Hidden in a cluttered courtyard behind an off-licence in Forest Gate, east London, is a narrow brick building no bigger than a shed that a family of four calls home.
Asah (not her real name), her husband and two young daughters all share this ramshackle structure, built illegally by its owner to make money from desperate tenants such as her.
Thousands of similar buildings exist across the country – many occupied by immigrants with little choice but to live in these dangerous and cramped conditions – and more are built every day.
They are described by housing campaigners as Britain’s “modern-day slums” or, more euphemistically, “sheds with beds”. The Government last week announced plans for a nationwide task force to crack down on their use. But with a worsening housing crisis in the capital and across the country, housing experts are warning that the vulnerable people who live in them will have nowhere to go.
Asah, 37, found her accommodation in a shop window after a long, fruitless search. She pays £375 per month for the small, two room shack. Rubbish and large breeze blocks are strewn across the courtyard outside her door, where her young daughters play.
“I know it is not good for us to be here. But it is enough for us and we can afford it,” she says. “My kids go to school nearby. We have tried looking for other places, there is nothing.”
Grant Shapps, the Housing Minister, has promised to crack down on “criminal landlords” by encouraging councils to make greater use of legal powers, preventing more such properties being created and working with foreign authorities to help immigrants living in them who want to return home.
But Asah has no desire to leave the area or the country. Her landlord, meanwhile, was nowhere to be seen when The Independent visited with planning officers from Newham Council. With tears in her eyes she tells them that she is trying to move elsewhere in the area, but has yet to find anywhere she can afford.
“People from the council come to us again and again. It is not good for us here,” she says.
A number of London councils are already taking advantage of new legislation enacted by the Coalition Government, allowing local authorities to offer their homeless families accommodation elsewhere rather than provide social housing within the area.
Last week it emerged that some London councils are contemplating moving people hundreds of miles. Newham has written to 1,179 housing associations asking whether they would be prepared to take 500 families who can no longer stay in the Olympic borough.
The move led to accusations of “social cleansing”, but Newham council blamed the Government’s “fundamental failure in housing policy” for its decision, noting that the new housing benefit cap of £400 a week had made it difficult to find private homes for low-income families.
The mayor of Newham, which is thought to have one of the highest number of illegal sheds with beds in the country, has welcomed Mr Shapps’ task force. But Sir Robin Wales cited the Coalition’s housing policy, including the reintroduction of the right-to-buy scheme, as one of the primary causes of the crisis.
“The Government is making us sell our council houses, which are assets we created, and at the same time cutting our budgets disproportionately,” he told The Independent.
“There has to be an integrated approach to work and housing. Cutting unemployment in communities is essential to solving this crisis,” he added.
For now, there is little Asah can do other than continue the hunt for a legal home that will take her. One person who might be able to help the bigger picture, however, is the newly re-elected Mayor of London, Boris Johnson. “The new Mayor will have sweeping new powers over land and budgets [through the Coalition’s Localism Act] to build new homes,” said Roger Harding, head of policy for Shelter. “Londoners will be looking to them for answers.”
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