How tenants campaigned for participation

The Tenants' Movement: a tradition of protests and rentstrikes (pictured here a 1930s rent strike in London's east end)

The Tenants' Movement: a tradition of protests and rentstrikes (pictured here a 1930s rent strike in London's east end)

The history of the tenants’ movement in England is presented as a game of two halves: before, and after tenant participation. The tenants’ movement is associated with a narrative of struggle, protest and rent strikes that predates the development of resident involvement in social housing policy. It is difficult to demonstrate continuity between this tradition of tenant action against landlords and the contemporary participation of tenants in their landlord’s business[i]. While the rise of participation in public policy was associated with the demands of social movements for direct democracy, it has long since become political orthodoxy, and tenant participation in housing management is now a managerial initiative to improve accountability, and empower ‘customers’.

Participation by tenants has been condensed into a rule-governed process, the subject of ‘how to’ manuals for housing practitioners, and tenants, described as customers, are decried as ‘the usual suspects’ when acting collectively.  The ‘disappearance’ of the tenants’ movement in tenant participation was predicted in narratives that celebrated its more militant previous episodes and that warned of the perils of co-option and institutionalisation[ii].  Tenants, although fully aware of the limitations of participation, have always appeared to discern some political opportunities in their involvement with their landlords, seeing participation as the beginning of a process of change in power relations and ‘a step towards tenants having control over decisions concerning their estates’ [iii].

An analysis of the development of tenant participation from its origins as a tenant campaign to its evolution as public policy explains what tenants hoped to gain from collaboration and partnership and brings the successes and failure of forty years of participation into focus. This venture into the past is useful, firstly because an account of the tenant campaign for participation has never been fully told, and secondly because it seeks to explain what tenants want from participation and why they continue to pursue it.

History of tenant struggle: 1930s East End rent strike

History of tenant struggle: 1930s East End rent strike

The tenant campaign for participation in housing management was the outcome of a crisis of identity among residents of council estates in the late 1960s.  It captured the frustration of council tenants with a contradictory and unsustainable identification: stigmatised and accused of living off public subsidies yet increasingly addressed as rights-bearing citizens.  This was a dilemma witnessed by Jonathan Rao[iv] who affirmed: ‘A sense of pride, and fear of the stigmatism associated with being a council tenant provides for many very strong motives for involvement.’

It is important to understand the competing pressures on social housing tenants in this period and the way the subsequent evolution of tenant participation and the tenants’ movement was influenced by these incompatible identifications. Housing policy in this decade, conveyed in White Papers by the Conservatives in 1961 and Labour in 1965 displayed a clear bias in favour of home ownership and favoured a leading role for private enterprise in the delivery of new housing. The short moment of political support for the universal provision of council housing had long passed, and both Labour and Conservatives were committed to a residualised role for the sector to provide accommodation only to the most needy. This shift in policy away from general needs public housing, signalling as it did the removal of housing from the core of universal Welfare State services, left both parties preoccupied with the spectre of wealthy yet subsidised council tenants occupying a tenure now intended for the poorest and most vulnerable.

Jaguar-owning council tenants: the spectre of the limpet tenant returns (Evening Standard July 25 1969 reprinted in Forrest 2010)

Jaguar-owning council tenants: the spectre of the limpet tenant (Evening Standard July 25 1969 reprinted in Forrest 2010)

Council house tenants were assailed by accusations that they were a privileged population undeserving of the state and ratepayer subsidies that maintained their rents below market level. Keith Jacobs, Jim Kemeny and Tony Manzi [v] have charted the campaign mounted by The People newspaper to vilify so-called ‘limpet’ tenants who had the means to become owner-occupiers yet remained in council housing. As Jacobs et al remark, this particular concern for the efficiency of housing market subsidies was only applied to council housing and did not extend to tax breaks for home owners. Issue after issue of the newspaper called attention to ‘The Great Council House Scandal’ and pursued examples of alleged abuse, identifying the tenants with expensive cars, the bookmakers with council homes, and the property tycoon with a subsidised flat. In February 1966, the paper quoted Labour’s Housing Minister Richard Crossman saying: ‘The present system has led to a cosseted and privileged class in our society – the council house tenant. These people are jealous of their privileged position – because a council house is a prize hard to come by’[vi]. The caricature of the ‘Jaguar-driving council tenants’ came to symbolise the repositioning of the sector as a welfare safety net, and undermined support for tenants’ protests against the rent increases. A cartoon by Cookson in the Evening Standard in 1969 showed a Jaguar-driving tenant leaving his two-car family driveway to attend a fair rents protest rally[vii].

