Council criticised over `asbestos' flats

Westminster under fire: Report says Tory body housed families in danger blocks to thwart `left-wing' buy-out
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The Independent Online

Westminster Correspondent

Police have been handed a damning independent report which criticises the former Conservative leaders of Westminster city council in London for housing homeless families in two tower blocks riddled with potentially lethal asbestos.

Jonathan Rosenberg, spokesman for the housing association building new homes on the site of the since demolished blocks, and itself a target for the Tories' politically motivated policy, last night said it had handed the report to police.

Central to a police inquiry would be the roles of Dame Shirley Porter, the former leader of Westminster, and Barry Legg, the Tory MP for Milton Keynes South West and once her right-hand man. Along with seven colleagues, they are the focus of the "homes-for-votes" inquiry into the Tory flagship council by John Magill, the District Auditor. His report is due shortly.

Following the publication of yesterday's report by John Barratt, the former chief executive of Cambridgeshire county council who was asked by the present leaders of Westminster council to examine the asbestos allegations, Labour immediately called for Mr Legg to resign as an MP. Frank Dobson, the party's environment spokesman, called for a public inquiry. "People who put lives at risk for party political advantage should be driven out of public life," he said.

David Rendel, the Liberal Democrats' local government spokesman, said: "The Conservative Party has sunk to the most appalling depths. All those responsible should be banned from holding public office."

The Barratt report made clear that the decision to move the 100 families into the two blocks, Hermes and Chantry Points, in Paddington, west London, was taken at the highest level in the council.

They were motivated, said Mr Barratt, by the desire to defeat a local community group, whom they regarded as left-wing, from taking over the tower blocks. They were "influenced by considerations of party advantage" and built a "hypocritical smokescreen" around their actions.

The council said expert medical advice suggests the health risk is slight. But Westminster now faces compensation claims from those exposed to the asbestos. Former tenants are being contacted by the council and a helpline has been installed.

Lady Porter issued a statement saying the report showed homeless people were not deliberately put at risk. "At all times the council was concerned to house homeless families safely and cost effectively."

The Barratt report said the two blocks, built by the Greater London Council in 1968, were known by Westminster officials and councillors to be riddled with asbestos when they moved 10 homeless families into them in 1989. Brown asbestos was sprayed on to steel beams then housed in asbestos chipboard panels; internal walls were made from asbestos- faced chipboard; asbestos cement was used to cover heaters; floor tiles contained asbestos; and service ducts were also enclosed in asbestos panels.

The council considered removing the asbestos but that cost money. That plan was put on hold and, Mr Barratt said, a management system should have been set up to warn residents, to avoid housing families, to seal leaks and remove the asbestos in hall ceilings. It was not.

Under health and safety legislation there was a legal duty to minimise the risk to workmen which, Mr Barratt writes, the council "failed to observe".

The flats were not closed down, nor did they have their asbestos ripped out - instead they became a political football for Dame Shirley and her senior colleagues, including Mr Legg.

The health of the occupants was not, Mr Barratt writes, "a clear objective". Instead, from December 1988 until July 1990, "the major informal policy . . . which dominated all decision-making about the Points was to defeat the bid by Wech [Walterton and Elgin Community Homes Limited], a local tenants' group which wanted to take the blocks off the council and remove the asbestos and which the council was convinced was left-wing".

The solution to defeating Wech was to move in homeless families. "I have to conclude that the real reason for the decision to accommodate homeless families in the Points was to assist the hoped-for defeat of the Wech bid; that the decision was . . . influenced by considerations of party advantage."

Mr Barratt accuses the council's former leaders of erecting a "hypocritical smoke screen" to obscure their involvement.

When the first families moved in in March 1989 there was nothing council officials could do. "Senior officers became trapped into defending the indefensible," Mr Barratt writes.

In July 1990, environmental health officers intervened. Four years later the flats were finally demolished.