On the 20th August, the SNP announced a co-operation deal with the Scottish Greens to form a majority in favour of a second independence referendum. This deal was not confined to the push for Scottish independence and included many other policies that the newly formed government agreed to implement. For us, the co-operation agreement that the new government put forward included huge wins for tenants, the biggest among them: rent controls.
Living Rent has been fighting for rent controls since our inception. Though the union is much more than a singular goal, rent controls are an essential step in the right direction for tenants in Scotland.
The need for them is clear. Over the last couple of decades, rent in Scotland has spiralled out of control. Increasing far beyond the rate of inflation and wholly untethered from wages, rent has increased by up to 50 per cent over the last decade in Edinburgh and Glasgow. As a result, tenants in poverty have increased by 75 per cent in a similar time frame. Not only that, but despite the rise in rent, the homes themselves have fallen in quality, with the most recent Scottish House Conditions survey showing that every 2nd privately rented home has ‘some disrepair to critical elements.’
The rental crisis is growing, and it is an issue that disproportionately affects lower and middle-income households, women, and people from marginalised ethnic groups. Proper, robust, effective rent controls will have a considerable impact on vast swathes of the population of Scotland who deserve it most.
Though light on detail, the agreement is a huge victory for tenants. Nevertheless, the devil is in the details, and it will be crucial to ensure that the rent controls that the government has promised are what we need. We know that the landlord lobby will do all they can to water down the legislation through their relationship with the Scottish government. We must do all we can to ensure that the implemented rent controls are effective, strong and far-reaching for all tenants.
Firstly, as a union, we must push for controls that not only stop rents rising, but bring them down. Rent is too high and we need legislation that acknowledges that. Along with that, changes in rent must be pegged to a tenant affordability index not simply linked to average wages or CPI. The agreement between the SNP and Greens promised the creation of a new housing regulator for the private rented sector to “improve standards and enforce tenants’ rights.” It is important that this contains tenants’ voices at its centre and is not swayed by the landlord lobby.
The need for continued organising around rent controls is urgent. Not all rent controls are the same. In 2016 the Scottish government introduced ‘Rent Pressure Zones’, a policy that enabled local councils to apply to cap rents. This policy was flawed as, by design, they proved impossible for councils to implement as they needed to provide a level of detail that simply didn't exist – and that councils alone couldn't collect.
The policy also illustrated how rent controls could be defanged to the benefit of landlords. Rent Pressure Zones were far too limited in scope and did not impact high rents, nor did they impact the quality of housing, two issues that rent controls undeniably need to address. We need to fight to ensure that the rent controls that the government promises are not simply Rent Pressure Zones repackaged and tweaked but a radical and transformative model of rent controls that actually reigns in and brings down rents.
The fight ahead should not detract from the fact that this is a victory. After seven years of uncompromising organising, exposing our opponents’ lies and misrepresentations publicly, and pushing what was a fringe idea into the political mainstream, we have completely changed the political space in Scotland. Rent controls are now a political consensus in Scotland, alongside many of the other demands we've been making around housing. These include more significant restrictions on winter evictions, penalties and compensation for illegal evictions and greater rights for tenants, such as the ability to keep pets.
All the usual caveats about seeing it through, of course, but what we have already won demonstrates – undeniably – the power of organising. It’s impossible to see that and feel pessimistic. If tenants can beat landlords, then the working class can beat anyone.
The Scottish Government has accepted our demands for rent controls - as well as cracking down on evictions and guaranteeing better tenants’ rights. Now, it’s down to tenants’ organising to force them to go all the way.
If done right, these measures will be utterly transformative.
There is no doubt it wouldn’t have happened without us and it is clear evidence that when tenants organise and fight, there is nothing we can’t win.
There has never been a better time to join Living Rent and make sure that they can’t: www.livingrent.org/join