Westminster housing chief's homes sell-off fears

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The Independent Online
Former Westminster City Council housing chief, Graham England, described in the High Court yesterday his anxiety over the Tory majority group's controversial plan to sell off up to 500 council homes a year.

He conceded the late 1980s sell-off scheme - which has left him, Dame Shirley Porter and other council colleagues facing a pounds 31m surcharge - was pitched "at a very high level" and he certainly would not have recommended it.

The ex-housing director told three judges he was concerned that the district auditor would take the view that the council was fettering its ability to fulfil its statutory duties to house the homeless.

But he took advice from a leading lawyer, who said he was being "over- restrictive" and the city-wide policy was lawful.

Asked by Alun Jones QC, appearing for the auditor, if he thought that to designate 500 sales a year was "on the edge of perversity", he replied: "It was on the right side of the edge."

Mr England, ex-council leader Dame Shirley and three other former Westminster colleagues are all asking the High Court to overturn the pounds 31.6m surcharge imposed by district auditor John Magill after he said they were guilty of "disgraceful and improper gerrymandering" between 1987 and 1989.

In May last year he made them and one other council official "jointly and severally" liable to repay the sum he estimated to have been wrongly spent on allegedly trying to fix election results in eight marginal wards, by selling council homes cheaply under the right-to-buy scheme to people who were more likely to vote Conservative.

Paul Hayler, the former divisional housing director, who also faces the surcharge, is ill and is not appealing.

Cross-examined by Mr Jones, Mr England recalled the uproar at City Hall as the Conservative majority group battled to introduce a designated sales policy. He told Lord Justice Rose, sitting with Mr Justice Latham and Mr Justice Keene, that at one housing committee meeting in April 1987, the police had to be called and he had ended up "pinned against a glass window on the 19th floor of City Hall".

Mr England denied helping to throw a "smokescreen" round the policy in order to get it approved. He described his growing anxiety when it was originally proposed to target sales in eight key marginal wards and how he had warned against it. But the decision to target 500 homes a year across the city had been made on proper grounds and he was not guilty of wilful misconduct.

The hearing resumes today.

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