The slum 'super-sheds' housing Britain's most vulnerable residents

Hastily constructed, often dangerous dwellings are springing up under the radar of London's councils

Richard Hall
Thursday 08 September 2011 00:00

From the street, this semi-detached house on a leafy road in east London seems entirely unremarkable. Upon entering the front door, however, the sound of bodies stirring can be heard on every floor in the house.

In a room immediately to the right – where you would usually find a living room or a kitchen – several figures rise from mattresses. Upstairs, seven young men in states of undress shuffle around in cramped rooms.

In the garden, a concrete, shanty-like structure stands against the back fence. Four young men emerge from the room rubbing their eyes. A smell common to such cramped conditions escapes, clothes are hung haphazardly on window ledges and door frames, and kitchenware and food is stacked amongst belongings.

This so-called "super-shed", a poorly constructed building not much larger than an average garden shed, is one of thousands of similar structures across the capital that housing campaigners label London's secret slums.

Yesterday, The Independent joined a team from Newham Council – the worst affected borough in London – as they raided properties in search of the hidden sheds. The council's move comes in response to the rapid rate with which the sheds are being built, as more people struggle to cope with rising rents. The structures are often dangerous, cramped and unsanitary. Some have only a hole in the floor for a toilet, others are made from wood with a felt covering for a roof.

The people living in them are among the most vulnerable in society, with little choice in where they live. "They are generally low-earners, below minimum wage," says James Bolt, the council's planning enforcement officer.

"Quite often you will get illegal immigrants – the reason being that these properties go unnoticed, and you are not going to complain about your conditions if you are here illegally."

Conditions in super-sheds are often reminiscent of the notorious Victorian slums of the East End.

"It does feel like you are going back to the Dark Ages sometimes when you visit these places. One of the dwellings you could have literally pushed over," said Mr Bolt, who is part of the team responsible for finding and dismantling the structures.

In addition to the health risks, living in this ramshackle accommodation leaves tenants open to exploitation, according to the housing and homelessness charity Shelter.

"The danger is that tenants will be made imminently homeless, because when the council catches up with the landlords, you are going to get turfed out," said a researcher from the charity, Bill Rashleigh. "You also have no recourse to law. If the landlord whacks the rent up then you have no claims to make under the law. You have no laws to protect your rights, and you are left open to exploitation, with your health at risk and with no security."

Newham Council is at the centre of the battle against this new form of slum accommodation. The borough's mayor, Sir Robin Wales, has led calls for action. Newham recently set up a task force to deal with the problem, and is looking to back it with £1m funding. "The creation of this task force gives a very clear message about our zero tolerance approach to illegal building, which is a crime. They are unsafe – endangering the inhabitants – and unsightly," Sir Robin said.

The council plans to use aerial photography and infra-red imagery to track down the dwellings, and will have powers to demolish any structures that do not comply with strict planning regulations. But the problem is by no means exclusive to Newham, and the task force estimates there are thousands of the unsafe structures across London.

As well as being a product of greedy landlords, Shelter blamed a lack of government action on housing for the sharp rise in the number of super-sheds being built.

"These super-sheds are one example of how so many people aren't able to access a decent and affordable home. Many have no option but to turn to these places," said Mr Rashleigh. "High prices are meaning that people are struggling to find the kind of accommodation that is suitable for their needs. This is an extreme example of something that is affecting a huge number of people."

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