Westminster Scandal: Housing policy 'was disgraceful gerrymandering'

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The Independent Online
John Magill began the job of getting to the bottom of the policies propounded by Dame Shirley Porter and her Conservative colleagues and officials on Westminster City Council in July 1989.

Almost seven years on, and the scale of that task finally becomes apparent. Even allowing for the obstacles put in his way, including the shredding of papers, the logistics make for impressive reading: 135 interviews, a hearing lasting 32 days, and a final report covering 2,000 pages.

He concludes: "My view is that the council was engaged in gerrymandering, which I have found is a disgraceful and improper purpose, and not a purpose for which a local authority may act ... I have today issued a certificate in the sum of pounds 31,677,064 to each of Mr Graham England, Mr Peter Hartley, Mr Paul Hayler, Mr Bill Phillips, Dame Shirley Porter and Councillor David Weeks who, subject to the outcome of any appeal ... are jointly and severally liable."

His report reveals the surreal world occupied by those running local government closest to Britain's seat of democracy.

In 1972, Westminster council started a policy of "designated sales". In an effort to reduce its housing stock, when some homes fell vacant they were not re-let but sold. The numbers involved were small, writes Mr Magill, some 20-30 homes a year. On 8 July 1987, the housing committee resolved to expand the policy by earmarking for sale 9,360 properties, 40 per cent of its total stock - a move that was expected to generate 500 sales a year.

At face value, it looked like a minor change. But Mr Magill says the decision was motivated by a sea-change in thinking. It was this shift that provided the basis for Labour's complaint and it was the events surrounding the change that provided the core of Mr Magill's report.

The reason for the increase was the local government election of May 1986. Dame Shirley, who had been leader since 1983, suddenly found herself with a majority of just four.

In a paper called "Keeping Westminster Conservative", she set out her strategy for the next election in 1990. The critical point was that at local level the margin between electoral success and failure is tiny.

Her paper noted: "Conservative members of the council have identified eight key battlezone wards. The results of the 1990 local elections will depend on how people vote in these wards." The eight wards were marginal - a swing of just 70 votes in each could determine control - and "they have suffered particularly from the destabilisation of their resident middle class, the natural Conservative voter". The new, expanded, designated sales was aimed at these "key wards".

After the 1986 election, writes Mr Magill: "The leadership of the majority party was determined that the development of council policies should be more centrally controlled by the leadership, that council policies should be related to marginal wards to assist the position of the Conservative party and that increasing home ownership would increase that strategy."

There was little doubt who Dame Shirley blamed for the narrowness of the election victory. A note made by an official was produced for Mr Magill: "SP thinks result is CE's fault + COB [CE was the chief executive, Bill Phillips, and COB, the Chief Officers' Board, his managing board]. The note said, ominously, that a "change of direction" was required.

One problem that Dame Shirley and her "chairmen's group", a tightly-knit inner cabinet, faced in her attempt to take the "battlezone" was the homeless. The council had a statutory duty to house them.

Among the many papers prepared for Dame Shirley was one called "Homelessness" by Michael Dutt - the councillor who was criticised in Mr Magill's interim findings and later shot himself. It said: "We should take a definite decision to look outside Westminster for accommodation for the homeless, and be imaginative: prefabricated homes, mobile homes, houseboats, disused holiday camps are all possibilities."

On 22 June 1986, a "Four-Year Strategy" was thrashed out at Dame Shirley's country cottage. Two days later, records Mr Magill, the conclusions were presented to Mr Phillips and his officers. They "were informed that the majority party intended to win the next election, that that would be the focus of their attention, and that majority party objectives included 'social engineering including housing'."

Dame Shirley chaired a meeting where one of the topics for discussion was the "economic justification for G Mander on Hsg". .

As chief executive, Mr Phillips was the link between the officials and her chairmen's group. On 13 May 1987, Dame Shirley was re-elected leader of the Tories and leader of the council. Mr Weeks was re-elected deputy. A month later, she held a "strategy weekend". Several papers were discussed, all of which were prepared under the supervision of Mr Phillips.

Mr Magill writes: "These papers made plain the intention to target council policies, including an increased programme of designated sales, in marginal wards with a view to 'increasing our support' by specified numbers of voters in those wards."