TORIES IN TURMOIL / Audit Inquiry: Another council in 'homes for votes' row

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The Independent Online
A SECOND Tory flagship council is being investigated by financial watchdogs after allegations that it operated a 'votes-for-homes' policy similar to one said to have been used by Westminster City Council, writes Marianne Macdonald.

The district auditor for Wandsworth council in south-west London has begun an inquiry into a complaint that the council acted improperly in selling high-rise blocks in two marginal Tory wards instead of renting them to homeless families.

Meanwhile Jack Straw, Labour's environment spokesman, said of the Westminster policy that there was 'an unmistakable trail' leading to Conservative Central Office. He has written to five senior Tories challenging them to set out what they knew.

The Wandsworth allegations have been compounded by Peter Hain, the Labour MP for Neath, who lives in the borough. He is claiming Wandsworth was the architect of the alleged vote-rigging policy adopted by Westminster and tutored the council on its operation. A spokesman for Wandsworth described that as 'absolute nonsense'.

A Commons motion tabled by the MP notes the Wandsworth and Westminster councils were 'virtually unique in that half the total council homes sold were empty properties to new tenants, overwhelmingly Conservative voters'.

Sir Paul Beresford, Tory MP for Croydon Central and the leader of Wandsworth council between 1983 and 1992, when it operated a council house sales policy, denies allegations of impropriety.

He said: 'It's an opportunist statement from Peter Hain, who is a two-time failed candidate for the Labour Party in Putney. As for Wandsworth tutoring Westminster on its policies, we have explained our techniques on competitive tendering and housing management to literally hundreds of councils all over the world.'

The inquiry into Wandsworth's housing policy, which has led to the sale of 19,000 properties since 1978, is part of the annual audit. A Wandsworth spokesman denied the allegations.