St. Pancras and the Rents
On 1960 council tenants in the borough of St Pancras went on partial rent strike, in protest against a differential rent scheme introduced by the Conservative council. The numbers of tenants who were actually withholding the rent were to fluctuate during the nine or ten months that the struggle was at its height, and although two tenants were forcibly evicted and many others intimidated, the council was left at the end of the year with rent arrears totalling over £20,000.
At the time, St Pancras was a large central London borough stretching from Highgate in the north to Kings Cross and Regents Park in the south. (After April 1965 it became part of the London Borough of Camden.) Its population was mostly working class and there were over 8000 council tenants within it. Under Labour control, it had been council policy to municipalise all the land in St Pancras. This was, of course, hampered by property speculation and the rise in land prices. It was a prosperous borough and in spite of its working class population large commercial and industrial interests contributed 70% of the rates.
St Pancras council tended to change at each election from Labour to Conservative and back again. The Labour councils when elected were fairly tame ones until 1956, when John Lawrence took over the Labour leadership. Council policy swung to the left: St Pancras refused to operate civil defence arrangements, flew the Red Flag on 1st May, brought in a rent scheme where maximum levels were pegged on a low scale, and insisted on a closed shop for council employees. The rent reductions enraged the local Tories, who in 1957 and ’58 produced “typical” ratepayers who objected to these reductions at the council audit; but the District Auditor was persuaded by the council that the rent levels they had set were “reasonable”, but in 1958 added that a general review of rents was overdue. This could only really mean a general increase in rents. The auditor ruled that the yardstick of the 1957 Rents Act – rents at 21 times gross value – was to be used – this principle was to raise drastically the permissible maximum of rents for private tenants. (This led to the sort of exploitation practised by Rachman.)
Before the audit, there was a drastic change in the St Pancras council: in the summer of 1958 John Lawrence and 13 other Labour councillors were expelled from the Labour Party for “views believed to be inimical to the best interests of the Labour Party and indistinguishable from those of known Communists”. They retained their council seats, but sat as a group of Independent Labour councillors.
6 months later, the council increased rents. Although the increases were fairly small, local people saw them as a surrender to the Conservatives and the District Auditor. The Independent Labour group voted unsuccessfully against the increases. But some some of the council officials wanted to go further: the Town Clerk, Borough Treasurer and Housing Manager published a report at the same time as the rent scheme was announced, criticising councillors for not implementing rent levels nearer to those recommended by the 1957 Rent Act, and drawing attention to the growing deficit on the Housing Revenue Account, which was expected to reach £300,000 in 1960.
Labour wanted to keep the rents of large flats down in the interests of larger families. But in May 1959, council elections returned the Tories to power on St Pancras Borough Council. Almost immediately they announced several new measures, including a new rents policy which would mean higher rents for most council tenants.
The rent scheme was approved on 29th July at a council meeting which lasted from 7.00pm to 4.20am the next morning. The Labour group tried to refer back the report of the Housing Management Committee, but their opposition could only be verbal as the Conservatives were obviously going to win any vote. Meanwhile hundreds of people queued for the gallery and later went to a protest meeting organised by the St Pancras Trades Council.
The rent scheme was to consist of a system of maximum and minimum levels based on rateable value, plus a system of rebates. However, the new maximum rent level of 1s 9d in the pound rateable value meant a large increase over existing rents, and brought them above even the levels set for private tenants under the 1957 Rent Act.
The maximum rent was designed to allow the reduction of subsidies for rents, which were an expense on the Exchequer, and reduce council rates, which would benefit businesses and richer residents. Rents were therefore expected to bear the burden of rising land and building costs. Subsidies had considerably reduced rents for some tenants.
The new maximum rent levels amounted to a massive increase – and 52% of tenants had to pay the maximum rent. Most rents on pre-war estates were trebled, and those on the post-war estates doubled. The weekly rent for a four-roomed flat in Kennistoun House, Kentish Town, built in 1934, increased from 16s to £2 9s; and in a similar flat in Willingham Terrace, a post-war block in nearby Leighton Road, the rent rose from £1 3s 6d to £3 1s 3d a week. Similar increases were instituted all over St Pancras.
Most tenants were furious. The scheme went beyond the recommendations of the report published by the council officials in January and outstripped the recommendations of the 1957 Rent Act, where a level of 2⅓ times gross value was considered adequate; here the maximum level was over three times the gross value.
