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Britain’s home grown shanty towns

The idea of shanty towns might make you think of India, South Africa, or Brazilian favelas, where the poor and desperate set up home using whatever they can find for shelter. The term probably makes you think of potentially dangerous, yet tight knit communities, with their own idea of law, their own hierarchies, and bosses.

But how would you feel about our own cities harbouring similar neighbourhoods?

It doesn’t seem possible. We expect the welfare state to provide for us all, despite the austerity measures of the last few years. So how could a shanty community grow in our cities?

Whatever we may hope, many people are living in this country without access to the support of the state.

A recent report in The Mail exposed the plight of Bradford residents living in sheds and garages being charged for the privilege by unscrupulous landlords. Their pictures show breeze block garages with mattresses on bare floors, a few pathetic possessions on metal rack shelving, and a cloth covered bucket providing the only sanitation.

Elsewhere in up-market locations including Harrow and Ealing where a three bedroom flat might cost you an outrageous million pounds, councils are using thermal imaging to discover their true populations. The shock findings uncover hidden communities of thousands of people living in sheds and garages in conditions that wouldn’t look out of place in third world countries and certainly don’t belong in a G8 nation.

The housing act of 2004 sets out basic minimum conditions for rented accommodation and landlords breaching these conditions are liable to fines of up to £5,000.

The problem for councils come from the reputational risk, but also the fact that the people living in these conditions still command services like refuse collection, health care, and even schooling, but the councils are unable to collect council tax from the shanty town dwellers.

But what about the people living in these basic sheds and garages?

From the residents perspective the life need not be a bad one.

OK, so space might be limited, but if you have only the possessions you can carry from place to place then you have less need for somewhere to store your stuff. A Bradford landlord is quoted as charging £20 a week for folk living in his garage. It’s positioned as a scandal, but take a different approach and you could see this as a bargain way of putting a roof over your head. I can’t imagine you could find a campsite anywhere in the country that’s as cheap as that, and with the most basic and unsanitary of hostels charging a similar figure for just a night, suddenly shed living doesn’t seem as bad.

A shed dweller needs to have hygiene sorted if life is to be healthy – and most communities no longer have the laundrettes that used to be on every corner. A lack of public baths in many areas will also create a challenge. Just off London’s Old Street, tramps and the homeless used to head to Ironmonger Row Baths to clean up a couple of times a week, but while the baths are still there, they are now a much smarter spa – beautiful, but hardly serving the hard up of the area.

If you can keep yourself, and your clothes clean the new shed communities could be a great alternative to life on the street, but still it’s not for the faint hearted.

Are we talking about a few people, or a few hundred?

If numbers were just in the hundreds the issue would most likely be ignored, but in Ealing, West London the council believes its population has swelled by 60,000 people. That’s way beyond something we can ignore and we can expect there to be more reports exploring the problem in the coming weeks.

Look out for our forthcoming articles on small space living as one of our own journalists seeks to create a comfortable office and live in studio in less than 300 square feet. It won’t be a £20 a week property, but if he pulls it off it might just show that most of us take more space than perhaps we need.

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