Searching around for stories to feature in my next Newsround I came across this sad tale from Dublin where a man died in a fire in a house converted into 8 tiny bedsits.
His house-mates managed to jump onto a rear flat roof and escape.
I’m writing this post to raise awareness.
I know something about these things and have been raising concerns all over the place, to not much effect so far but ever like a dog with a bone when it comes to housing inequality I thought I would try and get the message out through Tessa’s blog.
Illegal conversions to micro-flats
In London, where affordable property is at a complete premium one of the main problems, apart from unauthorised outbuildings, AKA ‘beds in sheds’, is the illegal conversion of larger homes into micro-flats no bigger than my toilet.
Finding them is key
I go into these all the time. The problem with these conversions is finding them. A bed in a shed you can find by drones, which some councils use, or just peering over a garden wall. Train journeys are also very educational, affording unrestricted views to thousands of back gardens.
If you look at the picture to the side I took this in the back of a property we were raiding under a warrant, stood on a milk crate and looked over the fence. I saw 4 more in each garden down the line but there are few ways to detect a house that has been carved up, unless you have intel or a reason to go inside.
So what is wrong with creating loads of micro-units?
Ideal for single people in a national housing shortage you may say? Well, I’ll leave aside the planning breaches and general nonsense that goes on with fake licence agreements and concentrate instead on what I believe could have happened in Dublin.
In numerous property visits I have taken along electrical specialists who educated me on what the problem is and I even called and hosted a cross-borough conference at City Hall where the head of electrical fire safety from the London Fire Brigade gave a very illuminating and worrying talk on it.
It works like this
Every road in the UK has three power cables under them, called ‘Phases’. The responsibility for maintaining the system lies with a Chinese company, paradoxically called ‘UK Power Networks’, you may have seen their vans.
More electricity needed means more phases
Each residential home runs on a single phase, which is adequate to supply the amount of electricity being used by the occupants. If you look under your junction box you will see a cable running into an oblong plastic box about 5 inches X 2 inches, that looks like a bigger version of an old plug in fuse.
If there is a garage or laundromat that may need to use more electricity then they run three phases into the property so it doesn’t overload. When you look at the same junction box, just short of the main consumer unit you will see three of those oblongs, that’s how you can tell.
So, Dividing and Multiplying
When you divide a single house into 8 flats, as was done in Dublin, you have a much bigger draw on electrical power, especially if those flats are all electric. Which most of them are because it’s cheaper than running gas lines all over the building when the conversion is carried out.
Three phase not single phase
What you need is a three-phase head not a single phase. But getting the extra phases installed means paying UK Power Networks several thousand pounds to dig up the garden and road in front of the property and that costs money. Money that the owners of these properties don’t want to spend. Choosing instead to keep their fingers crossed that the worst doesn’t happen.
Developers stay under the radar
I was told once that UK Power Networks won’t install extra phases to a residential property without proof that planning permission has been granted. Which could be another reason why the owner/developers don’t approach the company, lest it alerts the local authority.
However, I’ve also been told by other electricians that this isn’t true.
Here is some evidence
I had an argument for weeks with a property developer who had created this kind of set-up and he arranged to meet me at the property with his own electrician who had backed his story that it was safe.
When they turned up, his electrician, who hadn’t visited the property before, had a look at the system and said:-
“Jeez, this is a death trap”.
One embarrassed looking developer.
Fire safety – the numbers are frightening
In a sense checking planning permission doesn’t matter one iota, because the dodgy development is meant to stay off the radar anyway in order to save money and avoid detection and there are thousands of these out there.
Here’s my Plea
So I’m appealing to any of my housing frontline type colleagues and environmental health officers who may be reading this and who do home visits, to:-
- not only log the numbers of people in the property for your own purposes
- but to also take a quick look at the phase head and see if it adequately supported.
- You don’t have to be an electrical expert, just count the heads.
- If it isn’t, report it to the local fire brigade for a safety check.
And it need not stop there
If you are a local authority procurement officer or letting agent, being offered a range of small studio flats, don’t be fooled by the nice decorations and the cleanliness. Just have a look at the phase head as well.
We should act now
You might just avoid being caught up in a scandal, something that in a post-Grenfell world, all housing people should be conscious of.