Why are Londoners building slums in their backyards?

November 12, 2012
November 12, 2012

Looking out over my friend Anne-Fay’s garden fence, we agreed the building work on the house opposite couldn’t possibly be for a family home. The back garden was now almost totally covered with a large brick shack, its still soft mortar beaten into streaks by the rain. The small, pitched-roofed Victorian building behind – what British people call a two-up, two-down due to its room layout – had been turned into a six-up, two down, squared off into a top-heavy, Lego-like mess with extra rooms on the upper floors. Housed in a poor neighborhood of Newham near the Olympic Park, where rents have risen 39 percent since last year despite house prices stagnating, it seems likely that my friend’s neighborhood is now succumbing to London’s latest housing scandal, a craze for quasi-legal backyard building.

All over London, so-called sheds with beds have been cropping up like toadstools, presented to planning authorities as family home extensions but then surreptitiously rented out to strangers. Many of these are poky warrens let out to the desperate, part of the growing number of Londoners who have lost hope of gaining social housing and are forced to make do with whatever they can get.  The government has vowed to tear down these new shanties, with UK housing minister Grant Shapps and some press cameras even joining in a raid on one. It is unlikely that they would be such a problem, however, if the government hadn’t cut funding for social housing by 50 percent, pushing poor renters into the private sector.

Things are now likely to get worse. Hoping to stimulate the construction industry, the government has just announced a two-year relaxation of planning laws on extensions. The idea is that turning a blind eye to a few more backyard conservatories could kick-start Britain’s enfeebled economy. The unacknowledged likelihood is that rogue landlords will also have the chance to create even more sheds with beds, now almost entirely free of planning scrutiny.

On first glance, this unregulated in-fill might seem like the sort of density-boosting measure writers such as Ed Glaeser and Matthew Yglesias have argued for. But London’s sheds with beds have cropped up in already high density areas, whose row houses have tiny yards initially intended just for clothes drying and housing an outside toilet. Packing extra renters – often recent immigrants – into shoddily built extensions in these cramped neighborhoods doesn’t represent a total relaxation of zoning laws, it’s just a small exploitative niche within the current system, flourishing and festering while city-wide rents still rise.

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Photos of a shed with beds that was raided by the police.(UK Home Office)

As sheds with beds also tend to have occupants not born in the U.K., residents often lack the legal status or English skills to make them feel confident contacting the authorities about their problems. Landlords often withhold tenancy agreements from them so as not to leave a paper trail, meaning they lack the proof of address essential for opening bank accounts or seeking benefits.

If these conditions sound Dickensian, that’s because they are. Backyard barracks were a typical feature of East London in Victorian times – one of Jack the Ripper’s victims was murdered in one over in Spitalfields in 1888 – with overcrowded two-up, two-downs the area’s standard housing type until many were cleared for new public projects between the 1950s and the 1970s.

The loss of many of these older houses has been widely mourned in recent years, not least because the modern projects that replaced them were sometimes ill thought-out and soon considered slums themselves. It’s important to remember, however, that such schemes were initiated because housing conditions were poor and residents were often in the clutches of exploitative private landlords. My dad grew up in Newham and (generally a glass half empty kind of person) he remembers his old two-up, two-down as damp, poky and overcrowded, with toilets in the back garden, plumbed-in baths available only at the local bathhouse and rent collectors regularly banging on the door while his mother hid.

With private landlords stepping into the breach left by state neglect once more, it seems the bad old days could be coming back. In a trend common across London boroughs, Newham built a grand total of zero affordable homes this year and has even considered dumping welfare claimants in cheaper northern English towns. It’s no wonder backyard speculators have found a niche in this dire situation. When the authorities would rather whisk the unwanted poor out of the capital, they at least make a precarious form of city life feasible.

Anne-Fay Townsend, a London based journalist and blogger, contributed to this piece.

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