Tory group 'risked lives of tenants'

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The Independent Online

Westminster Correspondent

Evidence has emerged suggesting that Westminster council put homeless families at risk by moving them into two blocks of flats known to be riddled with asbestos, as part of the controlling Tory group's alleged gerrymandering policy.

Documents supplied to the Independent and to John Barratt, an independent investigator hired by the present council to look into the claims, suggest that the controlling Tory group, led by Dame Shirley Porter, moved 100 families into the flats to reduce the potential Labour vote in key marginal wards.

The investigation by Mr Barratt, the former chief executive of Cambridgeshire County Council, is the second currently under way into the activities of Westminster's ex-Tory leaders. The first, and best known - the "homes for votes" inquiry into suspected gerrymandering by Lady Porter and council colleagues - is expected to be completed next month.

However, the Barratt inquiry, which is also due to be finished shortly, could be just as explosive. It concentrates solely on the decision in 1989 to relocate families into Hermes and Chantry Points in Paddington. The council was well aware of the dangers posed by the flats. In 1983, its own environmental health officer warned that conditions in the block, including the "extremely friable nature of this type of asbestos", indicated its "necessity for removal as a matter of urgency". From the date of that warning, 10 February 1983, no more flats were let on secure tenancies.

In August 1983, the Department of the Environment published a circular - Asbestos Material in Buildings - warning of the public health risk. The circular highlighted the problem unique to the two blocks, where asbestos had been sprayed on to the steel structure to act as a safeguard against fire.

Gradually, tenants moved out and the blocks became partially empty. Lady Porter and her colleagues, however, were keen to prevent a local community group from taking them over, refurbishing them and removing the asbestos. The documents show the council was prepared to use the flats as part of its alleged gerrymandering policy, codenamed "Building Stable Communities", of keeping likely Labour voters out of marginal wards. Hermes and Chantry were earmarked for homeless families, concentrating them in a safe Labour ward.

Documents show that a decision to move the homeless into the tower blocks was taken at a meeting of the council's inner cabinet, "the chairman's group", chaired by Barry Legg - then, a Tory councillor, now MP for Milton Keynes South West - and confirmed at a further meeting chaired by Lady Porter on 28 February.

Prior to this decision, the council had been moving tenants out of the flats and smashing them up, to prevent squatting. When new tenants began moving in, asbestos was exposed in some places.

In 1990, after the Health and Safety Executive was alerted, the council admitted the flats were dangerous and posed a statutory nuisance under the Public Health Acts. The tenants were moved out, the flats sealed and subsequently demolished.

Last night, Westminster council issued a statement, refusing to comment, pending the outcome of the full report.