Blog Post

From ‘homes for votes’ to ‘homes for people’

It was a moment of great drama when long-time former Labour Group Leader, Paul Dimoldenberg, won his nemesis Shirley Porter’s old seat of Hyde Park Ward last May and Labour took control of the council that had once been notorious for her ‘Homes for Votes’ policy in the 1980s. 

Labour arrived at City Hall with a detailed Manifesto and a raft of housing commitments. One promise was to establish a Housing Review as part of the ‘Future of Westminster Commission’. Strong groups of experts were appointed to fundamentally examine housing supply and homelessness and a new citywide Residents Panel was appointed to look at how to improve the management of the council’s own homes. 

The Review started by studying in detail the pipeline of schemes on the council’s own land, quickly re-setting the relationship between Westminster and the London Mayor, leading to the council gaining over £60m extra in grant in addition to a major increase in the use of its own resources. Scandalously, the Tories had refused to hold ballots on the two big regeneration schemes, Church Street and Ebury, meaning that they did not qualify for grant. By going out to residents and explaining our strategy we held very successful ballots, gained tens of millions of extra grant, and increased the number of social rent homes in these two projects by 158. Overall, we added over 300 council homes for social rent in current Council building schemes. 

The current state of play is that over the course of  this council term (to 2026/27) we are on course to build over 1000 social rent homes (nearly 700 net taking account of reprovision) on our own land, alongside around 200 new homes for intermediate rent. Our longer-term pipeline contains many more truly affordable homes, and we are continuing to look for ways to strengthen this position further. Council homes for social rent on council land is our mantra because we have around 3000 households in temporary accommodation and over 4000 on our housing register and, when it comes to building social rent, land we already own gives us the best bang for our buck. 

Despite all our efforts we will only put a dent in the problem rather than solving it – only sustained government action over a decade and more will do that. But every home provided means a family or individual has a real opportunity to build a life in a genuinely affordable home. 

There is no silver bullet on housing supply. We have made a good start on our own land, but we will leave no stone unturned to try to get more truly affordable homes. For example, we have embarked on a revision of the City Plan to get more truly affordable homes out of the planning system (for example by requiring small luxury developments to contribute to tackling the housing crisis) and we are talking to the city’s registered providers about what more they can do. 

There is also great urgency to tackle the crisis in temporary accommodation (TA) that we inherited, especially as homelessness is likely to grow as the housing market deteriorates. We are putting around £170m into acquisitions for temporary accommodation which should provide around 270 homes either in the city or within a 30-minute bus journey. We will inevitably still rely on procurement of private rented homes, but we are determined to try to make sure they are of a decent standard and as close to support networks as possible. This is not at all easy, given that the Government’s frozen local housing allowance means less than 0.5% of homes in Westminster are affordable for those reliant on housing benefit. 

We are also working on improving the package of support to households in TA to reduce the impact it has on them, and especially on children.  

Even people on decent incomes struggle to find affordable homes in Westminster, so through changes to our Affordable Housing Supplementary Planning Document  and reform of our practices we are repurposing ‘intermediate homes’ so they directly benefit key workers, mainly those earning less than £60K, rather than general demand. We think a local offer to health and transport workers and others will be very popular and will help our city in many ways. Collaboration with the private sector and other public bodies over their developments and use of local assets will play a crucial part in helping build the key worker housing we need for the future.    

More than most places, Westminster is associated with global dirty money being put into property that is often not used as a home. We are adopting an empty homes strategy and have appointed an empty homes officer to assess the scale of the problem and tackle the most egregious cases and find new ways to help homes back into use and to bring life back to communities at risk of being hollowed out. This also fits our dirty money strategy which has attracted attention because of the strong action being taken against ‘candy shops’ as well as on residential. 

These are our main initiatives on housing supply; we have also been active on the private rented sector, starting a review of housing allocations, and rethinking our Rough Sleepers Strategy – another big issue with a Westminster focus. Our Residents Panel has been getting to grips with a wide range of issues in housing management, including starting work on our proposed Repairs Charter and our Leaseholders Charter, and we are delivering on our promise to increase the number of housing officers and to re-open estate offices.  

There is a strong overlap between housing and our vitally important work to help people through the cost-of-living crisis. We have set up a £1m+ rent support fund to assist those facing the 7% rent increase without full benefit support and, amongst other things, we have provided over £14m in cost-of-living support to local families and are extending our free school meals offer, currently for all primary pupils as of January, to include nursery and key stage 3 pupils thanks to some help from Sadiq Khan.  

The housing crisis is now so severe that there is no way out without strong and sustained government action. The General Election is drawing closer but, in the meantime, we will do everything we can to make as big a contribution as possible from Labour Westminster.

Cllr Adam Hug is the Leader of Westminster City Council.

Steve Hilditch is Chair of the Westminster Housing Review

Blog Post

Let them drink soup

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Steve Hilditch</span></strong>
Steve Hilditch

Founder of Red Brick. Former Head of Policy for Shelter. Select Committee Advisor for Housing and Homelessness. Drafted the first London Mayor’s Housing Strategy under Ken Livingstone. Steve sits on the Editorial Panel of Red Brick.