There were already some small tenants’ associations and other ad hoc organisations; but tenants only started to organise seriously after the rent scheme had been passed. The new organisations bypassed a lot of the existing ones whose committees were inactive. By the end of August 1959 various groups had come together to form the St Pancras Borough Council United Tenants’ Association (or UTA). At a meeting called at Kennistoun House, Leighton Road, the secretary of the new UTA, Don Cook, who had been secretary of the small Kennistoun House Tenants’ Association, spoke. Describing council remarks that rent increases would be nominal and that no-one would suffer, he said:
“This is an outrageous distortion of fact. Rents are to be doubled and in many cases trebled. More than 6,000 tenants will be paying an additional £735,000 a year in rent revenue. This means an average increase of about 24s a week for every tenant. Many tenants are forming themselves into associations. The anger and resentment apparent makes it obvious that tenants are not prepared to accept this imposition. The tenants of this borough can, as a united body, defeat the aims and intentions of this Tory council.”
In the early stages, many tenants in the meetings were calling for direct action. They wanted an all-out fight including, if necessary, a refusal to fill in rebate forms and a possible rent strike. The Labour Party tried to limit the struggle to legal means. Labour councillors and other representatives implored tenants not to go on rent strike.
A mass movement had sprung up and organised itself in the space of a month.
The tenants’ movement showed its strength with mass marches and rallies in the Autumn of 1959. There were now 31 tenants’ associations affiliated to the organisation; and support from the trade unions was evident from their participation on the marches. Committees were set up in every block and every week some 200 tenants would meet, representing all the associations in the borough. These meetings decided UTA policy, and in this sense the tenants themselves were the real leadership. Masses of people were involved on a day-to-day basis in keeping the struggle going. At one stage the UTA were putting out leaflets three times a week. They could produce a leaflet within 24 hours so the gap between the elected leadership and the rank-and-file tenants could be kept to a minimum.
At the height of the struggle, every night as many as 60 women, went out banging on the councillors’ doors. If a councillor did not get two visits a week he was lucky. It was a tactic and it paid off. The police were less likely to arrest the women and the women themselves were very keen. It wasn’t difficult for the average housewife to realise she was in trouble with the rent rises. They formed the backbone of the movement, keeping everything going in the day and giving each other mutual support.
However, the council was determined to implement the rent system, in spite of representations by the UTA to council and committee meetings, and the attempts of the Labour group to amend the scheme.
At a council meeting on 11th November, after tenants had demonstrated in the public gallery, the police were called in to clear it, although no arrests were made. Soon after, the UTA held a delegate meeting attended by 165 representatives from 35 associations, where two motions were passed with almost unanimous support. The first gave delegates a free hand to negotiate with the council if the opportunity arose. The second resolved that if negotiations failed or were rejected, and the council persisted in implementing the rents scheme, tenants would be advised to withhold the increased rent demand from 4th January 1960.
The Tenants Organise
In December 1959 the lines of battle between the council and its tenants had pretty well been drawn. The council was intransigent and the tenants were determined to resist. A petition to the council signed by 16,000 people had no effect. The council refused to negotiate while the tenants’ campaign continued.
The hated rent scheme began on Monday 4th January. In the early stages of the campaign about 80% of the affected tenants withheld the increases. Even leading tory Councillor Prior admitted that the UTA had had “some measure of success”, and a town hall spokesman stated that about a quarter of all St Pancras tenants were withholding their rent increase – that is, about half of the 4,200 affected. However, Cllr Prior warned that “… unless there are special circumstances a tenant who gets in arrears is liable to be evicted”.
The UTA answered this threat by recommending that the tenants pay no rent at all if eviction notices were issued. At the same time, they said that they were still ready to negotiate with the council.
Over January the number of tenants withholding their rent increase went down: a large number of tenants were intimidated and demoralised by threatening letters from the Housing Manager, and the public surrender of some local Labour Party leaders among the tenants, who went along to the rent office in the third week of the struggle and paid up in full view of the tenants. By the end of January only 624 tenants were withholding the full 10s increase. Meanwhile the UTA was looking to other methods of action against the council; a solidarity conference on 16th January showed that trade union support would be forthcoming, and a one-day strike in St Pancras was suggested if the council threatened to evict anyone.
