What Germany’s renters union can teach its radical British counterparts

An Acorn union protest. Image: Acorn.

Berlin is the only capital in the EU whose residents’ incomes are low enough to be a drag on average national income. But this will not be apparent to the ordinary visitor. Bars, restaurants and nightclubs are thronged with young people apparently rich in disposable income. The cause? Cheap rent.

A reasonably spacious two bed in Prenzlauer Berg costs around £800 a month – about half the price of a similar apartment in London. The political power that German renters wield is partly due to their diversity; white collar workers are as likely to rent as manual workers. People of all backgrounds have skin in the game.  

Another reason for low rents is the powerful German tenants’ unions of the Deutsche Mieterbund – an umbrella association which represents a total of 3 million German renters. The Berliner Mieterverein (Berlin Renters’ Union, or BMV) is the largest association, counting 170,000 members. The union advocates for private tenants but also maintains an interest in social housing.

The BMV has mounted legal challenges in a climate of rising rents. It has campaigned successfully for Berlin’s city council to exercise its right, when apartment buildings come on the market, to match private offers and take them into municipal ownership. Its size and influence must seem a distant dream to Britons engaged in tenants struggles.

Several upstart organisations have sought to replicate the BMV’s success. Acorn, which counts branches across the UK, has instigated high-profile direct action campaigns against unscrupulous letting agents, bad landlords, and banks which discriminate against those on benefits. As Acorn’s national organiser Nick Ballard puts it, the union has a broader purpose that intersects with other political struggles. Their inaugural branch in Bristol, for example, successfully campaigned against the city overturning £8.5 million pounds in planned cuts to council tax benefit.

The radicalism of Acorn and other British tenants unions, such as the London Renters’ Union, is to be expected; Britain’s housing crisis is severe and its political landscape is heavily skewed in favour of landlords. Wibker Werner, from the Berlin union, cautions that her organisation does not succeed because it is particularly radical, but because it has strong relationships with major German parties.

Acorn’s recruitment strategies embody its radicalism and desire to mobilise mostly working-class tenants. They differ markedly from those of its German counterpart. The BMV’s turnover is only about 5 per cent each year, and its numbers are sustained mostly through advertising. Acorn, on the other hand, favours a door-knocking strategy.

While building a membership through door knocking is arduous – political parties attract few recruits this way – the tactic seems to work. Ballard estimates that Acorn has attracted 70% of its membership in this way. The remainder, Ballard believes, join Acorn after hearing about its protests.

Comparisons between renters unions and trade unions are often warranted. A trade union knows that once they achieve a certain level of membership in a workplace they are entitled to recognition, and that the weight of their numbers enables them to threaten bosses with industrial action. The difficulty for renters’ unions is these tactics are not easy to replicate.

In the property market there is no equivalent of Companies House – one can’t reverse-search property ownership by landlord and recruit that landlord’s tenants to a union. Indeed, allowing the land registry to be searched according to property ownership, as one can in certain circumstances do in Germany, would be a sensible demand of tenants’ unions, and a presumably cheap innovation for any government wishing to support them.

Since 2018, Labour Party policy has been for the state to finance British tenants’ unions. Werner cannot imagine the BMV accepting state funding – she says the organisation’s reliance on membership dues is the key to its cherished independence. Ballard is also wary; Acorn’s decision would depend on “what strings were attached”. Given Ballard’s reticence, it might be wiser to spend the money on other measures to empower tenants and let unions grow organically.

Those measures could include encouraging longer tenancies and introducing automatic voter registration. Britain’s large turnout gap between tenants and homeowners can be explained by the frequency with which tenants move home and by non-automatic voter registration. Would-be voters fall off the rolls, political parties find it harder to maintain useful data on tenants’ political priorities and voting intentions, and transient populations care less about choosing their local representatives.

In Germany, renters move far less often, and voter registration is near automatic – this may explain the smaller turnout gap and the consequent respect with which governments treat tenants.

One might think that Acorn stands to learn more from bigger players like the Deutsche Mieterbund. But given the union’s rapidly growing membership, success in a difficult political environment, and radical, creative tactics, the Berlin renters’ union could also learn a lot from its radical British counterpart.  


Does it matter that TfL are renaming White Hart Lane station Tottenham Hotspur?

New White Hart Lane. Image: Getty.

Pretend for a moment that you’re travelling in the London of 1932. You’re taking the Piccadilly Line northbound and alight at Gillespie Road station. The name should be obvious: it’s inscribed in bespoke brown tiling on the platform.

But that 31 October, following an intense campaign by the eponymous football club, the London County Council changed the station’s name to Arsenal (Highbury Hill). The area’s growing association with the name “Arsenal” ended in a lengthy negotiation that changed maps, signs and train tickets alike. Football had acquired so much power that it changed the name of not just a Tube station but an entire suburb, even before the era of Wenger or the Emirates.

Now the spectre of name changes is on the horizon once again. As Tottenham Hotspur FC inches closer to completing its new stadium, the club is clamouring for a renamed Overground station. Despite the fact the new stadium is located on almost exactly the same site as the old just off White Hart Lane, and fans have long been calling the scaffolding-laden mess “New White Hart Lane”, the club’s executive director is adamant that the station’s existing name cannot stand. White Hart Lane station, on the Overground line leaving Liverpool Street, is set to be renamed “Tottenham Hotspur”, at a cost to the club of £14.7m.

Little has been made of the fact that this peculiar PR kerfuffle is tied to Spurs’ failure to convince Nike to sponsor the venue. Some sources have even claimed that the sponsorship is yet to be finalised because it is somehow contingent on the renaming of the Overground station; beyond the ridiculous Johnson-era vanity project that was the Emirates Air Line, it seems improbable that TfL will allow any more corporate-flavoured information pollution. There will be no “Nike Stadium” station on the way to Enfield, much as there is no “Emirates” on the way to Cockfosters, especially if public consultation gets a look in.

The scene of the crime. Image: TfL.

But there’s a problem with the new name, all the same. “White Hart Lane” already means “football stadium”, in the same way Loftus Road or Stamford Bridge do. Changing it to “Tottenham Hotspur” risks opening the floodgates to an “O2 North Greenwich” or a “Virgin Euston” at some point in future, names as banal as there are dystopian. The Greater London Authority has promised to spend the £14.7m fee on community programmes in the local area – but that’s not much money to set the precedent that a private company can mess about with the Tube map.

What’s more, as CityMetric has often observed, there are plenty of station names across London that could do with a tidy up. Picking one that’s perfect already and asking for £14.7m to change it is adding insult to injury. How much would it cost a community group if they asked to change the name of Goodge Street to Fitzrovia? Why does a vast corporate entity backed by international sponsors and thousands of season ticket holders get to set the standard?

Back in Arsenal’s day, changing names on the Tube must have been easy; changes could be accommodated gradually without bothering the every day traveller. But in our world of online information, maps and apps, name changes are rather more complicated.

The question is – if TfL can bring itself to balefully accept this particular proposition, why can’t it accept ours? Why sort out a single non-issue on the Tube Map when you can catch lots of real ones in one go? A day’s pandemonium might just be a price worth paying to fix the Bethnal Greens problem once and for all.