Residents warned council landlord about overcrowded flat before fatal fire

Residents repeatedly warned a council landlord about a dangerously overcrowded flat but the problem was not solved before a fatal fire left one man dead, the Guardian has learned.

At least 18 men, mostly students and delivery couriers from Bangladesh, were squeezed into bunk beds in a two-bedroom flat in the Maddocks House council block in Tower Hamlets, east London. Some residents slept in the kitchen, a source said, and the tenants together paid the flat’s private leaseholder owner about £8,000 a month.

The council’s failure to stop the overcrowding has prompted the Tarling West residents’ association to make allegations of “negligence”.

A blaze spread in the early hours of 5 March and 15 people in the flat escaped. One man, named locally as Mizanur Rahman, had to be rescued by firefighters, but died later in hospital.

A neighbour told the Guardian they complained to Tower Hamlets Homes over problems caused by the overcrowding in late 2021. The lack of satisfactory response from the borough’s arms-length landlord body caused them to lodge complaints in April and September 2022, they said.

The resident, who asked not to be named, said they even accompanied the landlord’s contractor into the flat. A photo shows at least eight bunk beds crammed into a single room, strewn with possessions and with signs of damp and mould on the walls. The resident estimated there were 22 beds in the two-bedroom property. Heavy use of the single bathroom resulted in serious water damage in properties below. A faulty e-bike battery is understood to be one possible cause of the fire. The London fire brigade (LFB) says it dealt with 88 fires involving e-bikes in 2022.

“We feared for our safety,” the resident said. “There were so many guys living there. If there was a fire we were worried and we mentioned that to the council.”

The home is one of 732,000 in England where people suffer overcrowding, according to official figures. Last week Michael Gove, the housing secretary, launched the “make things right” campaign urging social housing tenants to raise complaints. He said: “Too many social housing tenants are being let down and ignored.”

The London borough of Tower Hamlets, which is responsible for housing enforcement, admitted it had received reports of overcrowding. It said it “acted upon those complaints using the powers available to us”. However, despite the complaints lodged against the property’s condition in August, the council awarded a licence to use the property as a house of multiple occupation (HMO), which makes overcrowding an offence.

Zubayer Khan, 34, who lived in the burnt-out flat, said the private landlord charged each resident £100 a week. He urged the government to tackle the housing crisis, saying: “This happened in my home, but tomorrow it may be you.”

“It was very unexpected and we have lost a person,” he said, before a vigil for Rahman on Sunday. “It could have been me. I expect the government to take proper steps to solve this problem.”

The affected residents have been put up at a budget hotel but have lost their possessions, so a fundraiser has been launched to help them.

A council spokesperson said they were “profoundly saddened” at the death.

“We are working with the police and London fire brigade on investigations into the cause of the fire and into the living conditions of the flat.”

Scotland Yard said the fire was “not suspicious” and that the LFB would make a police referral at a later date if required.

The London Renters’ Union’s local branch said the fire was “not the first, and will not be the last tragedy unless the housing system is radically reformed”. It said the fire and its consequences were due “to the exploitative practices and neglectful nature of our housing system”.

The Tarling West residents’ association tweeted its condolences, saying: “The fact that this tragedy was linked to a neglectful council and a rogue landlord only serves to amplify our anger and frustration … It is unacceptable that people continue to lose their lives due to the negligence of those responsible for providing safe and adequate housing.”