Housing

Overcrowded London: 16 people discovered living in tiny flat after fire breaks out

One person was hospitalised with injuries sustained in the Tower Hamlets fire.

Maddocks House in Shadwell. Image: Google Maps

At least sixteen people were discovered to be living in a three-room flat in East London after a fire broke out in the early hours of Sunday morning in a damning example of the housing crisis enveloping London and the wider UK.

Around 30 firefighters and five fire engines tackled the blaze at a top-floor flat on the Tarling West estate in Shadwell, which left one person hospitalised.

All but one of the flat’s assumed residents had left before firefighters arrived, while the cause of the fire is under investigation.

One resident on the Tarling West estate told the Big Issue: “We are all a bit reeling from what happened”.

He added: “We heard quite quickly that it was people working for couriers”

Locals had worried about overcrowding and exploitation in the area, he said: “I am not massively surprised but the extent of it is much worse than I thought.”

He added: “It just seems inevitable that there was going to be a fire one day.”

Reports on social media suggested residents had initially been taken in by a local mosque and Tower Hamlets borough council is understood to be re-housing the residents, although the council has not officially responded to requests to comment.

Overcrowding in London has gone from bad to worse through the pandemic and cost of living crisis as rising rents and bills force more and more people to cut costs. In early 2022 the London Assembly Housing Committee wrote to the mayor’s office with recommendations to better understand the issue and improve support options for people living in crowded accommodation.

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A spokesperson for London Fire Brigade told the Big Issue: “Five fire engines and around 30 firefighters tackled a fire at a flat on Cornwall Street in Shadwell on Sunday (March 5).

“Half of a flat was damaged by fire. One man was rescued from a bedroom by firefighters before being taken to hospital by London Ambulance Service crews. Fifteen people left the flat before firefighters arrived.

“The Brigade was called at 0252 and the fire was under control by 0507. Crews from Shadwell, Whitechapel, Bethnal Green, Dowgate and Dockhead fire stations attended the scene.

“The cause of the fire is under investigation.”

The Big Issue has contacted Tower Hamlets Homes, and the Metropolitan Police for comment.

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Anger over house prices and rising rents has been growing in Tower Hamlets, as the borough experiences a housing crisis. A recent count found two dozen people were sleeping rough in the borough, while the residents of one housing association mount a service charge strike.

Ali Brown, spokesperson for London Renters Union, told The Big Issue: “The dangerous conditions faced by people in Maddocks House are the inevitable outcome of our rigged housing system. It is unfair that migrants and working class people are forced into overcrowded accommodation by skyrocketing rents and a lack of social housing.

“Hostile environment policies like ‘Right to Rent’ and ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ put up additional barriers to safe housing for many people in London. Until the government brings rents under control and prioritises everyone’s right to a decent home, we can expect to see more stories like this in the future.”

A Tower Hamlets Council spokesperson told The Big Issue: “This is an ongoing investigation and we’re cooperating with the London Fire Brigade and the Metropolitan Police. We’ve arranged hotel accommodation for those who have been displaced as a result of the fire.”

Do you have more information about this incident or overcrowding in the Tower Hamlets area? Email greg.barradale@bigissue.com to talk anonymously and help shed light on this story.

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