The unveiling of the Mary Barbour statue with the Co-operative Party banner with Mary Barbour on it in the background.

We need change in the Private Rented Sector and we need it now.

People earning within the lowest decile of income who rent within the private rented sector spend 57% of their income on rent, where as those in the highest spend just 15%. Between 2010 and 2018, rents in Lothian increased by 42% and in Greater Glasgow by 33% covering a combined population of 2 million people. If we do not tackle high rents, we will not be able to strike at the heart of poverty. The private rented sector has almost tripled since 1999 and for many people it is the only choice of housing open to them.

The average age of first time homebuyers has also increased significantly during this time. For some this is a choice, but for many people there is no other option but to spend years in the Private Rented Sector because they cannot afford to buy their own home and there is not enough public housing to meet the need.

Housing policy therefore needs to be at the heart of the Labour movement’s central message of change. We are the most radical on housing and we need to shout it from the roof tops.


Renting privately is the most common form of housing tenure for young people. The 18-35 age group are the most affected by insecure work and zero hour contracts. This group are most likely to be paying high rents, though it is not just the young, there is mounting evidence that growing numbers of people have no option but to rent into their retirement. This was all very worrying before Covid-19 upturned our world. In all likelihood, the pressure on the rented sector will be much worse now.

Without regulation, tenants will be susceptible to high rents and evictions, and it is time to introduce the Mary Barbour – Fair Rents (Scotland) Bill to protect them. It is unofficially referred to as the Mary Barbour Bill, because the evidence of exploitative rent increases and poorly maintained properties in the private rented sector is so widespread and affecting so many families that the solution needs to build on the radical traditions of Mary Barbour and the Glasgow rent strikes of 1915.

The draft bill, due to the superb assistance of Mike Daily at the Govan Law Centre, has now been lodged with Parliament under its official title, the ‘Fair Rents (Scotland) Bill’. It is important to note that in the drafting of the bill Mike cleverly added in an additional clause, which allows a tenant to have their rent assessed as fair as against the standard and quality of their accommodation.

In parallel with the Bill, I also initiated Scottish Labour’s Housing Commission. The idea behind it was to ensure that Labour has a basis for housing policy put together by people passionate about housing and well in advance of the election. It has been largely adopted by the communities policy commission check it out here.

I was delighted that the Co-operative Party’s Rita Miller joined the commission to ensure that the co-operative perspective was part of the thinking. Chaired by Stuart Gulliver, the man who made sure that Crown Street in the Gorbals is of Glasgow one of the country’s most successful housing projects, the commission’s recommendations make it is a serious and substantive piece of work.

The Mary Barbour Bill, was important before the Covid-19 crisis, but is vital now.

It will cap annual private sector rent increases across Scotland at one percentage point above inflation applying to both new tenants and existing tenants. It would be “grandfathered” for a new tenant where the property has been let previously. The Bill will also make rent appeals easier as well as ensuring landlords record the rent they are charging to tenants. Importantly, it introduces the condition of the property as a factor in setting the rent.

It has the support of all parties except the SNP but hopefully that will change.

We do not yet know what the post Covid-19 economy is going to look like, or what it will mean for working people. What we do know is that it is likely to exacerbate and accelerate the pre-existing trends of insecure work and insecure housing. I hope that this Bill can gain the support to go some of the way towards removing some of the housing pressures so many people face.