The Westminster Scandal: 'Designated sales' scheme used to keep an electorate true blue: The Policy

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The Independent Online
IF THE electorate don't like your policies, change the electorate. That seemed to be the stark message behind the Conservatives' campaign to win political power in Westminster in 1990.

The Tories made a couple of basic assumptions, untested by market research, but probably more true than not: that home-owners tend to vote Conservative and those who rent, and who are probably on low incomes, vote Labour. The homeless probably do not vote at all, but if they do it is not for the Tories.

So they designed a scheme aimed at putting their theory into practice and they called it the 'designated sales' policy. Westminster had a low percentage of owner-occupiers compared to other boroughs.

In 1981, only 21 per cent of Westminster residents were home owners, compared to 65 per cent nationally. By 1993 the figure for Westminster had risen to 35 per cent.

The Tories targeted eight marginal wards which could go either way in the 1990 elections. These were Bayswater, Cavendish, Hamilton Terrace, Little Venice, Millbank, St James', Victoria and West End.

They designated, or set aside, some 10,000 properties, which they would make available to sell in the right circumstances and in the right areas. They envisaged that they would be able to sell about 500 properties each year.

When the properties fell vacant, because someone died or moved away, the properties were not re-let. Instead they were boarded up, huge steel doors were erected and they were put on a special designated list.

The council had become experts at deterring squatters so it knew how to protect property. Sometimes property was put on the designated list without the present occupiers knowing.

The properties were no longer made available for people on the council's housing waiting list, but were eventually sold, often with discounts, to people who wanted to be owner-occupiers and not merely to rent their homes.

Because of the recession, some flats remained empty for up to two years while Westminster's housing problem grew.

Tenants were often offered inducements to move, as much as pounds 15,000, in order to speed up the process and, crucially, create vacancies in the right areas.

At the same time many homeless people were offered accommodation outside of the borough.

Some were given only 24 hours' notice to move to areas outside Westminster.

The borough argued that about 30 per cent of the homeless had no natural connection with Westminster, and that anyway cheaper and better accommodation could be found in other areas.

This took no account of family ties, or whether children went to Westminster schools.

The council wrote to local authorities in the North and the Midlands, asking them to take in Westminster families for an annual fee of pounds 460. Most councils rejected the move.

The council has justified its position by saying that 96 per cent of sales have gone to Westminster residents, and the policy has never been targeted at people moving from outside the city.

It says it has been hugely popular with residents and an increasing number want their estates included in the scheme. The District Auditor's report shows a different interpretation.

At a chairmen's group meeting on 2 September 1986, Graham England, the director of housing, noted that there was a discussion of 'suitable wards for housing (the homeless) long term', including housing Westminster City Council 'families inside Labour (wards)' and 'how can we get them (the homeless) out of WCC' (Westminster City Council).

Tory members of the council discussed their policy at a seminar in September 1986. Lady Porter sent a note to her members saying that the top priority was winning the 1990 elections.

She enclosed a set of papers, noting to the recipients: 'When you have read the documents and after we've had our discussion, it would be helpful if you'd swallow them in good spy fashion otherwise they might self-destruct]'

Lady Porter then summarised her aims. She wanted to take a hard line on those who the council was prepared to recognise as homeless, and target additional homeless accommodation on specific wards.

Councillors discussed how they could get 'more electors' in each of the eight key wards, on to the February 1990 electoral register. They did this very thoroughly and came up with a total of 2,200 prospective voters.

For Bayswater ward, for example the aim was to be to 'build in approx 350 votes (175 households)'. Additional blocks for sale might be designated, under the policy, in order to achieve the aim.

The designated sales policy was first introduced in 1974. When a vacancy naturally occurred, rather than re-let the property, the council sold it.

Between 1974 and 1987, there were about 20 sales a year, and discounts were offered according to how many years the occupier had lived in the borough.

So the policy was very much a precursor of the Conservative government's own 'right to buy' council homes initiative.

But the crucial date was 8 July 1987. This is when the decision was made to accelerate the programme. There were three options: to carry on as before, to increase numbers to 250, or to go for 500 designated sales per annum.

The publicly available minutes of that meeting make no mention of any political returns for any of the options.

At the meeting it was decided to make 500 homes per annum available for sale. The council insists to this day that the policy was perfectly legal. So much so that it is still in operation, and council leaders have refused even to consider its suspension.

Some 1,100 homes have been sold under the policy. All have been to first-time buyers, and only 3.6 per cent have been made to people outside the city. The council says this figure shows that the homes did not go to the young and upwardly

mobile.

But the council's policies have had a severe effect on the homeless. In 1990, the council froze its transfer waiting list, leaving some 10,000 people in unsuitable accommodation.

Many people who did buy their flats are now regretting it, despite falling mortgage interest rates in the early 1990s. Huge bills for refurbishment of buildings have landed on some owner-occupiers' doorsteps.

(Map omitted)

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