Council homes rise again in Porterland

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The Independent Online
WESTMINSTER City Council, the London borough at the centre of the "homes for votes" scandal, is to start building council houses for the first time since the mid-Seventies.

The homes are being built because pounds 6bn amassed in the past 20 years from the sale of council houses across Britain is being distributed by the Government to fund construction of new homes throughout the country - a move that will also provide thousands of jobs. The Conservative administration banned town halls from spending the receipts from the sales, insisting it be used to pay off local-authority debts.

Now that the Government has given the go-ahead for the money to be spent, Westminster was quick off the mark. The irony will not be lost in political circles: under the leadership of Dame Shirley Porter, Westminster was among the most zealous in following Margaret Thatcher's policy of selling off council houses.

It quickly became the Government's "flagship council". But the ideologically driven policy ended in scandal when an investigation by the District Auditor accused Lady Porter and colleagues of illegally and unethically selling off homes in marginal wards to likely Conservative voters. The pounds 27m surcharge which she was ordered to pay remains outstanding.

In recent months the Government has distributed nearly pounds 1bn in the first big wave of public-sector housebuilding and renovation for more than two decades. A total of pounds 6bn will be spent in the next few years.

Among the cities to benefit so far from the distribution of funds are Swansea (allotted more than pounds 3m); Newcastle (pounds 5m) and Birmingham (pounds 18.5m). West-minster's project is centred on the Lisson Green estate, in the north of the borough. The pounds 10m project includes improvements to existing homes as well as 60 new houses.

The pounds 6bn fund is enabling local authorities nationwide to begin tackling a huge backlog of disrepair. John Perry of the Chartered Institute of Housing said: "The money has started to filter back. Councils have received almost pounds 1bn, reversing a decline in investment that started in the mid- Seventies."

The money going into housing will also promote a mini-boom in the construction industry. A spokesman for the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors said: "We think it will create 13,000 new jobs a year for the construction industry for each of the next five years."

Additional millions were also made available last month for an assault on urban squalor. Housing-related projects in the most deprived areas, part of the New Deal for Communities, will receive pounds 800m.

The Deputy Prime Minster, John Prescott, said: "Some of the poorest areas have become increasingly run down and crime-ridden, cut off from jobs and from other services."

However, public-housing experts estimate that the new money will only put a dent in the problem. Birmingham alone has a pounds 1.4bn backlog of repairs. Shelter, the homelessness charity, said pounds 20bn was needed to bring existing housing to a satisfactory standard.