The Westminster Scandal: Tory group began drive to remain in power: The Council

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The Independent Online
WESTMINSTER'S Tory councillors have always been overshadowed by their counterparts in Wandsworth, the beacon of Conservative local government where a massive and sustained council house sales programme had kept a normally marginal council in Tory hands since 1978.

Westminster was the opposite. What should have been a safe Conservative council seemed to be ebbing away from the Tories. Labour gained 12 seats at the May 1986 election, 10 from the Tories, and was a handful of votes away from victory in marginal wards.

The Conservatives were left with a majority of just four seats and began preparations to ensure that they would make Westminster a safe Tory council once again. The auditor's report says: 'In my provisional view the close result of local government elections in 1986 produced a determination in the leadership of the majority party that its approach had to change if it was to secure re-election at the next elections in 1990. In particular, it was determined . . . that council policies should be related to marginal wards to assist (the Tories') position.

Westminster had been one of the pioneers of council home sales. As far back as 1972, almost a decade before the Tory government instituted its right-to-buy policy, the council had a 'designated sales policy'. A few of the best council blocks were 'designated for sale' which meant that when one of them became vacant, they were not offered to reletting but sold to a local purchaser from an approved list. It led to barely a dozen sales a year.

But its existence gave the Westminster Tory councillors, fearful of losing control, the idea for a more wide-ranging policy. Meetings of senior councillors were held to plan how the Tories could ensure that they would never face the prospect of defeat again.

Patricia Kirwan, the housing chairwoman, identified factors 'contributing to the drop in our natural support', including the provision of hostels and hotels for 'homeless/down-and-outs who are not our natural supporters'.

The key was seen as 'gentrification'. But its definition was not one which most housing experts would recognise. Its aim was solely to increase the number of prospective Tory voters in the borough.

The context was a growing homelessness problem which threatened to wreck attempts to change the social profile of Westminster. In July, Ms Kirwan warned 'we are rapidly reaching crisis point'.

The number of households being referred as homeless had risen by 400 per year for the previous five years and the number of those accepted as bona fide cases who were the council's responsibility was expected to rise from 1,364 in 1985-86 to 1,600 the next year.

In another report, Ms Kirwan referred to homeless households as 'the tinted person in the woodpile' stating that 'no significant impact will be made unless we can make a definite cut in the number of homeless persons acceded to'. Yet, despite this clear understanding of the housing crisis in the city, the Tories were determined to press on with changing the demographic nature of the area.

The auditor states: 'From the outset it was known to the leadership of the majority party that attempts to increase home ownership from the council's own stock by wholesale designation would involve conflict with the council's statutory duties to the homeless.'

On 11 September, Ms Kirwan recommended an extension of the designated blocks for sale policy to include estates in marginal wards 'where turnover is relatively high so that we can make some impact'.

Advisers, PA Cambridge Economic Consultants, were called in to undertake an economic and housing study. They were asked to provide an analysis of the types of households which moved in and out of council homes in the borough. This would allow the council to target wards where the sales policy would have the most effect.

The problem with Westminster, from the Tory point of view, was that it had too many tenants. One councillor, Alex Segal, said in a January 1987 paper to colleagues: 'The problem can be simply stated. If it is accepted that owner-occupiers are more inclined to vote Con, then we approach the 1990 election with an enormous handicap.' Whereas the national average owner occupation rate was 62 per cent, Westminster's was 28 per cent.

Mr Segal argued that 'the short-term objective must be to target the marginal wards and as a matter of utmost urgency redress the imbalance by encouraging a pattern of tenure which is more likely to translate into Conservative votes'.

The longer-term aim was to emulate Wandsworth where the number of council tenants had been so drastically reduced that marginal Putney and Labour-held Battersea wards had become safe Tory seats.

Mr Segal's paper recommended that consideration be given to designating all miscellaneous properties, or those in the marginal wards, with a target of at least 100 sales per year. He warned of some problems with the policy, in particular that there was 'little control over onward sales' as future purchasers might be foreigners or company owners, both useless electorally. He suggested 'restrictive covenants' be imposed.

In February 1987, councillors got officers to prepare planning profiles of the eight most marginal wards - Bayswater, Cavendish, Hamilton Terrace, Little Venice, Millbank, St James', Victoria and West End.

These were considered at a series of meetings by councillors. Graham England, the director of housing, advised councillors that these wards could generate 249 sales per year. Each ward was given a target of sales for the deadline of October 1989, by which time potential voters in the 1990 elections had to be on the electoral register.

However, aware that the policy could not be applied to just the eight wards, a higher overall target of 500 for the borough was adopted. The problem for both officers and councillors was that such a high level of sales would make it impossible for the council to meet its obligations to the homeless.

This caused the draft of the report for the fateful meeting of 8 July 1987, at which the policy was passed, to be rewritten several times and for no less than nine different lists of potential designated estates to be drawn up.

Mr England tried to present the choice of designated sales targets for each borough as being chosen on the basis of those which had 'extremely transient populations'. The auditor questioned this and said 'the properties in the list current at that time had not been identified on that basis'.

In all, 4,401 out of 6,213 properties (71 per cent) were designated in the eight marginal wards, while only 3,807 (22 per cent) of the 17,373 properties in the 15 other wards were designated for sale. The policy to win the 1990 election was under way.