Many Punjabi landlords in London who rent sub-standard housing for exorbitant rents are being examined by the British authorities.
The investigations are concentrated on one particular suburb, Southall, where many families are of Indian, Punjabi origin.
In the past few years many of the Southall landlords have exploited a loophole in the law that allows them to convert shed and garages and rent them out to those anxious for a bed or a room in the British capital.
As reported in The Tribune, till date Ealing has launched 399 investigations into questionable outbuildings, resulting in 11 enforcement notices against those who break planning rules. So far there has been only one successful prosecution with another six in the pipeline.
Current legislation allows ‘outbuildings’ like garages to be converted into extra bedrooms or small flats to accommodate elderly relatives.
But what is actually happening is the alteration of sheds and garages into makeshift bedsits.
Typical rent for a shared room – sometimes portrayed as a box room or studio – with ill-fitting doors and windows, mattresses for beds, exposed electric wires and a camp stove for a cooker can be as much as £400 (Rs 31,000) per person per month.
A spokesman for Ealing Council told the Daily Mail newspaper, “We are trying to tackle the problem, but our hands are tied. If we catch someone and issue an enforcement notice, they quickly comply and kick the tenants out. But they know the game. We can’t prosecute if they comply, but a month later they are doing it again. We are just going around in circles. We need to cut £85 million from the budget by 2014 and can’t afford to throw money at this until the law changes.”
A tenant Harbhajan Singh said he arrived in London five years ago from Punjab, told the British media that he wanted to go home – back to India. He claimed that he had not even seen hi schildren for years. But the local people, smugglers he paid £15,000 to get in UK, took his passport and sold it on.
Harbhajan added he could not go anywhere and was trapped. Singh was comparatively fortunate because he paid only £151 (Rs 11,000) for his makeshift shack and the sleeping bag in which he spent the night.
Major Sanghera, another Punjabi living in a converted shed which he shared with one other, paid £433 (Rs 33,700) for a room where there are holes for windows, exposed electric wires and a miniscule bathroom where the shower seemed to be suspended over the toilet. “I thought there would be work here in London. We saw Indian people who lived here come back to their home village and they always appeared wealthy. But here I am struggling to eat. The Sikh temple gives me food if I am starving. If you want to do me a favour, send me home. I’ve made a big mistake and want to go back.”
Another tenant Jay Chodha, said shed rents could be as much as £600 (Rs 46,000) per month for damp, unheated rooms that are unfit for families, let alone single people. Southall comes under the jurisdiction of Ealing Council which said a shortage of accommodation in London, dramatic rent rises and cuts in council budgets have all come together to create a unique housing crisis.
The UK Border Agency said illegal immigrants who are victims of unscrupulous landlords can be helped to return home with ‘dignity’.
The Indian High Commission asserted it can also help those who do not have residence permits or air tickets and who want to return home to India. But the agency is powerless to help those Punjabis who are legally resident in the UK but exploited by rogue landlords.
They fall into the category of those thousands of tenants that the housing charity Shelter says are trapped in unsafe housing.
Commenting on their plight Southall’s Punjab-origin MP Virendra Sharma told The Tribune, “There is clearly a problem in Southall with rogue landlords letting out illegal sub standard sheds but it is unclear just how great the problem is because of the limited legal powers the local council has to tackle the problem. I have been working with the Council, the Police and the UK border Agency to try and address the problem but I am also asking the government to provide more resources and new legal powers so that we can put a stop to this exploitation of vulnerable tenants by selfish and greedy landlord.