A stormy council meeting, on 10th February, voted to serve notice to quit on tenants in arrears. Once again the police were called in to clear the public gallery. 223 notices to quit were prepared, 156 of these had been served and since then 88 tenants had paid the arrears. This left 68 still under the threat of eviction, but that number was decreasing by the day.
In February, the Labour Party attempted to persuade tenants to give up the rent strike so the council would negotiate with them, while the UTA canvassed support from trade unions including the local branches of the ETU, AEU and NUR. UTA leader Don Cook stressed that the tenants could not throw away what weapons they had and that the latent support for the “veto” would have to be mobilised.
A UTA delegate meeting agreed that if the council would withdraw the eviction notices, postpone the July increase, and agree to enter negotiations without prejudice, they would withdraw the rent rise veto. But this compromise proved unacceptable to the council.
During the next few months the pattern of claim and counterclaim on the success of the campaign continued. The public gallery continued to be cleared by the police at council meetings and this culminated in a demonstration in the council chamber on 27th April when tenants chained themselves to their chairs and threw eggs at the Tory councillors. The public was then excluded from the next three council meetings.
In March the Conservatives lowered the rates from 17s 4d, the level since March 1957, to 17s in the pound. This was made possible by the very rent rises which had caused so much resentment. As Mrs Sheridan an Independent Labour alderman noted, ordinary ratepayers stood to benefit by only 3d a week, while big business would gain “to the tune of thousands of pounds”.
Just before the council started court proceedings against 23 tenants, they announced that the increase in rent in July would be limited to 12s 6d and the balance of the total increase would now be demanded in January 1961. The Housing Committee claimed that this was a great concession, saying it would cost them £16,000 for that financial year and would increase the estimated deficit to £194,000. But tenants were reminded that rents could well increase again, if the deficit increased again – as it inevitably would.
The court cases started in May. Agreement was reached in the UTA that only a few tenants should face eviction so that their flats could he defended more easily. Most of the arrears were paid, until only three cases remained. They were heard at Bloomsbury County Court on 28th June and judgment was given against all three. These were Don Cook of Kennistoun House, Leighton Road; Arthur Rowe in Silverdale, Regents Park Estate, and Gladys Turner of Goldington Buildings. However, the notice for possession was extended for two months – the tenants could expect eviction to start from 28th August.
Now even the Labour Party felt compelled to echo the increasing militancy. Tenants, they said, ought to get together to show their opposition to the rents scheme. “No borough council tenant has ever been evicted in St Pancras and we must see that no-one ever is. The way to stop them [the evictions] is to jam pack the entrances to the flats so that no-one can get in.”
Nevertheless the UTA were still trying to negotiate and eventually an informal meeting was arranged on 26th July. However, the two-hour long meeting was fruitless. All that Cllr Prior would talk about was the size of the deficit on the account. He avoided any discussion of hardship effects on the tenants.
The council had been saying that only about 50 tenants were in arrears, but in the middle of August 250 notices to quit were sent out. The UTA claimed these 250 were still only a small percentage of those on rent strike. Their policy since the abortive meeting with Cllr Prior was total rent strike rather than the withholding of rent increases. At the same time tenants were making preparations for the defence of the two tenants faced with eviction. The third tenant who had been to Bloomsbury Court and ordered to vacate, Mrs Turner, had come to an arrangement with the council.
The Tenants’ Case
In their propaganda, the Conservatives insisted that council tenants were being subsidised by a contribution that went from the rates to pay the “deficit” on the Housing Revenue Account. They claimed that if the rent scheme had not been brought into operation, council tenants would have been subsidised by over £300,000 in the financial year 1959-60 and by increasing amounts every year after. What was the reason for this deficit? Were council tenants really being subsidised by the private tenants and house owners in the borough? Were the rent increases financially necessary?
Until 1955 the “deficit” in St Pancras was negligible; indeed in 1954 the council made £6,000 profit out of council rents. A balance was kept by fixing the rents of new dwellings at levels sufficient to cover the costs of building and maintenance of the estates. Up to 1956 there was a range of rents for different estates depending on their age. However, as both the costs of building and borrowing money rose, disproportionate differences in rent levels appeared. So in 1956 the Labour Council under John Lawrence decided to freeze rents at a level that they thought the average family could afford. All rents above these levels were reduced to the new maximum. Those below were left as they were. Maximum rent levels were high compared to some other London boroughs but less well-off families still had the opportunity of flats at low rents.
