Westminster stops council house sales

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WESTMINSTER City Council last night suspended its 'homes-for- votes' policy. Despite claims last week by the Tory council leader that there were no plans to abandon a policy deemed 'unlawful' in an unprecedentedly critical District Auditor's report, new legal advice is thought to have accelerated an emergency decision to end sales of council housing.

The suspension was announced quietly to local newspapers. A faxed press release, intended only for the Paddington Times, stated: 'The policy suspension will take place as an executive action of the managing director (Merv Montacute) and will have to be endorsed by the council meeting.'

Meanwhile, Judith Warner, chair of the education committee, who headed the housing committee during the alleged 'gerrymandering', resigned yesterday from her post. Ms Warner said she would devote 'time and energy' to clearing her name.

John Magill's report last week branded the policy 'disgraceful' and 'unauthorised'. Last night's decision puts in doubt legal contracts for the 1,300 homes sold since 1987. The Labour group demanded that the Government intervene to 'buy back, at market price' all of them.

In the report, 10 former and current members and officials of the council were criticised. If the allegations are upheld by the courts, they face potential surcharges totalling pounds 21m.

The auditor's report also revealed that Westminster had made errors in appointing committees. The council is now operating without any and had to use Mr Montacute to announce the suspension. A full council meeting next week is expected to reappoint committees.

Gavin Millar, Labour housing spokesman, said: 'The Tory group is now clearly aware of the legal dangers they face if they continued with this policy. They will have to be given a legal all-clear from their new legal adviser, Andrew Collins QC.'