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Thermal images cameras have revealed that many more outbuildings are being rented out – usually to “exploited” immigrants paying reduced rent to rogue landlords.
One local authority deployed an aircraft to fly over part of London and now say the problem is more widespread than feared and is “rippling out” across the suburbs.
Harrow Council leader, Councillor Susan Hall, said: “The pressures of migration in London, fuelled by recent waves of new arrivals from Eastern Europe, are creating new stresses on local authorities that we just haven’t had to contend with before.
What was once thought even just 18 months ago to be a problem for the centre of big cities is now rippling out to the suburbs”.
– Councillor Susan Hall
“The beds in sheds phenomenon means there is a hidden community springing up in the back gardens of our cities – in our borough alone the thermal pictures we receive suggest there are four times as many as we first suspected.”
The aircraft was deployed by Harrow Council to fly over the borough at 3,379 feet between 9:00pm and midnight in January.
It was looking for buildings with escaping heat – a tell-tale sign that an uninsulated “shed” is being used as accommodation.
The structures are often hidden behind fences and cannot be seen by passers-by.
But the aerial photos revealed that instead of 75 suspicious buildings, there were actually 319 – housing a possible underground community of more than 1,000 in just one borough.
This has sparked fears that nationally the figure could run into tens of thousands.
Landlords could face a raft of both civil and criminal charges including tax fraud, profiteering from illegal immigrants and allowing people to live in unsafe and unsanitary conditions.
The recent lift of immigration restrictions on Romanians and Bulgarians on January 1 and a net increase in migration to the UK of 212,000 between September 2012 and September last year has led to concerns that problem will get worse.
Experts say that many of those living in the sheds are exploited by unscrupulous landlords.
Ms Hall added: “These are people who use council services – like bin collections – but for whom we receive no extra funding.
“In many cases the people in beds in sheds are at the bottom of a pyramid of exploitation.
“But we get complaints from their neighbours that we cannot ignore, and it is not fair on them that these houses should turn into cash cows for opportunist landlords.”
The planning enforcement department of Harrow Council is now investigating the suspect properties.
A Harrow Council spokesman added: “It’s a London-wide issue.
“Some of these properties are okay, but in some places people are holed up and it’s an exercise to see how many people can fit into one property.
“You can go from the quite nice and well looked after to places which are fairly grim and actually dangerous, with exposed electric wires.“The people in these buildings often come from abroad and they are at the bottom of a pyramid of exploitation.”
Ukip MEP Candidate Ray Finch said: “We are constantly told of the benefits of mass immigration doing jobs that ‘British people don’t want to do.
“But what is really happening is that the minimum wage has in many sectors become the maximum wage whilst living standards have declined.
“Large companies can get cheap labour, the rich can get cheap domestic staff and this means that people are struggling to pay mortgages or even get on the housing ladder. The majority of people don’t want to live crammed in rented accommodation but have a decent standard of living.
“Do we really want to see people living in sheds in outbuildings? Do we really want a return to Victorian style slums in some areas of society with a huge disparity between the rich and the poor? Because that gap which grew rapidly under a Labour government won’t close all the while we treat our working classes so badly and squeeze our middle class for tax on every element of their lives.”