Tenants' Voice: a GLC rentstriker makes her views known on market rents

Tenants' Voice: a GLC rentstriker makes her views known on market rents

Needless to say, council tenants did not see themselves as privileged. Having submitted to a regime of inspection, selection, and sometimes disinfection, to be granted a tenancy, the housing management service they received in exchange was often remote, inflexible and inefficient, the repairs service was inadequate while the quality of council homes they were allocated had declined markedly since the mid 1950s and the switch to high-rise system building. Those council tenants lucky enough to be given a tenancy agreement by their local authority found their list of responsibilities long and their rights few, while the landlord’s responsibilities went unmentioned. With no protection in statute, council tenants had only common law to defend them from their landlord’s unfair practices; they had no security of tenure or rights to succession before the 1980 Housing Act[viii].  A council tenancy was still a prize to be desired, however, and local authority lettings policies had traditionally insured that the best quality homes had gone to households judged respectable and hard working. In 1962 only 11 per cent of council tenants were not in paid work [ix], and the tenure was still seen as the home of a ‘labour aristocracy’. Council housing represented a step up for families moving from the private rented sector where inside toilets and hot running water were by no means readily available. It was predominantly family housing, with relatively few young or elderly tenants; the average tenants’ association member was ‘at that time of life when they could most expect to be materially comfortable, who were living in relative affluence’[x]. As John Hayes[xi] recalls this was a decade of optimism and aspiration, and council tenants were less willing to accept an authoritarian management style that required them to know their place. Their rejection of what to them was ‘a second-class citizen role’[xii] was enabled by the rise of a civil rights discourse that allowed tenants to regard themselves as consumers of a housing service rather than recipients of a subsidised public hand-out[xiii].  While extreme pressure was being exerted in the form of rent increases on the more affluent council tenants, they did not choose to buy on the open market. Dissatisfied with their housing management service and the paternalist attitude of their landlord, they nevertheless supported the values of public housing. They wanted to transform the management of council housing rather than turn their backs on it .

The role of the public sector in providing general needs housing had been shrinking since the 1930s as slum clearance programmes gathered force. Subsidies had been increasingly targeted on re-housing families from clearance and urban renewal areas and populations were moved to bleak and distant estates where there were few, if any, services or facilities. Some council housing estates were already stigmatised for their association with those moving from the worst housing areas, a reputation aided by bad design and poor quality building techniques. Council house building had slumped under the Conservative administration and rents had doubled in the ten years from 1954 to 1964. While Wilson’s Labour government boosted the building programme, and increased subsidies, rents continued rising much faster than earnings throughout the decade[xiv].  The process of residualisation was made concrete for council tenants by the introduction of means tested rent rebates for the poorest and the imposition of market rents for the rest.

St Pancras Rent Strike 1960: tenant pickets clash with police and bailiffs

St Pancras Rent Strike 1960: tenant pickets clash with police and bailiffs

The Sixties began with violent protests against rent hikes in the London borough of St. Pancras and ended with rent strikes in Sheffield and across the East End of the capital in response to rent rebate schemes and rent increases of up to 70 per cent[xv].  These rent revolts were the most contentious manifestations of a mobilisation of council tenants beyond the local estate where associations had long flourished. The formation of the National Association of Tenants and Residents in 1948 had been followed in London by the launch of the Standing Conference of Housing Estate Community Groups in 1957, hailed by contemporary commentator George Goetschius[xvi] as ‘a declaration of identity and independence’ for council tenants. In 1966 this tenants’ organisation changed its name to the Association of London Housing Estates and, in a decade of protest, it was to be this federation that drove forward the development of tenant participation.

