Dumping the poor: Nick Cohen unravels the homes-for-votes scandal engulfing Dame Shirley Porter and reveals that her successors on Westminster council are still . . .

Nick Cohen
Saturday 22 October 2011 22:37

WESTMINSTER City Council, the Tory flagship condemned last week for 'improper and disgraceful gerrymandering', is still trying to push the poor and the homeless out of central London.

Confidential documents, seen by the Independent on Sunday, reveal that despite the public outrage about the affair Westminster is currently using its contacts at the highest levels of the Conservative Party in an attempt to remove the homeless by defining them away.

The council is asking the Government to allow all local authorities to save money by cutting drastically the numbers of homeless people they are obliged by law to rehouse. If the plans are accepted by ministers, tens of thousands of destitute people across Britain could be denied priority places on council house waiting lists.

This controversial proposal has come to light just days after the District Auditor recommended in his preliminary report that 10 former councillors and officers (including one who is now a Tory MP) should be forced to pay back the pounds 21m their policies cost ratepayers, and be disqualified from standing as local councillors. That case involved an attempt to manipulate elections whereas the new proposal does not, but a common theme links the two: in both cases the council demonstrates a determined reluctance to accept responsibility for housing the poor people within its boundaries.

Last week's revelations about what the auditor, John Magill, variously described as the 'disgraceful', 'wilful', 'unlawful', 'unauthorised' and 'improper' decisions of Westminster Council, were based on events between 1986 and 1988. His report describes how Dame Shirley Porter, the heiress to the Tesco fortune who was then council leader, with her Conservative colleagues and some council officers, produced a two-track strategy to ensure that the Tories were returned to power in the marginal local authority.

One track dealt with the homeless, whom the Labour Party had organised and put on the electoral roll before the closely fought 1986 council election. They were regarded as a danger to the Conservatives, and a policy document drawn up for the local Tory leadership said in 1986 that the council must examine the costs of 'homeless / down and outs who are not our natural supporters'.

The other track involved house sales. The Conservatives decided that home ownership - at very low levels in central London - should be increased so that a natural and permanent Conservative majority could be manufactured in Westminster. This was to be achieved by setting aside 10,000 council homes for sale to Westminster residents or to people from outside. Vacant council homes - where tenants had died or moved on - were to be sold at a rate of 500 a year. Most of the 'designated' homes were in eight electoral wards with fragile Tory majorities. By promoting owner-occupation in the target wards, a paper for the Tory leadership explained in 1987, the politicians would encourage 'a pattern of tenure which is more likely to translate into Conservative votes'.

Gerrymandering, the word used by the auditor, is not quite the right term to describe this policy. Technically, the word means drawing electoral boun daries to the advantage of the governing party. Westminster was more ambitious: the council was not merely changing the boundaries it was attempting to change the electorate.

These policies, the council and the Conservative Party maintain, are all history now. Lady Porter left in 1992 and the council is under new management - although it is still Tory management.

But Labour politicians, housing associations and workers for the homeless claim that Lady Porter's successors are still shipping such people out of Westminster to leased accommodation in the East End of London and down-at-heel suburbs.

This would matter less to the rest of the country were Tory Westminster not secretly using its considerable influence with Conservative ministers, who have praised it to the skies over the past eight years, to press for a change in the law. A confidential document, Home lessness: a Shopping List for Early Change, shows that it is urging the Government to clamp down on the rights of the homeless to be put on a council's housing list. The council recommends that the Government should make it harder for young single mothers, battered wives, immigrants and the mentally ill to obtain council homes.

Later this month, Sir George Young, the Housing Minister, whose civil servants are being lobbied by Westminster, will announce a review of council housing policy. It is likely that he will reflect some of Westminster's hardline views. In one of the 'back to basics' speeches at the Tory Party conference last October, Young indicated that he wanted to restrict the rights of single mothers to priority on council house waiting lists.

Gavin Millar, the Labour spokesman on housing on Westminster Council, said: 'What we are seeing is a battle to escape from responsibility for the homeless. First, the Conservatives tried to ship them out . . . now that policy has failed, they are trying to change the definition of who is homeless and has the right to be cared for by the council. They want the centre of London to be like the centre of New York - a British Manhattan where the rich can walk without being troubled by conscience and the poor are safely tucked away in their ghettos.'

