The Local Elections: Westminster tenants vote for home-buying: The Tories' controversial housing policy is hugely popular. Martin Whitfield reports

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Indy Politics
FROM the top floor of Torridon House, a nine-storey council block in Westminster, it is easy to see why Conservative leaders want to keep a revised version of their discredited policy of 'designated sales'.

The concept, central to accusations of pounds 21m of waste and gerrymandering, is hugely popular among tenants.

Derek Wiggins, 57, a former Post Office worker, explains the position: 'We had a meeting and we were asked: 'Do you want these flats allocated to homeless people or do you want them put up for sale?' We had a vote and we voted for them to be designated for sale.

'The next day we had a letter from Labour saying we were depriving homeless people of homes. But if you have a democratic vote, you must accept it. Putting the homeless in the flat two doors away made my life hell. Now there is a nice couple in there.'

Across the City of Westminster, residents of blocks of council flats were queueing to become 'designated' until the scheme was suspended following publication of the preliminary findings of a four-year inquiry by John Magill, the district auditor. The Westminster Tory manifesto pledges to bring in a new version of the 'homes for votes' policy as it has not been proved to be illegal.

Labour says the scheme deliberately replaced council tenants with owner-occupiers on the basis that they would vote Tory. But it would seem that if votes were to be gained from the new home-owning residents, then many more have flowed from existing tenants pleased that their neighbours would be mortgage payers, not homeless families.

Torridon House, in Maida Vale ward, had a Labour majority of 563 in 1986. This was converted to a Tory majority of 125 in 1990. Ronnie Raymond-Cox, who took early retirement from IBM after 30 years with the company, won the seat four years ago and is now vice-chairman of Westminster's housing committee. Canvassing around Torridon House, he is surprised by his success: 'I am having difficulty in finding many Labour supporters, which I just can't believe.'

Without party badge or rosette, Mr Raymond-Cox asks if tenants are happy with the housing service. There is an overwhelmingly positive answer from a block which is taking part in another Westminster experiment - it has become a 'co-op', managing its own pounds 106,000 budget for 90 flats. The money covers all but structural maintenance and repairs. 'I certainly wouldn't vote for that bunch of clowns who run Brent,' Mr Wiggins said, before being gently reminded by Mr Raymond- Cox that the Tories had been in control of the neighbouring borough for the past three years. 'The only reason they get people always voting Labour is because they owe them so much rent.'

Others in the block point to Westminster's Band C council tax charge of pounds 65 compared with pounds 433 in Labour Camden or even pounds 352 in Conservative Harrow.

The district auditor's criticism of designated sales is of little interest.

'I find things a bit above me. I am not really interested in it. The council tax here is wonderful, my son-in-law pays pounds 500 or pounds 600 in Swiss Cottage,' Bert Whitby, a pensioner, said.

Fifteen of the flats in Torridon House have been subject to designated sales. Khosrow Kabiri, a 34-year-old security officer, bought his one-bedroom flat under the policy for about pounds 48,000 last June. A previous Westminster tenant, he is voting Conservative. 'Last time I did not vote. Some of my colleagues have been talking about it and none of us are voting Labour,' he said.

The only visible signs of the impending election on 5 May in Torridon House are two 'Vote Labour' posters on ground-floor windows.

Irene Kalkofen told Mr Raymond-Cox one of the reasons why she would be voting Labour: 'I haven't much confidence in your Prime Minister. He makes so many U-turns that he must be giddy.'

Jen McClelland, one of the Labour's candidates in the ward, is optimistic that it can be regained for the party next month.

She maintained designated sales had begun to create problems, with building societies being reluctant to lend when flats are up for resale.

(Photograph omitted)

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