Porter opens challenge to Westminster surcharge

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The Independent Online
There is nothing wrong with local authorities having politically motivated policies provided they are justifiable on local government grounds, the High Court heard yesterday.

Dame Shirley Porter and four former colleagues from Westminster Council were beginning their legal challenge to a pounds 31m surcharge over the "Homes for Votes" affair, a case which could have serious implications for local government.

Anthony Scrivener QC, representing Dame Shirley Porter, yesterday accused John Magill, the district auditor, of having "misconceived the role of politics in local government" in accusing the former leader of Westminster City Council of "disgraceful and improper gerrymandering" in his final report issued last year.

Mr Scrivener said that Mr Magill's decision to hold Dame Shirley and her colleagues liable to repayment of pounds 31.6m for alleged council losses had exposed them to "financial ruin".

He said: "It is true that Shirley Porter's father was the most successful barrow-boy of all time, building up the Tesco empire, but pounds 31m is a massive sum for anyone."

Mr Magill - who sat in the back row of the court yesterday but who will not give evidence during the five-week hearing - reported last year on Westminster's attempts between 1987 and 1989 to win votes in marginal wards by moving council tenants and selling homes cheaply under the right- to-buy scheme.

But Mr Scrivener said: "We would suggest that improving conditions in marginal wards has been a frequent and legitimate tactic by ruling parties in local government as long as there were also local government grounds for doing so."

Dame Shirley is expected to give evidence in the case for the first time on Monday. Her fellow appellants are former council deputy leader David Weeks; former housing committee chairman Peter Hartley; former managing director Bill Phillips, and Graham England, Westminster's former housing director.