This mess was the culmination of a lengthy degradation of local government that makes such excesses inevitable. And the Government's plans for reorganising councils, changing the whole shape of local government yet again, are destined to make matters worse.
Westminster might have a famous name but, as a borough, it is a bastard entity, having grafted on the old boroughs of Paddington and Marylebone in the reorganisation of London local government in 1965. That was the root of the Tories' problem. Without the Paddington Labour stronghold, the Westminster Tories' hegemony would never have been at risk and they would not have had cause to dream up their designated sales policy.
The creation of these mega-boroughs was inspired by Sixties' notions of economies of scale and efficiency rather than by the need for administrative structures which matched the communities they served.
Breaking the link between communities and their government is the source of many of the ills in local authorities today. How can people relate to organisations with names such as Tower Hamlets or, outside London, to Three Rivers or Dacorum? Westminster City Hall is in Victoria, two buses and two social classes away from north Paddington.
The 1965 reorganisation also created boroughs that were far too large to have a sense of community. Westminster is an average-size London council with 180,000 people and its population is particularly transient, which makes its electorate even less likely to keep reins on any mischief-making councillors.
The election of a heavily centralising Conservative government in 1979 added to the preconditions for the Westminster fiasco. A long battle ensued between the Government and left-wing Labour councils determined to resist the shock radicalism of Thatcherite policies. The conflict surfaced most prominently over rate-capping, but also on a series of issues such as council house sales, compulsory competitive tendering - forcing councils to put services out to tender - and the poll tax.
London was particularly prey to political activists on both sides: men and women whose outlook was strongly ideological and who possibly had designs on Parliament, operating in local wards that were susceptible to takeover by small groups of such dedicated party workers. And, as more powers were taken away from councillors - a process which has culminated in every council's budget being set centrally by the Government - fewer people were prepared to go through the hassle of standing for election.
Many of the new breed of councillors were full-time local politicians, either with sinecure jobs in other local authorities - a practice ended by the Government in the late Eighties - or, like Lady Porter, affluent enough not to have to bother with a salaried job.
The right was less prey to such takeovers than the left, because the Conservative Party is less formally democratic at the local level than Labour, and therefore it is more difficult for a small group of activists to gain control by playing the system. 'Buggin's turn' kept the Young Turks out in most places. But it happened in several areas where there was a charismatic ideological leader, including Wandsworth, Westminster and, while they were in Tory hands, Bradford and Merton. In other places, such as Lambeth, Tory opposition groups showed similar tendencies.
In 1978 the election of a radical Tory council in Wandsworth brought in the ideas that were to inspire Westminster councillors. Peter Bingle, chairman of Wandsworth's property sales committee, stated baldly at a council meeting in February 1987: 'My aim is to reduce the number of council properties in Wandsworth from 35,000 to 20,000 and to make Battersea a Conservative constituency.' How closely these two objectives were, in practice, linked the district auditor will be keen to examine.
Certainly, the strategy of the Wandsworth councillors, to clear many of the council blocks in the area and sell them off, has been eminently successful. Battersea has bucked the national trend in the past two elections, with swings from Labour to Conservative of 4.6 per cent and 3.7 per cent while the rest of the country was moving in the other direction, even though Labour fielded Alf Dubs, a popular former Battersea MP, as its candidate. The constituency now has a Tory MP, John Bowis, with a comfortable majority, whereas in Tooting, in the south of the borough where fewer homes have been sold, Tom Cox, the Labour MP, has managed to hold on.
Michael Ward, a former Wandsworth and GLC Labour councillor, points out in a 1987 pamphlet on Wandsworth council, Municipal Monetarism, that the councillors' code of conduct states that members have a duty to serve the whole community, and a special duty to their own constituents - including people who did not vote for them. He says: 'This special duty can hardly be said to extend to replacing constituents 'who did not vote for you' by new residents more likely to do so.'
This new right ideology was really an extreme form of local Thatcherism. The implementation of the council house sales policy, for instance, went far beyond the Government's legislation on the right to buy, by extending sales to empty properties, despite the fact that the numbers of homeless being given temporary accommodation in bed and breakfasts were growing. Many services were privatised well ahead of government legislation; there were drastic cuts in staff and many non-statutory services were dumped.
The councils also became adept at playing the grant system. Westminster, despite spending in excess of pounds 1,000 net per person in the borough, managed to set a poll tax of pounds 36 for the crucial election year of 1990-91, thanks to government grants, in contrast with neighbouring Labour and Tory boroughs, which received much less in grant and therefore charged local residents poll taxes of several hundred pounds. Wandsworth even managed two years of no poll tax at all, provoking accusations by local government finance experts that the grants system was being tailored to benefit these Tory model authorities.
In retrospect, perhaps what is most surprising is that so few Conservative councils went down this path. Most have resisted the ideological approach, concentrating instead on the nitty-gritty of providing reasonable services, often with a bit of penny pinching, such as street sweeping, home helps and council housing, rather than on any grand ideological plan. These 'salt of the earth' Tory councils remain the rule rather than the exception.
Contrast, as a veteran local authority watcher pointed out, Kensington and Chelsea and its leader, Joan Hanham, with Lady Porter. He said: 'You couldn't have two more different people. You wouldn't know that Mrs Hanham were a Tory unless she was wearing a label. She talks about the suffering of the local homeless with real feeling. She is typical of the old-style consensus Tory councillor.'
The path of the new right will look even more unattractive after what has befallen Lady Porter and her colleagues. Paradoxically, the Government's plans for local government may open the way for more takeovers by zealots. Budgets are tightly controlled by central Government, with all authorities being effectively 'council tax capped' and only 15 per cent of total council funds being raised through the council tax. More services, such as education and policing, are already being taken away.
Another set of upheavals is in prospect, with the controversial local government reorganisation being undertaken under the auspices of Sir John Banham's Local Government Commission. Similarly to when the GLC and the metropolitan councils were abolished in 1986, the proposed changes will lead to more quangos, joint authorities and commissions being created, a further dilution of local democracy. Who on earth is going to bother to become a councillor unless he or she has parliamentary ambitions or a strong ideological axe to grind?
As those types of local councillors commit more excesses, the Government will argue for still further reductions in municipal powers. With the Tories likely to be wiped out in the May local elections, and with largely impotent councils, a future Tory government may be tempted simply to wipe out the whole troublesome lot.
The writer is co-author of 'Councils in Conflict', Macmillan, 1989.
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