Dame Shirley: the pressure mounts

Her rule over Westminster council ended in 1991, but the fall- out continues. Chris Blackhurst looks at the latest allegations

For a period of time in the late Eighties, there was something magnificently awesome about Dame Shirley Porter.

At times, a mirror-image of her more famous central government leader just up the road in Downing Street, Porter, the Conservative head of Westminster City Council was an all-powerful, all-consuming figure.

Tough, hard, rich, she exuded a "can do, will do" image that left less ideologically committed colleagues and opponents trailing in her wake. Strident and straight-talking, she was a terrifying prospect.

Served by a loyal band of followers, Porter ruled over Westminster in a manner the like of which has rarely been seen in a British town hall. New York maybe, Chicago certainly - but not this country.

Much of what she did was good. Sitting cheek by jowl with Parliament, the borough of Westminster is what the Americans call, euphemistically, a "mixed neighbourhood".

From Victoria in the south to Paddington in the north, the area encompasses some of the richest properties in London and some of the poorest.

While no other place can match it for the power and influence of some of its more illustrious residents, Westminster also suffers from appalling deprivations. As a result, it is a highly strung political melting-pot, full of activists from both sides of the spectrum keen to impress their masters in the Commons.

With a fierce drive and energy, Porter went to work. Westminster applied for and received numerous grants, bureaucracy was pared, the council tax was made among the lowest in Britain, the streets were cleaned.

Westminster, with its new-found dynamism and energy, was held up as an example of what others could achieve.

While they dithered and squandered, Porter carved her own triumphalist way, even, controversially, ridding the council of three cemeteries for a nominal 5p each.

Now all that achievement has gone out of the window. Porter is at risk of being remembered for all the bad things: presiding over a council which embarked on a policy of political and social engineering, for allegedly supplanting social need with political ambition, for phrases that have a creepy, Orwellian 1984 feel: "designated sales", "building stable communities", and her very own, innocuous-sounding but actually dominant, strategic inner cabinet, the "chairmen's group".

Just how much mud will stick against Porter will not be known until the publication of the final report of the district auditor, John Magill, who was charged with investigating the allegations of gerrymandering: namely, that the council's housing policy was used to rig the borough in favour of the Tories.

Already, though, it is taking on frightening proportions. Mr Magill (whose inquiry is already in its sixth year and has so far cost more than pounds 3m) estimates that her policy of selling homes on the cheap in marginal wards and giving free house repairs for life lost the council pounds 29.9m.

That is the sum which Porter and nine other councillors and officials can expect to have to find if they are surcharged.

Not among them will be Michael Dutt, once consultant geriatrician at St Albans City Hospital and the Tory representative for Knightsbridge on Westminster City Council. In January last year, two weeks after publication of Mr Magill's provisional report, he shot himself.

His suicide note read: "My decision to end my life is due solely to the need to continue to fight this matter of designated sales, further draining my energy and requiring resources I do not have. I could not do my demanding medical work properly and without this I do not choose to continue living."

While Porter and her colleagues wait for Mr Magill - and he could do everyone a favour by getting a move-on, for theirs is an intolerable strain to be under - other questions are surfacing.

Another report is being prepared on the council's former Tory leaders. This second investigation, while it does not hold out the prospect of enormous immediate financial penalties, is no less disturbing - perhaps more so, if you believe that selling homes at a discount to likely supporters is one thing, but putting the homeless in potential death traps is another thing altogether.

The present Westminster administration has asked John Barratt, the former chief executive of Cambridgeshire council, to look into the decision, taken by Porter's "chairmen's group" in February 1989, to give the homeless a fresh start in two tower blocks in a Labour stronghold in the Paddington district.

All very laudatory. Except the two blocks, Hermes and Chantry Points, were built in the Sixties, in the days when slum clearance was to the fore and the dangers of asbestos, which was used in the buildings, were not appreciated.

By the time 100 homeless families were offered space in the partially empty 31-storey towers, asbestos and the fatal disease it causes, mesothelioma, were dread words - and the council knew it. But in the finely balanced political make-up of Westminster, the alternative to putting 100 families, who were likely to be natural Labour supporters, in a Labour stronghold was placing them in more marginal wards. This was, it would seem, politically rather less palatable.

Against such alleged gerrymandering, attempts by a local group to buy the flats - they would have removed the asbestos - floundered.

The flats have long since been boarded up and demolished. Asbestos litigation lawyers are standing by, their pulses sent racing by comments such as this from one former tenant: "If that had been a private landlord, I perhaps could have forgiven, but knowing that this was a council and knowing we were vulnerable people, in the sense that we were homeless and we had a little child ... allowing us to live with such danger is, to me, unforgivable."

Also standing by are Porter's legal advisers and supporters. Everything she did, they stress, was subject to careful legal scrutiny. "She never, ever, broke the law," said a Porter aide yesterday.

Others, though, are not so sure. They point to the "chairmen's group", and question whose interests it was serving: the council's or Shirley Porter's? At least one law professor, Martin Loughlin at Manchester University, is on record as saying the move to Hermes and Chantry was unlawful "because it was an attempt by the 'chairmen's group' to harness the resources of the council for party political ends".

Now spending much of her time in Israel, Porter remains defiant and angry.

"She is astonished," said her friend. "She is astonished that anyone could think she would ever do such a thing. She has done nothing to be ashamed of."

That may be so. But what she has done has left the Government with a huge question-mark that refuses to go away. Once local government was Labour's problem, now it is also the Tories'. From heroine to embarrassment, Dame Shirley's fall has been total. ( Graphic omitted )

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Sport
Ojo Onaolapo celebrates winning the bronze medal
commonwealth games
Arts and Entertainment
Rock band Led Zeppelin in the early 1970s
musicLed Zeppelin to release alternative Stairway To Heaven after 43 years
News
i100
News
Prince Harry is clearing enjoying the Commonwealth Games judging by this photo
people(a real one this time)
Extras
indybest
News
Richard Norris in GQ
mediaGQ features photo shoot with man who underwent full face transplant
Sport
Lionel Messi looks on at the end of the final
football
News
Gardai wait for the naked man, who had gone for a skinny dip in Belfast Lough
newsTwo skinny dippers threatened with inclusion on sex offenders’ register as naturists criminalised
News
Your picture is everything in the shallow world of online dating
i100
News
The Swiss Re tower or 'Gherkin' was at one time the UK’s most expensive office when German bank IVG and private equity firm Evans Randall bought it
news
Life and Style
Attractive women on the Internet: not a myth
techOkCupid boasts about Facebook-style experiments on users
Sport
Van Gaal said that his challenge in taking over Bobby Robson's Barcelona team in 1993 has been easier than the task of resurrecting the current United side
football
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Account Manager, Spanish, London Bridge

£30,000 + 20K Commssion: Charter Selection: This rapidly expanding organisatio...

.Net/ C# Developer/ Analyst Programmer - West London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: .NET/ C# .Pr...

Account Manager, Spanish, London Bridge

£30,000 + 20K Commssion: Charter Selection: This rapidly expanding organisatio...

Account Manager, London Bridge

£30,000 + 20K Commssion: Charter Selection: This rapidly expanding organisatio...

Day In a Page

The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on