On Tuesday 21st March 2023, we took part in one of the largest coordinated political actions taken by private renters in UK history. One fifth of the UK population is in privately rented housing.
Twelve GMTU members and staff boarded a coach along with members of Acorn Manchester, and travelled to Parliament to join renters from all over the country for the Renters Day of Action. Organised by the Renters Reform Coalition (RRC), it was an opportunity to pressure the Government to bring forward the Renters Reform Bill without further delay.
Private renting has never been less affordable and less secure, due to a severe lack of decent, affordable housing, the cost of living crisis and the Government's failure to end Section 21 'no fault' evictions despite promising to do so four years ago.
Our members wanted to meet with their MPs, tell them about their experiences of private renting in Greater Manchester and explain why it was so important to them that legislation is put in place as soon as possible to address the imbalance of power between tenants and landlords.
The trip down
On the coach we spoke to our members to find out why they had signed up for the trip.
Muel is now one of our valued activists, doing some great work in our Member Solidarity team. He first joined GMTU when his neighbour became injured at work and was struggling with rent arrears. As sick pay is so low he couldn't afford to pay his rent and with Section 21 still alive and kicking, he was desperately worried he would get evicted, through no fault of his own.
Muel says: “When housing is one of the biggest problems we have, why hasn't Labour come up with anything more progressive than the Tories?”
Ashley from Rochdale joined the union recently after his son was left without a working boiler for many months. To add insult to injury, the building had no fire extinguishers and there was mould and disrepair in his flat managed by Cheltenham Estates Ltd. He had been trying to fight them alone for some time before he heard about us.
Ashley is writing about his experiences which he hopes will be the basis of a documentary. He says: “It takes a lot of energy to keep up with it all!” Hopefully, with the strength and solidarity of our union beside him it won't be long before the building management company is held to account and his son's housing issues can be resolved.
Catherine is a long standing member of our union and a founding member and former chair of the Moss Side branch. She predicted that many of the MPs would be evasive. She said: “A group such as this can demonstrate the strength of feeling on all these issues. One aspect of activism is that it is empowering and encouraging.”
Elliot is a Young Labour member and involved in the Levenshulme and Longsight branch and also our Student branch. Elliot said: “My MP is Afzal Khan. I speak to him fairly regularly in the constituency, anyway, because I'm active in my CLP, but today I want to speak to him about the Bill and the specific issues students face when renting."
Arriving in London
On arrival in Westminster at 12.30, we were directed to the Church House conference centre, where we registered, confirmed the times that our MPs would be available and tucked into the sandwiches and cakes that had been provided for us.
The MPs we wanted to speak to were:
- Rebecca Long-Bailey, Labour MP for Salford & Eccles
- Afzal Khan, Labour MP for Gorton
- Lucy Powell, Labour MP for Manchester Central
- Navendu Mishra, Labour MP for Stockport
- Chris Clarkson, Conservative MP for Middleton & Heywood
- Jeff Smith, Labour MP for Withington
At the specified times our members were escorted to the Great Hall, where we were told our respective MPs would come and meet with us. Unfortunately only two of them turned up - the others were unavailable or simply failed to appear at the designated time!
Iman, from Salford, was pleased to report back that Rebecca Long-Bailey was eager to talk about all of the issues raised, and said she would be more than happy to be sent more detailed information about specific areas the bill would need amending. They discussed in particular the need to unfreeze LHA rates and align them with market rates to stop arrears and discrimination against tenants in receipt of welfare.
Four of our members joined around six Acorn members to go and meet with Jeff Smith. He spent about half an hour with us and listened patiently while we each highlighted a different example - mostly from personal experience - of the dire problems tenants are facing and asked him to put pressure on the government to close the loopholes and bring the bill forward. He pointed out that as Labour is not in government there was a limit to what his party could do. However some of our stories of bad practices shocked him and he asked for more information to be emailed to him.
One of the shocking practices mentioned to Jeff was the way in which tenants in search of a new home are increasingly expected to 'bid' over the advertised rent in order to secure a property. The other one was the way in which companies are making a business out of AirBnB, buying up homes in residential areas and using them exclusively for short-term lettings. We gave him a copy of our report into Short Term Rentals which shows how this lucrative type of letting is on the rise and removing much needed housing stock from the sector.
