One of the unforeseen consequences of the housing crisis is a phenomenon known as “beds in sheds”.
Suburban shanty homes, as a government announcement referred to them, they are poorly constructed buildings, or converted sheds, that are rented out by rogue landlords to people who are living in poverty. Britain’s economic downturn has left many vulnerable, and so rudimentary homes with squalid and dangerous conditions are all they can afford. The makeshift accommodation is damp, cramped and often houses whole families. These structures are not permitted under planning laws and may have no electricity, running water, or a toilet.
Thousands of illegal structures have been found around the UK. They are not just unsanitary but dangerous too. In London, fires have broken out in makeshift homes due to a lack of fire doors and alarms, killing 13 people. The fact that they are constructed in the gaps between buildings makes the risk of fire all the more dangerous.
The government has begun to crack down on makeshift accommodation. Local authorities can inspect structures which might be illegally rented, but they need to give 24 hours notice before doing so, giving landlords enough time to hide evidence of people living there. They can also demolish buildings that are being used as illegal accommodation. Councils have begun using thermal imaging technology to examine suspect developments to see if there are people living there. The structures are not insulated, so they light up under thermal imaging cameras, making them easy to spot. However, this seems like an extremely invasive move. People may heat their sheds for a variety of reasons, but that doesn’t mean there’s someone living there illegally.
The media, as well as housing and immigration ministers, have linked illegal housing to illegal immigrants even though any evidence for this connection is circumstantial. Many long standing UK residents have also been forced to live in makeshift homes as a result of insufficient income. Also, many people who are illegally housed are the victims of human trafficking and find themselves living in beds in sheds through no fault of their own. Mixing the two issues of illegal housing and immigration confuses the problem and is unhelpful. Passing the blame for the situation onto immigrants will solve nothing, and will lead some people to think that the underlying problems of poverty and unaffordable housing are a problem for only a few people, rather than for everyone.
While the government is taking action to clamp down on illegal housing, and bring the rogue landlords who rent them out to justice, this won’t solve the underlying issues. A lack of affordable accommodation and an increase in low income jobs are what drive people into living in homes that are uninhabitable. If illegally built accommodation is destroyed, where will the people forced to live there go? You only tolerate the danger of unsafe and unclean housing if you have nowhere else. Illegal accommodation will continue to be a problem until housing becomes affordable to the people who need housing the most.