The man in charge of housing in Bristol has been branded a ‘traitor’ and booted out of the community union he used to lead, as a row about the city council’s new Renters Commission intensified. But Cllr Tom Renhard, who rose to prominence in Bristol as a leading figure of the tenants campaign group ACORN and is now the lead for housing in Marvin Rees’ council cabinet, described the attack on him as a ‘character assassination’, and said he would continue to work to ‘make positive changes’ on behalf of the people of Bristol.
The row came after members of ACORN stormed City Hall on Tuesday, and prevented the first meeting of a new commission tasked with looking at the plight of people trying to rent homes in Bristol. Now, after that disruption, the man heading the commission has been branded ‘a disgrace’ by his former friends and colleagues in the organisation he once led, who now say he has ‘sold them down the river’ in a blistering attack.
ACORN is a national organisation with strong roots in Bristol, and since around 2014 has been a community union that began campaigning for renters, often with direct action against slum landlords and letting agencies. Tom Renhard joined ACORN in Bristol and was instrumental in its campaigns to lobby the city council to change policies over affordable housing, ethical lettings policies and to examine ways of solving the housing crisis for local renters.
Read more: Excluded campaigners storm first council rent commission meeting
He became the national chair of ACORN across the country before getting elected as a Labour councillor for Horfield in the 2021 election, and was quickly promoted to be the cabinet member for housing. Earlier this year, ACORN, the city council and housing charity Shelter held a conference to look at the plight of renters in Bristol, and a Living Rent Commission was set up to bring together renters, landlords, agents, campaigners, charities and politicians.
But ACORN was not invited to send a representative – and was told that because Cllr Renhard himself was still a member, they weren’t going to be part of the commission. So on Tuesday, Bristol Live revealed how ACORN members stormed City Hall and disrupted the first meeting of the commission, preventing it from taking place.
Now, ACORN’s national executive has expelled Cllr Renhard from its membership. This comes despite the fact he was previously the chair of its national board of directors.
What does ACORN say
ACORN’s national head organiser Nick Ballard, who is also from Bristol, said the union’s members felt betrayed. “I recruited Tom Renhard to ACORN, supported his rise to the top of our national organisation and worked closely with him for many years,” he said. “He knows full well that any discussion of the housing crisis that does not involve ACORN is farcical.
“Over the past few months he has consistently attempted to sideline the most effective force for renters in the country and brought in landlords to whitewash both the Renters Summit and Living Rent Commission. That he has sold us down the river in this way to further his career is a disgrace.
“We know full well that this comes on the explicit instructions of Marvin Rees, whose arrogance and thin skin have seen him attempt to silence anyone who holds him to account – be that ACORN, special educational needs and disability campaigners or the press.
“Bristolians are crying out for effective action and leadership as we face this brutal cost of living crisis. This ‘with me or against me’, bunker mentality serves only personal agendas and egos and is the opposite of the collaborative and effective action the Mayor likes to talk about.
“Politicians may come and go but ACORN will remain, fighting for our communities and the decent standard of living we are all entitled to.”
Rohan Kon, who holds the position of ACORN’s National Chair that was recently held by Cllr Renhard, said: “Seeing the former National Chair of ACORN elected as the Cabinet Member for Housing of a major city was an incredibly exciting and proud moment for our organisation. We expected to foster an incomparably productive and comradely relationship which would hugely benefit the people of Bristol and lead the way in addressing the housing crisis the country faces.
“Our union rules require ACORN members elected to public office to use their platform and powers to support the organisation. With no previous background or expertise in housing that ACORN is aware of, Councillor Renhard has our organisation to thank for his prominent position. This makes such a betrayal of our members and the renters of Bristol all the more disappointing.
“We expected the highest level of integrity from him but clearly our trust was misplaced and as such our national board has unanimously voted to terminate his membership. We are facing the worst cost of living crisis in a generation and any politician who sells out our communities will be held to account by ACORN.”
While recruiting thousands of members in Bristol, ACORN has been a controversial organisation, whose direct action tactics to prevent evictions, target letting agency offices and other protests have divided opinion. As a community union, its campaigns have increasingly branched out beyond the housing crisis and the plight of individuals in poor housing conditions – protests have been staged and campaigns held on issues in Bristol as wide ranging as speeding traffic in Lockleaze, the closure of public toilets in Bristol and the call for the bus service in the city to be publicly run in a franchise system.
What does Cllr Renhard say?
The councillor said he was surprised at being booted out of ACORN, and added that it was a shame relationships had broken down so badly. “I was surprised to learn yesterday that my membership of acorn has been terminated,” he said.
“I have proudly campaigned on many issues for years as a member, building on my campaigning on mental health and housing issues since before the organisation existed in the UK. Whether it be campaigning for the end of Section 21 no fault evictions, securing the eviction ban during Covid-19 (and extending beyond the end of the ban for council tenants in Bristol) or pushing for the abolition of ridiculous letting agent fees; fighting for renters rights has been at the core of my work.
“To now learn that I’ve been expelled without due process or even a chance to answer to the accusations being made against me is only further evidence that the organisation’s leadership unilaterally refuses to work with people constructively. During my time as a member I supported the organisation at various levels, including on the first member-led board from 2018, supporting the transition to increased democracy in the organisation. This included supporting the Head Organiser to develop in his role and grapple with the challenges of transitioning from an organiser to running a company with a turnover now in excess of £1 million.”
Cllr Renhard continued: “Since being elected by the people of Horfield and taking on the role of a cabinet member, I have worked to champion the issues of many in the city. I have committed the council to a £1.8 billion programme for 9,000 new council homes, launched a bathroom replacement programme that is currently being co-designed with residents, increased investment in the repairs service for council stock and lobbied national government on the need to address the plight of leaseholders caught up in a cladding scandal.
“I have also been a champion of the Renters Reform Coalition’s asks of government for renters reform, something that Acorn are a part of.” He added that ACORN was invited to be part of the Living Rent Commission, although it was to give evidence rather than sit on the commission itself.
“Prior to the first planned meeting of the Living Rent Commission, Acorn received an invitation to present at one of the planned evidence sessions to share contributions on behalf of their membership. There will also be wider open evidence gathering that will be carried out in the coming months that any individual or organisation will be able to contribute to.
“Whilst their application to be on the Commission’s Advisory Board was unsuccessful, they have never been excluded from participating in the commission. The invitation to present at an evidence session still stands.
“This attempted character assassination says more about the approach of some of the heads of the organisation who are unwilling to work with people or organisations from across the sector. It is a shame that things have reached this point, however it will not affect my resolve to make positive changes for the residents of Bristol.”
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