Beds in Sheds

The front door has a house number 48 and its own letterbox but it isn't possible for a postman to get here to deliver anything. The tenant is a health worker. Her home is a shed in the back garden of a shabbily converted bedsit property, only accessible via the main building and through the filthy, rubbish-strewn yard.

Her landlord has recycled the front door from another property, but she likes having her own entrance and her own privacy. She prefers the shed to the crowded and noisy HMO (house of multiple occupation) she was in before. It has electricity and a tiny kitchen which leads into a bathroom, but there's no hot water, so when she wants to wash she needs to boil two huge pans of water on the stove.She sleeps on a mattress on the floor, the furniture is broken, and the flat is heated only by a feeble electric radiator. She pays £350 in rent a month to the landlord which is all she can afford.

This rented property is not in a third world shanty town. It is in the borough of Newham in London and there are many others just like it. Newham's mayor, Sir Robin Wales, is dismayed. "It's big money. You get a few breeze blocks, sling up some crappy old shed in your back garden, and now you're making hundreds and hundreds of pounds a week. It doesn't take long for you to make a lot of money out of it, provided you are prepared to trade in human misery.”

In recent years there has been an increase in landlords converting sheds in their back gardens into illegal dwellings. Predominantly they are in London and the M4 corridor. Most are converted garages or out-buildings, which often lack sanitation and in many cases are hazardous to both the tenants and neighbours due to improper wiring or plumbing. Sub-standard accommodation creates all kinds of public health issues.

The government has now announced a crackdown on these illegal “Beds in Sheds”. On 30th  April, the housing minister, Grant Shapps, announced that the government was creating a nationwide "beds in sheds" taskforce, to identify the thousands of sheds and outbuildings being illegally rented out, often to illegal migrants. He said it was "a scandal that these back-garden slums exist to exploit people, many of whom find themselves trapped into paying extortionate rents to live in these cramped conditions". Thousands of sheds and outbuildings are rented out illegally, say ministers.

Those who live in them are often migrants who put up with high rents and primitive conditions because of the fear of deportation should they complain. Many of these landlords take cash rent and clearly have no regard for conditions their tenants are living in. Although it is clearly a big problem neither the government or local authorities have any idea of how many illegal properties there are. The housing minister together with the Immigration Minister Damian Green will discuss ways of measuring the problem with police, immigration and council officials. They intend to raise a number of proposals to tackle this issue including encouraging councils to make greater use of legal powers across planning, fire safety, housing and environmental health.

Richard Lambert, chief executive officer at the National Landlords Association, commented: “The NLA welcomes the government putting pressure on local authorities to crack down on rogue operators who blight the private-rented sector. “It is important that Government departments work together to target criminal behaviour as this problem extends beyond the provision of housing. These are criminals who seize the opportunity to exploit vulnerable people. It is crucial that local authorities and enforcement agencies use their existing powers to prosecute those who flout the law and fail to meet their obligations”

This isn’t a problem locally where the standard of rented homes available seems to improve each year. There are a few rogue operators but the vast majority of landlords in the local area provide good quality homes and give a professional service.

Parkinson Property

2nd June 2012


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