This meant that, although the deficit would tend to rise, the cost would be spread all over the borough through the rates. This was fair, since housing was a social service. In November 1956, however, the Conservative government abolished all housing subsidies (except for slum clearance, expensive sites and one-room flats). Thus in one year the deficit rose from £30,000 (the last year when full subsidies were paid) to over £95,000.
The increased price of land and building, and the rising cost of borrowing money also hiked up the deficit. By far the most important of the rising costs was interest. Under the post-war Labour government, councils could borrow money for housing from the Public Works Loan Board at the rate of 2½% interest. But the Conservative government elected in 1951 ordered councils to borrow money from “normal” sources – the finance houses, banks and insurance companies – at the prevailing rate of interest: up to 6 or 7% over 60 years. This caused an astronomical leap in the cost of the built dwelling. The proportion of council housing expenditure which went on interest to the moneylender rose correspondingly: over 50% of total expenditure by 1959-60.
Land prices in the borough were rising. Land in St Pancras now cost as much as £30,000 an acre. During 1955-60 the property boom was well under way. Land costs could be as much as £400,000 an acre, and large fortunes were being made by the developers
The rise in land prices in central London affected all prices for building land roundabout. It was ultimately the tenants who had to suffer for the sake of the developers’ wealth. The council’s policy of relying on the rates to “spread out” the cost of housing did not, oddly enough, involve raising the rates.
Judged by its total rateable value, St Pancras was a wealthy borough, because of the large industrial and commercial interests, mainly in the south of the borough. 70% of total rate revenue came from industrial and commercial ratepayers, and only 30% from residential ones; and the value of the former tended to rise more rapidly.
It was partly the recognition of the steady rise in rateable value, especially in the non-residential sectors, that had enabled the Labour Council under John Lawrence to stabilise rents and make the richer commercial interests take their share of the cost of providing housing. Naturally the commercial interests did not like this arrangement. It is interesting to note that the Conservative rate reduction in March 1960 only meant very small reductions for residential ratepayers, whereas savings were larger for the commercial and industrial interests.
In fact, rent and rates brought in almost enough to cover costs and the deficit – but the council had banked the money in various funds and bank balances, where it was mainly sitting unused.
Why then were the rent increases imposed? There can be no clear overriding reason. One cannot rule out the influence of the sheer antipathy of the Conservative Party and its backers to council tenants. There is the element that some large ratepayers would have objected to paying for council housing. Withdrawal of subsidies and high loan charges had made them pay a larger share towards the cost of housing. The opposition of these ratepayers and those who objected to the social spending of council money would be inevitable if rents were geared to the income of families rather than paying towards the profits of those in similar positions to the large ratepayers.
There was also national tory housing policy. Henry Brooke, then Housing Minister, had proposed that councils should fix rents “at such a level that many tenants would actually find it cheaper to move out and buy their own houses”, thus forcing them into the arms of building societies and doing speculators a good turn.
The extension of the eviction order, given by Bloomsbury Court expired at midnight on 28th August. By that time well-constructed barricades had gone up, both at Kennistoun House and Silverdale. Don Cook had 12 pianos in his flat barricading various doors, as well as other old furniture and doors put against windows, and barbed wire and an old bedstead on the roof to discourage bailiffs from entering that way. There were also plans for human barricades; tenants and trade unionists were to be involved in a 24-hour picket of both flats so that, in an eviction attempt, defence and warning could be simultaneous. Preparations were made at Kennistoun House for a bell to be rung and rockets fired if the bailiffs arrived on the scene. On hearing or seeing the warning, workers all over the borough were prepared to down tools and rush to the assistance of the two beleaguered tenants. An intercom system was set up between Don Cook’s flat and the campaign headquarters in another flat in Kennistoun House.
Local trade union support was evident. On Monday 29th August railwaymen of Camden No.2 branch of the NUR held a two-hour token strike; council workers also struck over the next two days; and local firemen stated that they would not be involved in any attempt at eviction. Support from the tenants at Kennistoun House was total. On 31st August when half the tenants in the block were supposed to pay their rent, only one old-age pensioner was at the rent office. Banners saying “No Evictions” and “Force the Council to Negotiate” hung from the access balconies and an effigy of Cllr Prior hung in the middle of the courtyard.
