July 24 2014 Latest news:
Janine Rasiah, Senior Reporter
Tuesday, July 1, 2014
Tackling “beds in sheds” makes up almost half of the Newham’s planning and enforcement team’s workload.
While most boroughs have just four or five team members, Newham has a 19-strong team and issues the most enforcement notices in the country.
Unexpected visits to outbuildings which are thought to be used as residential without authorisation take place twice-weekly at all times of day and night to try and catch out those responsible for the unscrupulous practice.
Sometimes the game is given away by a satellite dish or extraction fan attached to the roof of the “property”, while council tax banding can also be a source of revealing unexpected and suspicious housing arrangements.
Christine Lyons, the council’s planning enforcement manager, has seen it all, including families of six paying up to £900 to live in garages and sheds with room for little more than a single bed.
She says that although working in Newham provides a chance to make a real difference to living standards by “flushing out” unsuitable housing, it can also be an uphill struggle to change attitudes – and many culprits are adept at trying to mask their actions, including temporarily removing ovens or white goods.
“If we write to them to tell them that someone is going to come in they’ll remove bits and pieces and then after the council has visited they’ll put everything back in and carry in as normal,” Christine said. “Obviously there is money in it. If you pay a few hundred to remove some things and the next month you can reclaim it by charging maximum rent for it, you are going to placate the council for a week and then go back to it.”
It’s a similar story when the Recorder accompanied the team on one of their regular outpostings last week following a tip-off from the council tax division, who felt that the outbuilding backing onto a property in Newham Way, East Ham, was suitable for banding as a two-bedroom house.
Although the resident in the main house is adamant that the building is empty other than storage, once opened it is revealed to include an open-plan living room and kitchen, shower room and two rooms with mirrored wardrobes and a mattress against one of the walls – but the oven has been very clearly removed.
“It doesn’t need much more to be a dwelling,” Christine notes, as planner John Dalton takes photographs for evidence.
The resident says his son uses one of the bedrooms to work out but this does not excuse the inclusion of a kitchen and bathroom. The landlord will be sent a letter giving him 28 days to remove the kitchen.
Christine says ensuring that buildings that are being used as dwellings are safe to live in is of primary concern.
“Most of these buildings are single skinned with no heat-proofing, roof insulation or proper windows,” she explains. “There is no sustainability in terms of making sure it is warm enough and whether it is properly ventilated when the shower has been used.”
During another visit, this time to a roller-shutter garage in Plashet Road, Plaistow, which is expected to being lived in, a neighbour confirms that a washing machine has recently been connected.
He blames immigration for Newham’s issues and becomes quite heated.
“You need to start looking at the borough and how there are too many people coming in, full stop,” he shouts. “You are letting the landlords mug everybody off, it is not the fault of the families.”
Christine is realistic about the never-ending challenges her team faces but believes the tide is turning.
“It is an uphill slog and we are trying to teach people that no longer will Newham accept changes being made without coming to us for the relevant permission, you can’t just build something and hope for the best.
“We can accept things or we can try and improve them,” she said. “What has been accepted in the past isn’t acceptable anymore and at some point we will tip the balance and start to make a real change.”