Another of our members, Ayo, told him about an action against Thornley Groves that she participated in last year - a persistently bad letting agency who have caused problems for many of our members:
“A fantastic solidarity campaign with Greater Manchester tenants union members came together on a very cold Saturday morning below the Engels statue last year - a gifted symbol of socialism from the Ukraine in a juxtaposed capitalist landscape.
This was to support a couple of tenants who had put a rental deposit down with the infamous Thornley Groves in Manchester Central, just across from the meet up point at the Engels statue.
Thornley Groves is backed by big finance from The Lomond Group, enveloping smaller letting agencies in the NW of England. TG present tenants in existing properties with draconian rent increases, and they are under immediate threat of Section 21 evictions if they aren't willing or just can't pay (even though the latter may relate to disrepair).
These conditions are Dickensian in essence, and GMTU found that TG properties had faced a range of problems, from rent hikes to the use of dodgy 'nil deposit' schemes. In these schemes, tenants pay a non-refundable fee at the start of the tenancy and continuous fees throughout, and yet still might owe more at the end of tenancy if landlords challenge the state of the property.
These schemes are presented as a tenant-friendly choice to reduce the cost of deposits, but in actual fact, they are profiteering rackets and TG are charging unlawful fees. When tenants do seek advice from organisations like Citizens Advice Bureau, it is often suggested that they pursue their case through civil action, which is equally costly, and might take months to see any sort of resolution.
As a union we want to highlight this illegal practice, as tenants are falling foul of these entrapments and machine like ways of making money, without consideration to the tenant.”
Staff member Ben Clay visited Downing Street with representatives from other coalition organisations to hand in a petition demanding immediate action to address the situation for renters and ensure safe, secure and affordable homes for all.
Q&A with the Housing Minister
The final event of the day was a Q&A with Rachael Maclean, MP for Redditch and the 15th Housing Minister since the Tories came to power and the sixth to hold the post in the past 12 months. This event was chaired by Vicky Spratt, a housing journalist, campaigner and documentary maker.
Around 200 tenants from the different RRC organisations attended to hear what the minister had to say and put forward their questions and concerns regarding the Renters Reform Bill.
Rachael Maclean started out saying that she was aware of the problems renters face because she had teenage sons who were renting. She said her department was committed to redressing the imbalance of power between tenants and landlords and that the bill would be brought forward in this parliament.
There was a general rumble of distrust among the audience while she was saying all this. It is hard to have faith in this government when they have promised for years to bring the bill forward while thousands have been made homeless through Section 21 or continue to live in dreadful conditions at the hands of incompetent money grubbing landlords and housing management companies.
Many questions were asked, such as: “When you end Section 21, what is to stop landlords getting rid of tenants by other means, such as a rent hike?” She replied that tenants will be able to challenge unfair rent hikes and that landlords will not be able to raise rents more than once a year. Unfortunately we know from bitter experience that challenging a landlord through the legal route can take a long time, needs expensive legal representation because legal aid has been hollowed out, and a long battle like this can take its toll on the mental health of tenants who are already stressed out.
She said landlords will be able to take possession of homes if they want to sell the property or they want to move a family member in. We don't see how they can prevent landlords simply lying about this and renting out to someone else after the current tenant has been removed. With affordable property so scarce, where is the provision for rehousing a tenant in this unfortunate situation?
The minister also spoke about the government's plans for a Decent Homes Standard for the private rented sector, which will ensure privately rented homes are safe and decent. We think that without a massive cash injection into local councils from Westminster, most will struggle to enforce this.
At 5.30 we got back on the coach to Manchester. Despite many of our MPs not being available, we were told that we could come and speak to them in their constituencies instead.
It had been a long day, but although we didn't get any firm promises from any of the MPs every one of our members said they had enjoyed the day and thought it was well worth going. The feelings of solidarity, not just between our members, but with the other organisations and to be part of such a large group with the same problems, boosted everyone's spirits.
There are more battles ahead, but we are building a strong movement and we demand to be heard.