TO MOST people, Westminster is merely the Houses of Parliament, Buckingham Palace and West End shops. But for all its apparent glamour, the area has its fair share of metropolitan poverty. Westminster pushes north into Kilburn, the traditional London home for the working-class Irish, and west into Bayswater, where Peter Rachman had his slum housing empire in the 1950s.

As offices and shops moved into the richer part of Westminster and wealthy homeowners moved out to the suburbs, the Conservatives found that they were left with an electorate overwhelmingly comprised of tenants. In 1981, just 21 per cent of residents owned their own home compared to 65 per cent nationally. In 1986 local elections, the Tories came within a handful of votes of losing control of the council. Homeless ness was, and remains, high in central London, where the council had to cope with people coming from all over the country looking for work.

The Magill report shows that the council leadership's response to this unfavourable demographic trend combined two themes: a passionate belief in privatisation and an attitude to the poor which might most charitably be described as high-handed.

On 2 September 1986, a note of a meeting of senior politicians shows that the blunt question was asked: 'How can we get them (the homeless) out of Westminster City Council?'

A few days later, Porter sent senior Tories a confidential paper which included the warning that 'we are spending an extra pounds 1.52m this year' on meeting statutory responsibilities to house the homeless. The paper advised that the council should 'test the law to its limits', and move the homeless to 'property outside Westminster'. The aim was to encourage 'gentrification' within the area. In this case, gentrification was defined as 'ensuring that the right people live in the right areas'. The right areas were to be identified 'on the basis of electoral trends and results'.

Porter wrote to colleagues: 'When you've read the documents . . . it would be helpful if you swallow them in good spy fashion otherwise they might self-destruct]]' Her instructions were apparently not obeyed.

By 18 September, a homeless action plan had been drawn up and approved by Porter and six other Tory councillors. The policy was summarised by officers as 'mean and nasty'. In 1987 the two elements of the strategy were in place. Westminster would not just sell council houses to tenants; it would 'gentrify' the key marginal wards by selling empty properties to anyone with a connection with Westminster who wanted to buy. The homeless and priority families on the housing list, who might normally be expected to take the homes, were to be shunted out of the area instead. A council draft paper proclaimed that targets were to 'stop housing Westminster homeless in Westminster with immediate effect (and) to move all homeless out of Westminster starting with key wards by end 1988'.

The homeless were treated as meanly and nastily as Porter and the rest intended. Some went out to Essex and the London suburbs; others were left in hostels and on the street. The consequence was a steep rise in the number of people Westminster could not house but who were entitled to a home. In the five years from 1987 to 1992 the number rose from 210 to 871.

When it was asked to account for this, Westminster claimed that it faced special burdens because the council is in central London. But Westminster's own analysis of housing applicants showed that only a quarter were immigrants, refugees or people from other parts of Britain. Most had been thrown out of asylums in the community care programme or thrown out of their homes by friends, relatives and landlords. They were not scroungers who had come to London hoping that the streets were paved with gold, but ordinary people looking for a council to provide them with housing.

Porter said from California last week that she would return in February and clear her name. She denied that her conduct was illegal or improper. She said of Magill's report: 'I have received legal advice to the effect that his view is neither correct in law nor in fact.'

The central Porter policy - the targeting of key wards - was exposed and the auditor's investigation was instigated when Patricia Kirwan, the former Conservative chairwoman of Westminster's housing committee, admitted to the BBC in 1989 that gerrymandering was taking place. The plan was 'to increase the number of upwardly mobile Conservative-type voters in specific key areas to ensure the vote went up', she told Panorama.

WHILE the Magill report has exposed the policies of the 1980s to public scrutiny and condemnation, local Labour politicians in Westminster allege that the spirit of those policies lives on, because the Conservatives are still failing to build cheap homes for rent in Westminster and are continuing to move the poor out.

Council figures support the opposition claim. They show that in the past year 524 homeless people were sent to flats outside the area. In Westminster itself, just 147 cheap, public homes for rent were built.