As I lived in Westminster for nearly forty years, readers will forgive me if I have a sharper focus on what goes on there.  There is normally plenty to report.  Mostly over the forty years it has been bad news.  Always run by the Tories, they sank from being a paternalist council that built an astonishingly high number of council houses in the late 60s and early 70s to the depredations of Lady Porter and the post-Porter policy of shipping as many homeless people as far away from the borough as possible.

But it is their policy on street homelessness that demonstrates that they have been, and remain, fully paid-up members of the nasty party.  The latest event in a long history is their plan, through a new bye-law, to ban soup runs and make sleeping on the streets illegal in a defined zone of the city, around Westminster Cathedral in Victoria.   (It was in the Daily Mail, under a headline containing the word ‘callous’, so it must be true). 

There is a contradiction in the stance taken by Tory Cabinet member for Housing, Angela Harvey.  She complains that, of the people attending the soup kitchens, “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.”  Now if that is the case, logically you might ban the soup runs.  Or you might exercise your mind and wonder why it is that people need to come out on a freezing night to find free food.  But why would you ban street sleeping if the people attending the soup runs are already housed?

Old Etonian and millionaire Cabinet member Sir George Young once said (or ‘quipped’ if you prefer the softer version in Wikipedia): “The homeless? Aren’t they the people you step over when you are coming out of the opera?”  Quip or not, it reveals an attitude which many long-term observers of Westminster Council think also reflects the council’s real motivations: keep the place tidy and get the poor out from under our feet.  

There is a genuine debate about the effect of soup runs, and whether they save lives daily or encourage people to stay out of hostels and on the streets.  Westminster knows it is a balanced argument because it sponsored research from LSE which produced a sensible assessment of the pros and cons in a report less than 2 years ago.  The research identified the downsides of soup runs but concluded that they “provide a safety net by making available food and social contact to those who are unable or unwilling to access other services.”

But even if you think soup runs should be banned, the first article of the Bye-law is not about that.  It bans street sleeping itself.  “No person shall lie down or sleep in or on any public place.” And “No person shall at any time deposit any materials used or intended to be used as bedding in or on any public place”.

As Ken Livingstone put it:

 “The idea with all the other problems we’ve got, with crime, that we should have police diverted to seizing their soup is just bizarre.  I think this is just another: ‘Can we move the poor on from Westminister?’”

Blog Post

Homes for votes

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Steve Hilditch</span></strong>
Steve Hilditch

Founder of Red Brick. Former Head of Policy for Shelter. Select Committee Advisor for Housing and Homelessness. Drafted the first London Mayor’s Housing Strategy under Ken Livingstone. Steve sits on the Editorial Panel of Red Brick.

Sometimes an innocuous news story grabs your attention and triggers a strong emotional reaction.  Well this time it was the seemingly unremarkable story of a former Head teacher who was made a Dame in 2000 for her services to education, then was sacked for misconduct to do with staff appointments.  But yesterday she had her Dame Commander of the British Empire honour cancelled and annulled by the Queen

My problem is that I can’t hear the word ‘Dame’ without a shiver going down my spine because of its association in my mind with the name of Dame Shirley Porter.  In the late 1980s I became one of the ‘objectors’ to Westminster Council’s accounts over the policy that became known as the ‘Homes for Votes’ gerrymandering scandal.   Over many years the case was investigated by the Auditor and then meandered through the Courts, ending conclusively in a House of Lords judgement against her for “wilful misconduct” and “disgraceful and improper gerrymandering”.  Those with a keen interest can read the Lords’ judgement .  The case concerned the unlawful sale of council houses for electoral purposes, which was illegal, but Westminster’s other noteworthy policies including closing homeless hostels, being ‘nasty to the homeless’, and rehousing people in temporary accommodation in tower blocks known to be riddled with asbestos. 

Karen Buck MP, who was involved in exposing and pursuing Porter, has recently pointed out that the number of people displaced under Porter’s plans was tiny compared to the clearances that will shortly happen with the changes to local housing allowance.  That is the battle to come.  But for those interested in the history, Andrew Hosken’s book ‘Nothing Like a Dame: The Scandals of Shirley Porter’ tells the whole story and Paul Dimoldenberg’s book ‘The Westminster Whistleblowers: Shirley Porter, Homes for Votes and Scandal in Britain’s Rottenest Borough’ looks at events from the point of view of local campaigners.  Both are excellent reads.  There was also a BBC radio 4 play broadcast in 2009 called ‘Shirleymander’.

Since the case was finalised – Porter eventually paid back £12m of the losses – Westminster Labour councillors, MPs and Ken Livingstone have raised a number of related issues.  One is that there should have been a serious investigation by the Met into allegations of perjury against Porter.  And another was that it was improper for a person found guilty of such acts to remain as a Dame given the endorsement that implies.  Neither of these points have been satisfactorily answered.     

No Tory Leader has ever apologised for what Porter did.  That would be good to hear.  It probably will never happen.  But it is reasonable to ask – why is she still a Dame?