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."

 
 
 
 

What’s killing northerners?

The Angel of the North. Image: Getty.

There is a stark disparity in wealth and health between people in the north and south of England, commonly referred to as England’s “north-south divide”. The causes of this inequality are complex; it’s influenced by the environment, jobs, migration and lifestyle factors – as well as the long-term political power imbalances, which have concentrated resources and investment in the south, especially in and around London.

Life expectancy is also lower in the north, mainly because the region is more deprived. But new analysis of national mortality data highlights a shockingly large mortality gap between young adults, aged 25 to 44, living in the north and south of England. This gap first emerged in the late 1990s, and seems to have been growing ever since.

In 1995, there were 2% more deaths among northerners aged 25 to 34 than southerners (in other words, 2% “excess mortality”). But by 2015, northerners in this age group were 29% more likely to die than their southern counterparts. Likewise, in the 35 to 44 age group, there was 3% difference in mortality between northerners and southerners in 1995. But by 2015, there were 49% more deaths among northerners than southerners in this age group.

Excess mortality in the north compared with south of England by age groups, from 1965 to 2015. Follow the lines to see that people born around 1980 are the ones most affected around 2015.

While mortality increased among northerners aged 25 to 34, and plateaued among 35 to 44-year-olds, southern mortality mainly declined across both age groups. Overall, between 2014 and 2016, northerners aged 25 to 44 were 41% more likely to die than southerners in the same age group. In real terms, this means that between 2014 and 2016, 1,881 more women and 3,530 more men aged between 25 and 44 years died in the north, than in the south.

What’s killing northerners?

To understand what’s driving this mortality gap among young adults, our team of researchers looked at the causes of death from 2014 to 2016, and sorted them into eight groups: accidents, alcohol related, cardiovascular related (heart conditions, diabetes, obesity and so on), suicide, drug related, breast cancer, other cancers and other causes.

Controlling for the age and sex of the population in the north and the south, we found that it was mostly the deaths of northern men contributing to the difference in mortality – and these deaths were caused mainly by cardiovascular conditions, alcohol and drug misuse. Accidents (for men) and cancer (for women) also played important roles.

From 2014 to 2016, northerners were 47% more likely to die for cardiovascular reasons, 109% for alcohol misuse and 60% for drug misuse, across both men and women aged 25 to 44 years old. Although the national rate of death from cardiovascular reasons has dropped since 1981, the longstanding gap between north and south remains.

Death and deprivation

The gap in life expectancy between north and south is usually put down to socioeconomic deprivation. We considered further data for 2016, to find out if this held true for deaths among young people. We found that, while two thirds of the gap were explained by the fact that people lived in deprived areas, the remaining one third could be caused by some unmeasured form of deprivation, or by differences in culture, infrastructure, migration or extreme weather.

Mortality for people aged 25 to 44 years in 2016, at small area geographical level for the whole of England.

Northern men faced a higher risk of dying young than northern women – partly because overall mortality rates are higher for men than for women, pretty much at every age, but also because men tend to be more susceptible to socioeconomic pressures. Although anachronistic, the expectation to have a job and be able to sustain a family weighs more on men. Accidents, alcohol misuse, drug misuse and suicide are all strongly associated with low socioeconomic status.

Suicide risk is twice as high among the most deprived men, compared to the most affluent. Suicide risk has also been associated with unemployment, and substantial increases in suicide have been observed during periods of recession – especially among men. Further evidence tells us that unskilled men between ages 25 and 39 are between ten and 20 times more likely to die from alcohol-related causes, compared to professionals.

Alcohol underpins the steep increase in liver cirrhosis deaths in Britain from the 1990s – which is when the north-south divide in mortality between people aged 25 to 44 also started to emerge. Previous research has shown that men in this age group, who live in the most deprived areas, are five times more likely to die from alcohol-related diseases than those in the most affluent areas. For women in deprived areas, the risk is four times greater.


It’s also widely known that mortality rates for cancer are higher in more deprived areas, and people have worse survival rates in places where smoking and alcohol abuse is more prevalent. Heroin and crack cocaine addiction and deaths from drug overdoses are also strongly associated with deprivation.

The greater number of deaths from accidents in the north should be considered in the context of transport infrastructure investment, which is heavily skewed towards the south – especially London, which enjoys the lowest mortality in the country. What’s more, if reliable and affordable public transport is not available, people will drive more and expose themselves to higher risk of an accident.

Deaths for young adults in the north of England have been increasing compared to those in the south since the late 1990s, creating new health divides between England’s regions. It seems that persistent social, economic and health inequalities are responsible for a growing trend of psychological distress, despair and risk taking among young northerners. Without major changes, the extreme concentration of power, wealth and opportunity in the south will continue to damage people’s health, and worsen the north-south divide.

The Conversation

Evangelos Kontopantelis, Professor in Data Science and Health Services Research, University of Manchester

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.