From that time the council refused to negotiate with the UTA. The Town Clerk set out four conditions for agreeing to a meeting:
“1. All picketing to be stopped, and all attempts to intimidate or coerce council tenants into withholding the rent to cease. 2. All obstructions, placards and notices to be removed from council property. 3. All demonstrations to stop. 4. Mr Arthur Rowe to pay the Court Judgment debt … since June 28th in accordance with the present rent scheme and to pay all rates due to the Council.”
Since this meant a virtual abandonment of the campaign by the tenants, these preconditions for talks were immediately ruled out as unacceptable. The Tories had now decided that they too would only negotiate if the Town Clerk’s proposals were accepted.
By Wednesday 14th September, 514 notices to quit had been sent out by the council. Determination to hold on was stronger than ever amongst the council tenants. There were regular marches and demonstrations throughout the borough, to which the NUR, ETU and AEU all sent delegations.
On the evening of 21st September – the evening before the eviction – a demonstration of about 500 tenants took place outside St Pancras Town Hall, as a housing committee was being held inside. The police had already banned demonstrations outside the Town Hall; now they cleared the area and violently manhandled demonstrators. Eleven people were arrested, including former council leader John Lawrence, and the crowd, which included young children, was charged twice by mounted police.
After the demonstration, a meeting was held in Kennistoun House with tenants’ representatives, Labour councillors and Communist Party members. The latter two organisations had been frightened by the demonstration and there was a great deal of talk about caution. However, there was now no time for new tactics to be instigated.
Around five o’clock in the morning of 22nd September, bailiffs supported by about 800 police attacked both Silverdale and Kennistoun House. At Kennistoun House the pickets put up a two-hour defence against the bailiffs and the police; oil was poured over them as they tried to get up the stairs to the entrance to Don Cook’s flat on the top floor, and one of their number was seriously injured and had to be taken to hospital; but the great mass of tenants were unable to reach the flats to defend Don Cook due to the large numbers of police and mounted police who had cordoned off the block with lines at least three deep.
One council tenant from Islip Street said: “I heard the rockets. We all ran out in our pyjamas. Everywhere there were people running towards Kennistoun House. But when we turned into Leighton Road all we could see were police. There were hundreds of them. We could do nothing. We could not get near. The police are here to help the bailiffs if they are resisted but we never had a chance to resist.”
Two other participants in the struggle reported: “The first we knew about the raid was when about five bailiffs came in through a hole in the roof. They came down the stairs and forced open the sitting room. We retreated to the kitchen and re-barricaded…. In the kitchen we made a cup of tea while the bailiffs were pushing and shoving to get in. The bailiffs used crowbars and hacksaws. Those who had come through the roof let more bailiffs in through the window. When they broke into the kitchen we offered them a cup of tea. They drank it…. They were unable to get through the window because of the barbed wire so they ripped the slates off the roof and made a hole in the plaster with their axes.”
“We ran up the stairs with the bailiffs behind us. There were seven of them, with two police officers. I was forced back against the wall. Then I was carried downstairs. I heard a lot of shouting and Don called out to me. They took us by surprise by getting in the back way.”
Over at Silverdale the police and bailiffs used similar tactics. Large cordons of police kept the tenants from defending Arthur Rowe while a group of bailiffs and police carried out the eviction. Arthur Rowe and his son held out for about an hour, but eventually bailiffs smashed a hole in a four and a half inch brick wall to get in. When they were finally evicted, they were lifted onto the shoulders of the other flat dwellers and carried up onto a grass bank where Arthur Rowe made a short impromptu speech. He thanked all his fellow tenants for their assistance and said that the fight must continue against the “greatest social injustice of this time”. He then went up to Kennistoun House to join the evicted Don Cook.
At Kennistoun House the fighting went on well into the day. 100 building workers struck at the Shell Centre site at Waterloo, and marched up Leighton Road, led by John Lawrence, but they hardly had time to get there before they were attacked by the police and fighting broke out again. During the day 200 men struck at Camden Goods Yards; overall though trade union support was more limited than had been expected.