The evolution of tenant participation has been best documented in the London boroughs and the following analysis draws on first hand reports in presenting an account of early participation. It should be recognised, however, that similar processes took place in other parts of England that, unfortunately, have not been so thoroughly documented.

East London Rent Strike 1968-1969: GLC tenants strike against imposition of market rents in council housing

East London Rent Strike 1968-1969: GLC tenants strike against imposition of market rents in council housing

The drive to establish participation schemes in the London housing authorities came from the city’s tenants’ federation, the Association of London Housing Estates (ALHE).  Exasperated by a bureaucratic and paternalist service that treated them ‘simply as housing units’, as Mike Geater, ALHE secretary put it[xvii], the federation took the desire for participation in housing management and turned it into a co-ordinated and high-level strategy.  Four borough co-ordinating committees and a Greater London sub-committee were set up by the tenants’ organisation to give strategic direction to the local participation already taking place between tenants associations and neighbourhood housing managers. This effectively shifted the focus of the organisation away from the provision of training and support to its member groups and towards policy development[xviii]. The new structure allowed the ALHE Executive to co-ordinate the estate management issues raised by the local groups and use them to develop a comprehensive strategy.  The borough groups pursued participation with housing authorities as an issue of policy and drove forward the establishment of consultative structures in the council housing decision-making processes. As Julia Craddock[xix] explained they ‘assumed the functions of policy making and negotiation, or confrontation, when necessary, with the boroughs and Greater London Council’. Mike Geater, secretary of the ALHE, articulated this drive for participation in explicitly rights-based terms:

‘Tenants do have a point of view and as the movement towards tenant participation is gathering momentum [..] it is hoped to evolve a process that allows tenants to express those views, that normally no one is prepared to listen to, a process that will enable them to get their ideas past the bureaucratic barrier to where the decision making takes place, decisions that affect their homes and their lives’[xx]

Occupation of empty offices at Centre Point: a decade of optimism and housing protests

Occupation of empty offices at Centre Point: a decade of optimism and housing protests

The launch of a Tenants Charter by the ALHE in 1970 trumpeted this growing assertiveness in a manifesto for the new social movement; its demands for participation were phrased within a statement of support for the universal provision of council housing ‘as a non-profit making community service’. This declaration of tenant rights intended participation to ‘lead to the creation of new relationships between councillors, tenants and housing officers’ and the ‘rejection of paternalism’. In its vision of general needs public housing managed in partnership with its tenants, the Charter expresses an identity under constricting pressure, an affluent and confident movement fighting a last-ditch stand to defend a stigmatised and residualising tenure.

Pickets at St Pancras: preparing to resist the bailiffs in the 1960 rent strike

Pickets at St Pancras: preparing to resist the bailiffs in the 1960 rent strike

While participation was a growing theme in government housing guidance, and a feature of the 1968 Gulbenkian and Seebohm Reports into community and social work respectively, and the 1969 Skeffington report on planning, there was little interest among housing authorities. In 1969, Robert Edward MP tried to introduce a Council Tenants Charter Bill that would give tenants’ representation on housing committees, and this was followed up by Dick Leonard’s equally unsuccessful Council Housing (Tenants Representation) Bill in 1971, and 1973. It was a recommendation from the National Board for Prices and Incomes in 1967 that tenant participation could soften the impact of rent increases that brought the issue to the attention of housing providers, especially those local authorities where new Conservative administrations were eager to subsidise rebate schemes by raising rents to market levels. As Julia Craddock[xxi] comments acidly: ‘Tenants’ participation was not thought necessary by local authorities until it was perceived by some, mostly Tory, councils to be useful to them in trying to introduce large rent increases’.

