Progress on “Living Rent” in Scotland

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Edinburgh       In the wake of the Scottish independence vote a bit more than a year ago, a coalition came together that included ACORN Scotland, EPTAG – the Edinburgh Private Tenants’ Action Group, an ACORN affiliate, the Scottish Student Union and others to form what we called the Living Rent Campaign.  The demands were not new, but the energy was high in the wake of the election with hopes that the prospects of some devolution of powers to Scotland might make long fought campaign goals around security of tenure and even rent control winnable.

It was fascinating to see how much progress had been made over the last year as I sat through the weekly Monday night planning meeting of the group with ACORN and EPTAG veteran warhorses Keir Lawson, Jon Black, Liz Ely and some other stalwarts as well as new found comrades from the student movement.   The discussions of petitions, post card campaigns, stalls, and doorknocking were part of a familiar song, but the new verses involved timelines and dates for submissions and testimony before various parliamentary committees, reports of meetings with yet more allies ready to sign up for the campaign, and briefings on meetings at the party congress of the current ruling party, the Scottish National Party (SNP).  This was heady stuff reflecting a hard and successful year of organizing.

Talking to the organizers, it was clear that for all the progress we were a long way from declaring victory and no matter the new momentum and kinder face of the government, the landlords continued to be well organized and a formidable opposition force on most of our points. The legislation was a long way from a done deal and like so many things in the legislative process, the devil was in the details.  We were focused on four main themes:  affordability, inclusivity for all tenants, flexibility in untenable situations, and security.

Security of tenure is a good case study of the push-and-shove that remains before we can say we have really won.  We believe the “no fault” language is still tenuous and under attack on evictions as well continuation of “hardship” defenses that have been in previous legislation dating back to 1988.  There are hard fights being waged on whether or not an initial six-month period would hold tenants in bad circumstances.  There is a constant tension in our “security” fight on wanting more security in terms of lease periods, but not being trapped in bad leases with recalcitrant landlords unwilling to maintain habitable apartments.

A similar fight is still at issue around rent controls.  Once again like with security “in principle” there is movement, but where our concern is affordability, landlords and some of their parliamentary allies are trying to reposition the controls as “predictability” of rent, even in these times of huge increases.  The compromise has been a discussion of limiting rent increases to the CPI, consumer price increase, plus 1% based on a factor of “N” with the “N” being a number establishing the fair market rate by local jurisdiction.  Our campaign believes that local circumstances are so varied between the red hot market in Aberdeen and even Edinburgh compared to elsewhere that local councils need to be able to set the floor, while others are pushing for a national rate which would make almost no one happy.

In a period of so-called devolution, most organizers are increasingly scoffing at the notion that much of any real power was devolved and in fact in some cases the counterattack on Scotland elsewhere in the United Kingdom may have England setting policies and forcing Scotland by default to have to adapt to them.  Ironically, a year after these concessions were made, in situations like the struggle over affordability embedded in our demands for rent controls, we are left still battling for more devolution into local jurisdictions more responsive to peoples’ needs and peoples’ organizational formations and pressure.

Living rent, like living wages, is not a fight with just one battle but a never ending war, so for ACORN we are in this for the long haul.

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Finding the Line on Benefits and Drawing the Line on Rubbish

leith_acorn_action Edinburgh    When it came time for the Leith ACORN branch chair to report on the accomplishments of the first 5 months of campaigns, the conversation among the leadership went from speculative and quizzical to animated and excited.   As much as the big issues of lease security and rent management engaged everyone in the room, campaigning was one thing, and winning was another all together, and in Leith of the three objectives set in the first big meeting when rubbish collection issues were voted as the primary issue, there were already solid victories on two of the three, and they were heavily engaged in putting pressure on the football stadium to surrender on that one as well.  The “language” might be a little different in Scotland and the United Kingdom, but the issues and process are familiar to every community organizer who has ever worked the street.

First on the list was how to get the council to solve the issue of “uplift.”  Uplift was the euphemism for heavy household trash, which in the cutback of city services was now fee-based, rather than part of any kind of regular collection.  No one in Leith or much of anywhere else was going to burn up their cellphone minutes calling for a pickup of an old mattress for twenty pounds or whatever might be left when they moved from one flat to another. The landlord was also going to keep his hands in his pocket for sure.  The result of course was a deteriorating neighborhood with trash in the alleys, out back, thrown into construction skips, and whatever else including streets and parks.Putting the pressure on with a series of actions, the council agreed in January to start an experimental program of regular uplift on an every month basis, sort of a rubbish amnesty if you will.  Perhaps more easily Leith ACORN also won an increased number of receptacles for glass recycling to be dotted about the community, since glass was not part of regular trash pickup anymore.  Bam and bam!

Third on the list and the hardest nut to crack were the meetings the leaders and members were now having with the management of the football team whose stadium lies fat in the community, which also means that the detritus of every game also lies there enraging neighbors.  Leith ACORN wants the team and the stadium to buy an additional street sweeper to solve the problem.  If they know what’s good for them, they might as well shake hands and throw in the towel now, because they are going to lose this one either sooner or later.  It’s not a problem that goes away.

It was interesting to hear the exchange between the Edinburgh ACORN team and Tom Scott, who is putting the pieces together on the first group to form ACORN Newcastle, as they talked about, yes, what else, rubbish, which is also what he has been working on in recent months.  What were the handles in England?  Which of these situations would be “devolved” in Scotland?

Tom was also all over what we call “citizen wealth” issues when looking for benefit allowances that were discretionary, not well known or advertised, and sitting there waiting for th kind of /maximum eligible
participation /campaigns we have done in North America and with our membership service centers.One program Scott raised was along the lines of the US- LAHEAP provision for utility support for low income families facing harsh winters or summer.  The program in the US is not an entitlement, but discretionary on a first come, first served basis.  In England, it is also driven by an application process for 140 pounds a
year with another emergency allowance in another program.Surprisingly, the program is administered by individual utility service providers and only mandatory for the big ones, while being picks-and-chooses for the smaller outfits with no clear standards from what the Newcastle research had found.  There’s many a campaign waiting to be done from the brief discussions we had and on-the-spot confirmation on government websites.

There’s gold in them there hills for lower income family, and many victories to be won by ACORN groups in the UK!

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