The police cordons stayed around the two blocks of flats all day and tenants only dispersed when it was announced that a meeting would be held at Kennistoun House that same evening. During the day Don Cook issued a statement:
“The Tory council in St Pancras now stands condemned as the instigator of the most violent attack on ordinary people witnessed for many years…. Arthur Rowe and I are out of our flats, but there are many more who will follow us. The barricades of St Pancras have only just begun. We will continue the fight and justice must prevail.”
The violence of the morning was to pale in comparison with the march from the meeting at Kennistoun House down to St Pancras Town Hall in the evening. Most tenants were still raging at the events of the morning as a crowd over 14,000 strong made their way down Euston Road. They were faced by a cordon of about a thousand police around the Town Hall and a small number of demonstrators tried to force their way through the police lines. What followed was described in horrified tones by most newspapers as “violent riots against steadfast and patient police” but some degree of truth even slipped into the press. It seems as though a line of police, completely out of control, waded into the mass of the crowd:
“The police action last night was the worst – and the most frightening – I have ever seen. Quite unnecessarily, I was punched and kicked and sent hurtling against a wall by policemen who, in my opinion, had completely lost their tempers. At least 50 policemen advanced on a crowd in a solid mass. There was no simple request to ‘Move on’. Instead they just came at us with fists flying.”
Many were injured and large numbers arrested. However, “outside extremists” and the “red menace” were later blamed for the violence on that night; undoubtedly many people were extremely angry and windows in several cars and a bus were broken. But the method of eviction in the morning and the action of the police in the evening turned a large demonstration on the rent rises into a confrontation and a riot. Later comment on the situation stressed the Communist influence.
The area around the Town Hall was finally cleared by about midnight on the evening of the 22nd, but police remained guarding the Town Hall, Kennistoun House and Silverdale all night. Meanwhile Cllr Prior had announced that the Housing Committee would now meet a small deputation of tenants, provided that all demonstrations ceased.
The next day the Home Secretary issued an order under the Public Order Act 1936 banning all public processions. With the evictions carried out, a ban on all demonstrations, and negotiations opening, a new phase in the campaign started.
The Final Defeat
While the UTA was preparing for the next stage of the conflict, the fragile alliance of tenants and the Labour Party began to crack. Labour MP Robert Mellish attacked the “agitators”:
“Disputes such at that at St Pancras should be settled by negotiations. The approach of the Holborn and St Pancras South Labour Party has been right, but the situation has been exploited by outside elements who have come in wanting to start a mood of revolution. They have used any and every excuse, even the Labour Party, as a means for causing friction and trouble. We are diverted from the main issues in order to try to quell a tiny insignificant few who make the noise and get the press and publicity.”
The UTA did not see the coming negotiations as having any preconditions about the toning down of the campaign. On Wednesday 28th September, the central committee recommended that all tenants withhold the whole rent in order to cripple the council’s finances; and that the rent money be given a fighting fund to reimburse or compensate those jailed, fined or injured as a result of the struggles. As a result of this decision by the UTA and the leaflet issued setting out these proposals, the council decided yet again to break off negotiations, and refused to recognise the UTA as a representative tenants’ body. The council negotiated with various individual tenants’ associations but not with the UTA as a whole, with the purpose of gathering various proposals and amendments to consider for the “review” of the rents scheme in November.
The Labour Party establishment in St Pancras also distanced themselves from the UTA, even while they made noises about Tories being still chiefly to blame.
The awaited review and amendments to the rent scheme were finally announced at the council meeting on 9th November. The changes were marginal, involving some £15,500 in loss of rent revenue. The rent scheme was said to be fair on all tenants, and St Pancras ratepayers were alleged to be “subsidising” council tenants.
384 notices to quit were still outstanding, with court cases considered in 118 of these.
The UTA condemned the review as completely inadequate and repeated their determination to defeat the rent scheme and also to get Don Cook and Arthur Rowe rehoused. But support was slackening. The council were sending bailiffs around the estates during the day to intimidate tenants and their families, and to threaten them with the seizing of their furniture and all their goods if they did not pay up their arrears. This measure was to some degree successful.