The tenant campaign for participation, described by ALHE secretary Mike Geater as the long term goal of the London federation[xxii], was a demand for citizenship for council tenants whose identity was negated by the stigma of a residualising housing tenure and the paternalist supervision of housing authorities. In mobilising a social movement around a charter of defined aims focused on representation in decision-making for a public housing sector that had universal appeal, tenants declared their interest in democratic citizenship, and their readiness to serve as subjects of governance. But the rights of citizenship are also obligations and the recognition tenants’ yearned for was a two-way process; by calling for participation, they in turn recognised the processes of housing governance and their responsibility to act within the rules of that game.

Squatting empty properties: direct action spreads in housing protests

Squatting empty properties: direct action spreads in housing protests

The development of tenant participation in Sheffield in 1969 provides an illustration of this contradictory process of identification. Sheffield Federation of Tenants Associations defeated their Labour council’s ‘fair’ or market rents scheme through year of mass ‘pressure group tactics’ from 1967 to 1968[xxiii] but split into two rival factions in the process. Labour’s manifesto pledge in order to return to power was to establish a Housing Advisory Committee to enable tenant representation in decision-making. The offer of a role in housing governance – in recognition of tenants’ power and their impact on the electoral process – was the spur to reunite the divided tenants’ organisations and revitalise them as a campaigning movement[xxiv] . As Peter Baldock[xxv] said ‘the price paid for access to influence’ was an unspoken agreement that tenants would no longer contest the issue of rent rebates.  This has been described as a compromise and a defeat for tenants, but the inevitable failure of their last ditch defence of universal public housing was offset by their transformation from powerless protestors to rights-bearing subjects. The Federation that flourished in Sheffield from 1978 was resourced by the local authority, facilitated by council community workers, and was able to campaign effectively around housing conditions and development plans while working in partnership with the housing authority through its Housing Advisory Committee and working groups.

Rent strike: the tradition of a tenants' movement

The development of tenant participation in London did not follow the path hoped for by the Association of London Housing Estates (ALHE) but, as in Sheffield, there were unexpected and contradictory results.  The London Borough Councils showed little commitment to widening democracy in housing decision-making, and it was rare that tenants were granted anything other than consultation rights through the new participation structures: the Housing Management Sub-Committees and Joint Area Committees. As Julia Craddock[xxvi] explained: ‘The schemes set up…reflect the value judgements of the existing decision makers about the proper role of tenants’ while in his eye-witness study, Jonathon Rao concluded participation to be: ‘manipulative and concessionary and designed to prevent radical change’ [xxvii]. But participating in the limited opportunities afforded them seemingly ignited tenants’ subjectivity, strengthening their organisational ability and motivating them to pursue alternative routes towards their participation goals.  This was evident in the significant improvement in co-ordination displayed by the ALHE in its response to the 1972 Housing Finance Bill. The Conservative government’s Housing Finance Bill formally repudiated a general needs role for social housing and confirmed the shift in policy to a residual sector. It instituted a universal rent rebate scheme and centralised rent setting through a process of mediated market rents.  The ALHE’s new policy-focus enabled it to lead the tenant protest against the Bill, and in the process double its membership of tenants associations, organising protest rallies and lobbying Labour MPs with proposals for amendments. However, the organisation was refused access to Ministers and denied any consultative role, other than the right to submit written comments. This denial drew the boundaries of participation and defined the regulatory limits on tenant subjectivity. It triggered a bitter and country-wide rent strike that confirmed the weakness of the tenants’ movement as a national force, and returned it with renewed commitment to formal participation schemes[xxviii] .

This reassessment of the early development of tenant participation illustrates how tenants hailed as rights-bearing citizens and consumers looked for recognition of this equal status from their local authority landlord, and were faced with the real inequalities which continued to exist.  Council tenants were reacting against the accusations of being ‘featherbedded’, selfish and unfairly subsidised, and acted out of loyalty to an ideal of universal public housing that was fast becoming a stigmatised residual sector. While the gradual residualisation of council housing increasingly branded all tenants as welfare recipients, and the vilification of more affluent tenants reached a crescendo in the Housing Finance Act 1972, tenants could only become ‘citizen-subjects’ through participation[xxix] and attain social acceptance in the constraints of a particular regulatory regime.



