Like benefit recipients and council tenants, Health and Safety gets a very bad press. But the call from the London Fire Brigade to the Mayor to respond to the growing problem of ‘back garden developments’ or ‘beds in sheds’ as part of his revised housing strategy brings home the reality.
Their evidence should be compulsory reading for all those who knock health and safety regulations or believe that it is wrong to interfere in the market. And it’s not just London – examples similar to theirs can be found in many cities and towns in the country.
The Brigade is issuing an increasing number of prohibition notices to prevent properties being used as housing. Rita Dexter of LFB identified a range of ‘potentially lethal fire traps’ such as converted sheds, industrial units and garages being used as accommodation, with residents relying on highly risky methods of heating lighting and cooking. ‘They are also being exploited by unscrupulous landlords who are happy to take their money without any regard for their safety’ she said.
Examples quoted include a death in a fire in a garage, a group of commercial buildings where 150 people were living, and an office block with 17 rooms with over 50 people living in them with no fire safety features at all.
The need to tackle dangerous housing was the central feature of the LFB’s response to the Mayor’s Housing Strategy and their lobbying of Government for stronger building regulations. They identified a series of major risks, including the need for better compliance by housing authorities with their Housing Act duties, especially in relation to tall residential buildings and buildings with timber frames, fire setting in empty residential buildings, beds in sheds, and both overcrowding and under-occupation.
On under-occupation, they cite the problem of an increasing number of mainly elderly people retreating into living in one room and switching from traditional to ‘intrinsically more unsafe’ forms of heating. On overcrowding, they called for the housing strategy to ’say more about the consequences of overcrowding’ because of the risk from overuse of electric appliances and blocked escape routes.
On the day when the ludicrous former Archbishop Lord Carey said the major moral dilemma facing the country was the deficit and tackling ‘welfare dependency’, one glance at the real evidence from the fire authorities of people who are so poor they have to put themselves at risk of serious harm makes you wonder what planet people like him inhabit.