At the UTA general meeting on 5th December, the central committee, realising that a number of tenants were paying the rent who had previously been on rent strike, announced that a new policy was being worked out. At a meeting at Silverdale on 5th February, Don Cook explained the new policy:
“Our position has altered in the light of previous experience. We cannot see other tenants thrown out onto the streets. I can assure you that we are not surrendering. If it came to any tenant being evicted we would act in every possible way to support him. In fact all we have done is to buy time. If the majority of the tenants were withholding the rent there would be no need for this change of policy. We cannot expect a minority to place themselves in danger of eviction – in fact we cannot allow it…. We must work to see there is a defeat for the Tories in the coming LCC elections and above all we have got to work for the return of a Labour council next year. We are not withdrawing from the battle. We are going to fight in a different way.”
At a rally at Silverdale on 22nd September, the anniversary of the evictions, the unity of aims between tenants and the Labour Party was reaffirmed on this new footing: the basis of unity was the approach to the forthcoming council elections. P. Richards the UTA chairman spoke:
“We want to see a new council swept into office next May and we want them to clear out this rents scheme and fix the rents at a level perhaps 10s a week above the old rents. We shall also expect Don Cook and Arthur Rowe to be rehoused.”
The message was repeated by a Labour councillor, Sid Munn: “We want your help to ensure the return of a Labour council next May. Both Labour Parties are in close touch with the UTA to try to work out a satisfactory solution to the rents problem.”
This was echoed by the Communist parliamentary candidate for St Pancras North, Jock Nicolson: “We want a Labour and progressive council at the Town Hall.”
Early in January 1962 the Labour Party announced the rent scheme they would adopt if re-elected in May. The differential rents would go, to be replaced by standard rents based on 2~3 times gross value. Any tenants in hardship could appeal to a housing subcommittee. At the time this was estimated to cost £100,000. The UTA endorsed the Labour rent policy, saying that it met many of the proposals they had put forward for consideration; several members of the UTA committee were putting up for election as Labour councillors (and some as Communist councillors). With this promising unity against the Tories, it seemed that if the elections were successful, the tenants were finally going to win their battle against the council.
In May 1962 Labour won control of the council by 51 seats to 19. The new leader of the council, Charles Ratchford, was quick to announce: “Of course there will be some big changes of policy straightaway. The differential rent scheme will be abolished. That was the issue on which the electorate voted us into power.”
However, time passed, however, and no new rent scheme was forthcoming. Eventually, Labour member Cllr P. Jonas, a member of the housing committee who had also been deeply involved in the UTA campaign, explained that if the rents were to be reduced by a “substantial amount” the councillors might be breaking the law and therefore be liable to heavy surcharges. “Reasonable rents” were demanded by law and the interpretation of what was “reasonable” was the prerogative of the District Auditor. He concluded, “I am afraid the high hopes we had cannot be fulfilled”.
In the end Labour did not withdraw the differential rent scheme, though rents were to be fixed at existing levels until the end of the financial year.
Tenants demonstrated in the public gallery and sang the “Red Flag”, but for them it was too late. Their realisation of what the Labour Party would do once back in office came only slowly in the months between July and October. They had pinned their hopes and policies onto a one party political bandwagon and it had broken down, leaving them completely stranded both tactically and strategically. Another rent strike was threatened, but with little confidence in its success.
In spite of a number of deputations to the council, and even threats of rebellion from the UTA Labour councillors, the scheme was passed in February and came into operation on 1st April 1963.
Could the Tenants Have Won?
The St Pancras Rent Strike and the tenants’ campaign against the differential rent scheme ultimately had failed. Although Don Cook and Arthur Rowe were rehoused by the new Labour council, the high maximum rents remained. Could the St Pancras tenants have won their fight? Against them were ranged immense forces. The council was actually the least of these; it was placed in the front position by virtue of its action in raising the rents, but the general situation which dictated that more income was needed from the tenants was not of its making.
Behind the council there was, first of all, the District Auditor. He was an executor of government policy. When the Labour council in the late 1950s subsidised the rents of de-requisitioned tenants, individual councillors were surcharged to the amount of “lost” revenue at the instigation of the District Auditor. When the 1962 Labour council reneged on its election promises for fear of being surcharged, it is arguable whether or not this would have been done.
The state machine was only evident on a few occasions, most explicitly on the day of the eviction. It seems as if the tenants’ movement had become too dangerous for the state to tolerate; the overwhelming numbers of police and the brutality of their tactics were meant to intimidate the tenants and to crush their opposition. The action of the Home Secretary, R.A. Butler, in banning all demonstrations in St Pancras immediately after the evictions was another part of this plan.