[i] Millward, Liz (2005a) Benefits not Barriers: a different way of attracting people to tenant participation? Housing Studies Association Conference, York April 2005.

[ii] see Cockburn, Cynthia (1977a) The Local State. London.Pluto Press.

Lowe, Stuart (1986) Urban Social Movements: the city after Castells. Basingstoke, Macmillan

[iii] Craddock, Julia (1975) Tenant’s Participation in Housing Management: a study of four schemes. London. ALHE. Page 57

[iv] Rao, Jonathan (1984) Power and Participation in the Public Sector Housing. London, London Borough of Hounslow Housing Department. Page 45

[v] Jacobs, Keith, Jim Kemeny and Tony Manzi (2003) Privileged or Exploited Council Tenants? The discursive change in Conservative housing policy from 1972 to 1980. Policy & Politics. Vol.31, No. 3: 307-320

[vi] The People 6 February 1966 quoted in Jacobs et al 2003: 311

[vii] Evening Standard 25 July 1969 in Forrest, Ray (2010) A privileged state Council housing as social escalator. In: Malpass, Peter & Rob Rowlands (eds.) Housing, Markets and Policy. London, Routledge

[viii] Lowe, Stuart (1997) Tenant Participation in a Legal Context. In: Cooper, Charlie & Murray Hawtin Housing, Community and Conflict. Aldershot, Arena Ashgate Publishing Ltd.

[ix] Jacobs, Keith, Jim Kemeny and Tony Manzi (2003) Privileged or Exploited Council Tenants? The discursive change in Conservative housing policy from 1972 to 1980. Policy & Politics. Vol.31, No. 3: 307-320

[x] Baldock, Peter (1982) The Sheffield Rent Strike of 1967-8. The Development of a Tenants’ Movement. In: Henderson, Paul, Anne Wright & Keith Wyncoll (eds.) Successes & Struggles on Council Estates. London, Association of Community Workers. Page 124

[xi] Hayes, John (1988) The Development of the Association of London Housing Estates 1957-77. The London Journal. Vol.13, No. 2:156-161

[xii] ALHE Tenants Charter quoted in Ward, Colin (1974) Tenants Take Over. Architectural Press, London. Page 178

[xiii] Hayes, John (1989) The Association of London Housing Estates and the ‘Fair Rents’ Issue. The London Journal. Vol.14, No. 1: 59-67

[xiv] Malpass, Peter (1990) Reshaping Housing Policy: subsidies, rents and residualisation. London, Routledge.

[xv] See Burn, Dave (1972) Rent Strike St Pancras 1960. London. Pluto Press.

Kay, Adah, Marjorie Mayo & Mike Thompson (1977) The United Tenants Action Committee. In: Cowley, John, Adah Kay, Marjorie Mayo, Mike Thompson. Community or Class Struggle? London. Stage 1

[xvi] Goetschius, George (1969) Working with Community Groups. London, Routledge.

[xvii] in his forward to Craddock 1975

[xviii] Mayo, Marjorie (1972) Some Fundamental Problems of Community Work on Housing Estates in Britain. Community Development Journal. Vol. 7, No.1 55-58

[xix] Craddock, Julia (1975) Tenant’s Participation in Housing Management: a study of four schemes. London. ALHE. Page 3

[xx] Forward to Craddock 1975.

[xxi] Craddock 1975:14)

[xxii] Geater, Michael (1973) The Role of Tenants Associations. Community Development Journal. Vol. 8, No. 1 46-47

[xxiii] Hampton, William (1970) Democracy and Community: a study of politics in Sheffield. London, Oxford University Press. Page 277

[xxiv] Lowe 1986

[xxv] Baldock 1982: 127

[xxvi] Cradock 1975: 17

[xxvii] Rao 1984: 104

[xxviii] Hayes 1989

[xxix] Cruikshank, Barbara (1999) The Will to Empower: democratic citizens and other subjects. London. Cornell University Press.

Rent strike: the tradition of a tenants' movement

About Quintin Bradley

Dr. Quintin Bradley is Senior Lecturer in Planning and Housing Studies at Leeds Beckett University.
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