Shirley Porter's pounds 14m shock

Westminster householders face huge bills in the wake of 'homes for votes', writes Mark Rowe
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WESTMINSTER COUNCIL is billing leaseholders of former council flats for pounds 14m of repairs in the wake of a policy linked to the infamous homes-for-votes scandal.

More than 6,500 lessees in Westminster are to be billed for repairs going back 10 years, with invoices ranging from a few hundred pounds to pounds 20,000. The council is considering mortgage-style repayments for leaseholders with the biggest bills. The total arrears are around pounds 30m, with at least pounds 16m considered non-recoverable. The outstanding amount is so large it threatens to stall future housing development projects in Westminster.

The repairs were carried out from 1986, during the peak of the right- to-buy scheme, under which council homes were sold off to the private sector. Westminster was one of the most vigorous supporters of this policy, selling off almost a third of its flats.

The situation has been further complicated because 37 different types of lease were drawn up when the flats were sold, meaning that two neighbours in a council block may pay wildly different prices for exactly the same repairs.

The development comes after the High Court upheld the findings of district auditor John Magill that former council leader Dame Shirley Porter and her deputy David Weeks were guilty of "wilful misconduct" for selling council homes in marginal wards to potential Tory voters at knock-down prices.

The former leader of the opposition Labour group of Westminster councillors during the Porter years believes a political decision was taken not to bill lessees in the late 1980s. "This was in the run-up to the gerrymandered elections of 1990 and all the work of gerrymandering would have been undone if these lessees had suddenly got big repair bills through the post," said Andrew Dismore, now Labour MP for Hendon. "The original decision not to bill was politically motivated. On top of that you had the woeful mismanagement."

However, the council's director of housing, Richard Buxton, believes the non-billing was down to incompetence rather than any political agenda. "I've looked very carefully at the evidence and almost all of the responsibility is managerial rather than anything political," said Mr Buxton, who was appointed in 1995 after an internal audit discovered the scale of the non-billing.

The local MP for Regents Park and Kensington North, Karen Buck, another former Westminster Labour councillor, says many people are suffering from housing blight because of the policy. "They are unable to sell their flats because of the uncertainty over the bills they may face," she said.

"There's no doubt there was a political instruction to cease billing. But they also didn't have a clue as to leasehold management."

Brian Pottle, who faces a bill for pounds 6,000, bought his mother's two-bedroom flat in a 20-storey tower block in 1989 for pounds 17,000. He said: "I thought we would be able to sell in four years and make enough profit to pay for my mother when she went into care."

However, mortgage lenders considered the building unsafe and refused to allow the properties, today worth around pounds 150,000, to be sold. The residents persuaded the council to carry out repairs, which failed to bring the flats up to a saleable standard.

"If I'd known what would happen there is no way I would have bought the place. It's ludicrous getting the bills now," said Mr Pottle, who is head of a 1,600-strong group seeking legal action over alleged mismanagement of flats across the borough by the council.

Another resident, Richard Beville, who bought a flat in Pimlico for pounds 70,000 in 1987, has a comparatively small bill - pounds 600 for central heating repairs - but he says: "A lot of these people are very elderly and on fixed incomes. These bills have come as a huge shock."

Although Mr Buxton admitted the billing was a worry for leaseholders, he said many would benefit. "Where we have done a large amount of work the properties have shot up very much in value and are very desirable on the property market," he said. "The disadvantage is that owners are getting 10 years worth of bills at the same time."