17 June 2014

The latest statistics from the London Fire Brigade (LFB) show that over the last five years there have been 438 fires in London involving unsuitable buildings more commonly known as ‘beds in sheds’, resulting in 13 fire deaths and 69 serious injuries.

Over the same period, the Brigade has taken formal enforcement action against landlords under fire safety law around 200 times, where its fire safety officers have found people living in unsafe and unsuitable accommodation, including beds in sheds.

These buildings more often than not, lack basic fire safety precautions such as fire safety doors and smoke alarms and the people living in them rely on far riskier ways of cooking, heating and lighting, making them potential fire traps.

They include:

  • Sheds
  • Outbuildings
  • Derelict buildings
  • Temporary structures

According to the Migrant Rights Network, ‘beds in sheds’ are structures in the back gardens of houses that are rented out even though they are not supposed to be used for living accommodation. However, the Network also says that it is an umbrella term for any kind of illegal accommodation, from well-built structures to informal shelters that often verge on rough sleeping.

“They seem to be particularly prevalent in places where low-paid jobs are available but there is not enough low-cost living accommodation. Landlords are exploiting the shortage by providing substandard and illegal structures for which they can charge rents that are below the cost of normal accommodation but still high enough to make a profit, especially if they avoid paying tax, says MRN.”

In 2013 an Uxbridge man died after a fire broke out in the outbuilding where he was living, which had been converted into illegal accommodation. It’s thought he’d been living in this outbuilding, which was at the back of a row of shops, for around six years. There were no smoke alarms and a broken lock prevented the man from escaping the fire.

To try and combat this crisis, the LFB has introduced the UK’s first ‘unsuitable housing’ toolkit, aimed at helping those working in communities across London, including firefighters, council workers, homeless charities and the police, to identify unsuitable accommodation, and those living in it, who are often the most vulnerable people in society.

The Brigade’s Third Officer, Dave Brown, said: “It’s a tragedy that in this day and age we’ve got people living in factories, sheds, and outbuildings in scenes reminiscent of a Charles Dickens novel.

“When people are forced to live in these sorts of buildings, they are at a far greater risk of having a fire as the buildings often don’t contain vital safety features like fire doors and alarms, which can be the difference between life and death.

“Starting with our own staff, we are working to educate those who come into contact with unsuitable accommodation and those who live in it to try and prevent further beds in sheds fire tragedies.”

In March this year The FIA reported that a landlord who rented out ‘beds in sheds’ type bedsits above a car workshop was ordered to pay £25,000 in fines and costs for breaking fire safety laws. The prosecution marked a first for the Brigade which successfully argued for £5000 of the ill-gotten gains he received in rent to be confiscated. The rogue landlord, Irshad Ibrahim had pleaded guilty to 10 offences under the Regulatory Reform (Fire safety) Order 2005.

Commercial buildings, non-domestic and multi-occupancy premises in England and Wales are already forced to undertake a 'suitable and sufficient' fire risk assessment carried out under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005.

While the overwhelming majority of premises do this, if the assessment is thought to have been carried out to an insufficient extent, the Responsible Person can face an unlimited fine or up to two years in prison.