The most important force working against the tenants was the mechanics of the housing financial system. The increased rent went mainly to pay off the large interest charges on the loans the council received to build housing. Thus financial interest was involved against the tenants, and the actions of the state both at national and local level become clearer when seen as a defence of that interest. The rent scheme was necessitated not so much by the need to remove all rate contributions to housing, as by the fact that the total cost of housing was rising continually with the price of land and money. The aim was to keep the rates steady while making the tenants pay for the growth of expenditure.
Within the opposition to the differential rent scheme there were contradictions. The Labour Party as an official body was at best a lukewarm supporter of tenants’ direct action, in spite of many of its members’ activities as individuals in the campaign. National and local Labour figures that the “proper” way to fight the rent rises was “through the ballot box” – but then the St Pancras Labour parties failed to fulfil their promises made before the 1962 council elections.
The role of the Communist Party can in many ways be compared with that of the Labour Party. Don Cook and many of the leaders of the tenants’ movement were members of the CP, and in the early stages of the struggle. Communist Party support for the UTA was total. However, once the direct action had turned into the anti-eviction struggle, and the police had started to attack demonstrations, the Communist Party began to see direct action as “adventurism” and their members advised caution in private meetings, while still saying publicly that the struggle must continue. There was undoubtedly a desire not to see people hurt by police attacks, as had been seen in Euston Road, but there was also a large element of electoral manoeuvring. The contradictions can be seen within the activities of the CP generally. On one hand there had been successful agitation and the leading of a mass movement; on the other there was the CP’s overall strategy, the Parliamentary Road to Socialism, with its reliance on elected Left-Labour and Communist representatives to institute the new social system. This policy naturally led to close support of the electoral strategy of the Labour Party and, in this case, to a reduction in agitation and support for tenants’ direct action.
What of the tactics of the UTA itself? Its reliance on two “figureheads” to bear the brunt of the fight against evictions, whilst enabling the tenants to concentrate their strength, also allowed the state to concentrate its forces. With regard to the UTA support for the Labour Party council candidates, the mistake was letting this become the major tactic of the post-eviction struggle. Perhaps it was right for the tenants to try to force the Labour Party to adopt their programme; but this should not have allowed the Labour Party to seize the leadership from the tenants. This is unfortunately what happened in St Pancras, with the Labour Party’s consequent betrayal of the tenants’ hopes.
The lack of effective industrial action allied with the rent strike was another underlying cause of the ultimate failure of the struggle. Key sections of industry were not brought in. Admittedly St Pancras in 1959 was very different from Glasgow in 1915, where such a policy was successful. The links formed with the trade unions could have led to greater involvement by the rank and file workers in spite of the probable opposition of their union leadership.
A continuation of militant action by the tenants, admittedly in the face of more evictions, brutality and intimidation, would have been a more vigorous and positive policy. It has been argued that after the evictions many tenants became disillusioned. But the real disillusionment of the tenants occurred only after the failure of the Labour council to reduce rents in 1962. At times of great crisis, for example when the barricades went up, more tenants than ever before became involved in the struggle.
But no realistic strategy in struggles of this kind can afford to ignore the brute facts about where power lies in our society. The so-called democratic machinery of the state, right down to the local councils, is at the mercy of the dominant influences in the state who benefit by increased land and housing costs. The only force on which tenants and workers can rely is their own organised strength, while the elected representatives, sucked into the state machine, have no real power.
After the evictions, some tenants were enthusiastic about the Labour Party’s proposals and were ready to make them the only major policy of the UTA, in spite of Labour’s sabotage attempts earlier in the campaign. To some extent this was not the result of the state’s intimidation. The tenants’ association alone could not have successfully fought all the forces that the state was ready to use against it. Many tenants were confused in the period after the evictions, and the struggle might have died away.
A clear lead was needed which placed no faith in the council elections and gave an analysis of the total nature of the struggle. This would have maintained the solidarity of those tenants and workers who were prepared to carry on. It could not guarantee victory but would have provided a basis for continuing the fight, raising morale and widening the battle. The absence of this lead left the struggle to be waged on the purely electoral road which proved so disastrous.
This is an edited version of Rent Strike: St Pancras 1960, by Dave Burn
An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.
Follow past tense on twitter