When Jeremy Corbyn dropped the ‘c’ word during the Labour Party Conference this year, the rent control debate quickly became a hot topic. Again. In various forms and to a greater or lesser extent, rent control has been around for awhile now. Miliband floated the idea back in 2015, and it was in the party’s 2017 manifesto. However, this time, mention of giving power to local areas to set the levels was certainly a curve ball, enthusing some whilst enraging others.
“But where did it all begin,” I hear you ask?
Let me tell you.
The Rent and Mortgage Interest Restriction Act of 1915 was Britain’s first incarnate form of rent control. A response to a high housing demand and a low supply during the years leading up to and during the First World War, it protected both landlords and tenants by restricting rents on unfurnished dwellings whilst also keeping down mortgage interest rates to pre-war levels.
The act came about as a response to social and political unrest, culminating in a series of demonstrations against inflated rental costs. The most famous of these were the Glasgow Rent Strikes of 1914-15, in which a radicalised workforce under the leadership of one Mary Barbour, a political activist and local councillor, took to the streets of the city in protest against a recent spate of rent arrears and evictions. Landlords had sought to capitalise on the large influx of people into Glasgow looking for work in the munitions sector which was booming due to the war. At its peak, 20,000 people were involved in the strike which eventually had spread across the country to other working class areas. One of the key events was the attempted prosecution of 18 strikers in a small debt court by a factor by the name of Nicholson. Despite rising tensions and the possibility of disruption to the industry from which so many of the disaffected hailed, Nicholson persisted. It took the intervention by the then leader of the liberal party, Lloyd-George, who telephoned Nicholson’s solicitor and asked them to wait until the findings of a parliamentary Commission of Inquiry, to persuade him to drop the case. Within a month of the court case ending, the government put through the Act.
The details and principles behind it were fairly straightforward, but were subject to various revisions and additions over the coming decade. Minor amendments in 1917 and 1918 prevented landlords from obtaining possession for their own occupation, and it was widened in 1919 and 1920 as the housing shortage worsened. Only in 1923 did it begin to be rolled back, and whilst it was originally only intended as a temporary measure, aspects of it continued through to as late as the 1980s.
Some have argued rent control in the particular circumstances of Britain became an important long-term reason for the uneconomic position of private landlords throughout the best part of the mid-century, corresponding with the increase in public housing under the welfare system. However, as the recent spate of discussions illustrate, rent cap laws of any substantive consequence haven’t been in effect since Thatcher did away with the majority in her third term. In any case, many argue the root issue is still the lack of housing in general.
Image credit: Kheel Center