use it like a tube.

Only 811,000 and 792,000 people each year enter and exit Essex Road and Drayton Park stations respectively. These stations would be considered the fifth and sixth least used in the tube network – only just beating Chorleywood in Hertfordshire. In other words, these usage stats look like those for a station in zone seven, not one in Islington.

One reason for this might be a lack of awareness that the line exists at all. The absence from the tube map means very few people in London will have heard of it, let alone ever used it.

Another explanation is rather simpler: the quality of service. Despite being part and parcel of the Oyster system, it couldn’t be more different from a regular tube. The last (and only) time I used the line, it ran incredibly slowly, whilst the interior looked much more like a far-flung cross-country train than it does a modern underground carriage.

Waiting for Govia. Image: Haydon Etherington.

But by far the biggest difference from TfL is frequency. The operators agreed that trains would run between four and six times an hour, which in itself is fine. However, this is Govia Thameslink, and in my experience, the line was plagued by cancellations and delays, running only once in the hour I was there.

To resolve this, TfL has mooted taking the line over itself. In 2016, draft proposals were put forward by Patrick McLoughlin, then the transport secretary, and then mayor Boris Johnson, to bring "northern services... currently operating as part of the Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchise" into TfL's control by 2021.

But, in a story that should by now be familiar, Chris Grayling scrapped them. At least it’s in keeping with history.