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Last Updated: Tuesday, 19 February 2008, 22:25 GMT
'Fire risk' for crowded migrants
By James Westhead
BBC News


Peter Holland (Pic: Lancashire Fire & Rescue Service)
An influx of Eastern Europeans has exacerbated the problem
A growing number of immigrants are living in dangerously overcrowded housing, creating the risk of a major fire disaster, a fire chief has warned.

Fire brigades across the UK have reported blazes in packed migrant accommodation, Peter Holland said.

It is feared unscrupulous landlords may be putting lives at risk.

The chief officer of Lancashire fire brigade says he is "seriously concerned" there is going to be a multiple fire death in such housing.

As many migrant workers from Eastern Europe are on low incomes yet not entitled to social housing, they often end up in the poorest quality private accommodation.

The big growth area is so-called houses in multiple occupation - or HMOs - where a number of individuals or families are squeezed into a single property.

Local authorities say such properties are often unlicensed and overcrowded.

Even when not overcrowded, occupants are six times more likely to die in a HMO fire than average.

The BBC has learnt there have already been a number of fires in HMOs housing migrant workers - some fatal.

We're already struggling to maintain fire precautions and the problem's getting worse because of overcrowded conditions
Peter Holland, Lancashire fire brigade

In north London last year, 28 people escaped from a fire in a hotel, while fires in Belfast and Yorkshire killed three Polish workers.

Now Mr Holland has gone public for the first time voicing his concerns.

"I'm seriously concerned that somewhere in the UK we're going to have a multiple fire death in a house of multiple occupation," he said.

"The problem's been exacerbated by the influx of Eastern European migrants, who are moving into the highest risk properties that we have here in the UK, where we're already struggling to maintain fire precautions, and the problem's getting worse because of overcrowded conditions."

'Skimming the surface'

Some local authorities, such as Peterborough, agree they have noticed a sharp rise in the number of problem properties.

Peterborough has launched its own licensing scheme to try to force private landlords to meet fire regulations. But housing officers say they are struggling to keep up.

An estimated 25,000 Eastern Europeans have arrived in Peterborough in the last few years.

Enforcement officer Peter Bezant says he has licensed more than 100 HMOs so far, but has more than 1,000 properties yet to be inspected that may potentially be dangerous.

If there was a fire here, these people would have no chance of escaping to a place of safety
Peter Bezant, Peterborough City Council

"It's on the increase - and we are only just skimming the surface," he said.

"It's across the whole of the city."

He added that less scrupulous landlords were sometimes to blame.

"There's a big influx of economic migrants in Peterborough and people are getting on the bandwagon - I wouldn't say necessarily exploiting the situation, but they're getting a good return and the biggest risk is fire safety."

When we followed Mr Bezant recently as he carried out inspections near the centre of Peterborough, responding to complaints from neighbours, he quickly came across problem properties.

One building behind a shop was occupied by a dozen Slovak farm workers who had arrived in the country only a few months before and were living in overcrowded conditions, which Mr Bezant judged to be both dangerous and illegal.

Three beds had been squeezed into the living room and even one in the kitchen to fit in more people, while the only fire escape from upstairs was blocked by a mattress.

Mr Bezant issued a prohibition notice to the landlord, closing down the property.

"If there was a fire here, these people would have no chance of escaping to a place of safety," he said.

The workers told us their employer had mistreated them, withholding their pay so they had no choice but to live in the property which was all they could afford.

A spokesperson for the Department of Communities and Local Government said it was working with local authorities, and fire and rescue services, to raise fire safety awareness among migrant communities.

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Immigrants living in unsafe, overcrowded conditions



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