Meanwhile, opportunities to force developers to build affordable homes in Westminster have been missed. The Government encourages councils to insist that developers provide some socially useful buildings - a 'planning gain' in local authority jargon - when they are given permission to develop a profitable site. But even though Westminster has big developments under way on the sites of two former hospitals and in the Paddington basin near the railway station, housing activists allege that opportunities to construct new homes have been ignored.

'It is not even willing to go along with Government policies,' said the chairman of one housing association. 'Westminster still has the view that planning gain is a nasty socialist policy.'

The present Tory leadership strongly denies that there is anything wrong in this. They are not gerrymandering but making the best use of limited resources by buying homes outside Westminster that are better value for money.

But there is a growing recognition that these policies are not sustainable. Westminster, like councils across the country, is running into the problems created by the council house sales programme which proved such a great vote-winner for the Conservatives after the 1979 general election. Councils are allowed to use only a small percentage of the receipts from the sale of houses to build new homes. As housing associations have been unable to meet the demand left by the collapse in council house building, there is nowhere for the destitute to go apart from bed-and-breakfast hostels or shop doorways.

Worse still, Westminster can no longer offer tax relief to encourage the developement of leasehold properties for its homeless in other parts of London. This is because subsidies under the Government's Business Expansion Scheme ceased to be available for this purpose at the end of 1993. As a result, Westminster has about 850 homeless families in temporary accommodation at present and 1,000 on a transfer list waiting to move from bedsits.

Rather than seeking new ways to build or find homes, the council's response to this crisis has been to ask the Government to reduce its obligations to house homeless people. The 'shopping list' it has sent to ministers calls for Whitehall to make a string of legal changes.

Pensioners should not be automatically regarded as having a 'priority need' for a home. 'Old age should not, in itself, establish a priority need,' the council document says. Councils should not be forced to put people who seem 'vulnerable' - often the mentally ill and battered wives - in hostels until their cases have been assessed and their vulnerability established to the satisfaction of council officers.

Westminster also wants to make it harder for homeless immigrants to claim a house. Councils should be able to consider whether an applicant has access to accommodation abroad and has deliberately made himself homeless, it said.

Meanwhile, children who are thrown out of their homes by their parents, mainly pregnant teenagers, should not automatically be given priority on waiting lists but should be compelled to go to the courts and demand re-entry to the family home, regardless of whether they want to or not.

THE ULTIMATE irony of the policy of the 1980s, and perhaps the lesson for today's council, is that many of the people who were supposed to benefit have turned into bitter enemies of Tory Westminster. Alan Duncan, Teresa Gorman and other Tory MPs have done well buying smart town houses, but for most of the supposed beneficiaries - ordinary people who bought modest flats - the experience has been a disaster.

About 800 have formed a pressure group and are demanding that the council buys their homes back. Mark Green, 35, a medical researcher, explains why. He paid pounds 45,000 for a flat on the 15th floor of a block on the Warwick estate in 1989. The flat was valued at pounds 62,000, but because he was a Westminster resident he got a pounds 17,000 discount from a council that was desperate to sell. Now estate agents have told him that his home is effectively worthless.

Green makes the key point that he had no choice but to buy. 'I and many others would have been happy to rent a council flat. But as they were all being sold off we would never have been able to rent in a million years.' He was assured that the whole estate had been designated for sale and that he would soon find himself surrounded by owner-occupiers rather than 'problem families'.

But within weeks of moving in, the council quietly dropped its plans to sell more flats in the block. It was only three years later, when a neighbour tried to move, that owner-occupiers discovered estate agents and building societies would have nothing to do with the properties.

The other victims are of course the homeless, who wanted to find somewhere to live in Westminster. Maxine Sandford was born and brought up in the area. She and her two young children have now been dumped by Westminster two hours away in a leased flat in the East End of London, where they know no one.

'They moved me away from my family and friends without any regard for my, or my children's, health and happiness. It's miles from anywhere and very hard for anyone to visit me. It's become a nightmare, I want to be moved back to Westminster,' she said.

Additional reporting by Jason Bennetto. Photograph by Tom Pilston.

(Photographs omitted)

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