Although Hammersmith and Fulham has worked very hard to win the title of ‘worst council for housing’ in recent times, old favourite Westminster is never far behind. The council still has not shed the reputation gained during the leadership of Dame Shirley Porter during the 1980s when she manipulated the sale of council houses in the borough for electoral advantage, and suffered the consequence of the largest penalty ever levied by an Auditor.
The fact that Porter felt the need to sell council houses illegally to shore up the Tory vote tells us something about the borough that is not normally recognised: despite its enormous wealth and posh bits, like Mayfair and Knightsbridge, the borough has always been very mixed. When I went to live there in the early 1970s areas such as Covent Garden, Pimlico, East Marylebone, Bayswater, Church Street and the whole of North Paddington were largely working class. Porter’s illegal policy followed the election of 1986 when Labour came within a few votes of winning control of the whole council.
A lot has changed since then. Whole neighbourhoods have been transformed by gentrification, a market movement which has benefitted the Tories politically. But the city is still a mix: insofar as voting is an indication, Westminster North remained firmly Labour in 2010 despite the catastrophic collapse in the Party’s vote nationally. The borough still has some of London’s most deprived Wards. But inner London is now in the grip of a form of super-gentrification, immune from the recession and bolstered by huge overseas investment in central London property. And the poor pay the price.
The Tories and the LibDems, and the bulk of the media, now see the borough as a place where poor people should not live, no matter how many generations of their family have lived there. The fact that many poorer people – often doing the jobs that make London work as a city – have been gradually priced out of their own borough is now being used to justify removing those that remain. Rents have become so ridiculously high that many people in work need housing benefit support – the very ‘strivers’ that George Osborne applauds whilst stabbing them in the back with cuts to tax credits and HB. The only bulwark against these trends would have been the building of secure social housing at affordable rents, but there has been precious little of that for 2 decades and Westminster has missed opportunity after opportunity to build more.
Westminster Council has campaigned to dilute the homelessness duty for many years. They like to play the victim, picking up the tab when lots of people arrive in the borough just to declare themselves homeless. In fact, the vast majority of people accepted by the council have a clear local connection and the issue has always been lack of supply not excess demand. Until now that is. Because now the Council faces both poor supply and an explosion in demand as the welfare ‘reforms’ work themselves through.
It is curious to note that both the housing Ministers of State at CLG are Westminster old boys, Mark Prisk being politically active during the Porter era and Nick Boles being a former cabinet member for housing there. Prisk may be feeling conflicted because, like Grant Shapps before him, he can only protect the Government from accusations that it is responsible for rising homelessness by blaming the councils. To their embarrassment, that includes Westminster.
Labour Leader Paul Dimoldenberg has been monitoring the rapid growth in the number of homeless families kept in B&B accommodation over the six week limit. The number has risen from 36 in April 2012 to 140 now and is showing clear signs of being out of control. This week Prisk wrote to Labour MP Karen Buck accepting that Westminster’s action in keeping families in B&B for more than 6 weeks ‘is unlawful and unacceptable’. He noted that ‘The detrimental effects of B&B accommodation on families are well documented and we must avoid a return to the situation where thousands of homeless families were living in poor quality B&B accommodation long term.’ The rest of the letter dumps on the council: it’s their fault not ours.
If it was one bad borough then Prisk might have a point. All that can be said in Westminster’s defence is that it is one of many London Councils desperately searching the country to procure accommodation as the reforms generate growing homelessness. After Osborne’s assault today on people on benefits, in or out of work, things can only get worse.