Shirley Porter: she still hasn’t paid up
It was 1986, the Tories had narrowly won Westminster City Council in the local elections. I know, it’s hard to believe it but that’s what happened. Labour did well by narrowly winning a three seats and the SDP (spits) were a major threat to the Tories in another couple of seats. To prevent this from ever happening again, Porter and her council colleagues devised a plan to gerrymander marginal wards and those wards that had gone to Labour. The plan, euphemistically titled “Building Stable Communities”, was to sell off properties when tenants vacated them. The council also removed many homeless voters from the borough because they were less likely to vote Conservative.
Porter also sold off 3 cemeteries for 5p each. The Council bought them back in 2006.
Across the Thames in Wandsworth there was similar picture. Wandsworth under the leadership of Paul Beresford,was accused of illegally selling off void properties in tower blocks that were located in marginal wards.
The district auditor’s inquiry found “a relatively high correlation” between housing expenditure and the five most marginal wards in Wandsworth between 1987-88 and 1990-91 – the period when the Conservatives turned a one-seat majority into one of 35 in the 1990 local authority elections.
Beresford escaped punishment but the District Auditor found Porter guilty of wilful misconduct. Porter, her deputy David Weeks, one other councillor and a few council officials were made jointly liable for repaying £36m. However Porter was liable for the lion’s share of the sum and along with surcharges and interest, she owed around £37m. She filed a series of unsuccessful appeals but she fled the country and later resurfaced in Israel.
From the relative safety of Israel, she transferred the majority of her assets to her son.
She then claimed her wealth extended to just £300,000, though estimates put her fortune at £69m. The council failed to pursue her. But a subsequent investigation proved she moved millions of pounds to her son via a complex web of companies.
In 2004, she and the council agreed she would pay £12.3m, but Labour councillors at Westminster have pressed district auditor Les Kidner to reopen the case in a bid to force her to pay up the full fine. Councillors are aghast that investigators failed to spot the Porter family connection with Telos.
Porter lives in Westminster in a £1.5m property but is still at large.
Fast forward to the present day. Westminster City Council is still run by the Tories and council housing and homelessness are back in the headlines. In March of this year, the council proposed to ban night-time soup kitchens for the homeless. They claimed, without any evidence to support their assertions, that soup kitchens and the like are responsible for perpetuating homelessness. Conservative Angela Harvey said,
“When you see 50 to 80 people waiting for a soup run, they are not homeless people by and large.
“The majority will not be rough sleepers… you see them going off with large carrier bags stuffed full of food which is for them and their house mates. We know they are in work and housed.”
But she and the Council has failed to provide evidence for his wild assertion that people who are not homeless simply “take advantage” of soup kitchens. It’s a tall tale.
Westminster also wants increased powers to raise council rents. They propose to increase rent in line with any increase in a tenant’s income. Yesterday, Tory Philippa Roe told the BBC that, “we (the Council) think that it would be fair for those households to pay a little bit more so we can recycle that money, either to help the most vulnerable families or to keep rents down for vulnerable people on low, fixed incomes”. Notice how the word “vulnerable” is being used here to suggest that council housing is a form of welfare. It is not. The Council claims that there are around 2000 people living in council housing that are earning more than £50,000 a year. Councils don’t know how much their tenants earn unless they’re claiming Housing Benefit, so it’s difficult to see where Westminster gets its figures from. I suspect that the figure is entirely made up. The Labour group leader, Paul Dimoldenberg told Inside Housing,
‘Putting up rents is just another way for the Conservatives to increase taxes for middle earners and will push many hard-working residents out of Westminster.
‘Why are they attacking hard-working residents, the backbone of the community?’
Travel through the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea and you come to Hammersmith & Fulham, where the council has proposed to demolish hundreds of homes on the Gibbs Green and West Kensington Estates to make way for a new development that will include ‘affordable housing’. This ‘regeneration’ scheme forms part of the Earl’s Court redevelopment. They have also proposed to demolish the White City and Queen Caroline Estates. H&F council call their plan for council homes demolition “Decent Neighbourhoods”. The programme was detailed in the unresearched report titled “Principles for Social Housing Reform”.
It’s as though Shirley Porter and the 1980s never went away.