LETTERS The council that cares
Sir: Alfred Sherman's article (`Shirley, champion of the heart of Britain', 25 May) describes well the aims of those of us in Westminster council who have sought to save the heart of our capital from Islingtonisation, Washingtonisation and dereliction.
Clearly, the Left do not like what we have sought to achieve. The residents of Westminster, however, do. They voted for us in unprecedented numbers, against the national trend, both in 1990, when we start- ed to implement the policies, and in 1994, just after the district auditor, Mr John Mag- ill, a private accountant acting on contract, had first put forward his 'trumped-up charges' of 'gerrymandering'. It is worth exploring the background to how policies which are popular with the local electors can be decried by an unelected accountant.
David Rendel, Liberal Democrat MP for Newbury, confirmed in the House of Com- mons on 14 May how eccentric is Mr Mag- ill's assumption that party politics has no role in local government. He was asked if, in his experience as a councillor, his Liberal group ever took a political decision. 'I am staggered by that question and do not quite know how to answer it,' he replied. 'All political groups are in the business of tak- ing political decisions. It is an amazing question.'
This opinion contrasts with Mr Magill's high-flown unworldliness. 'I do not accept that it is impossible for a person charged with a public duty, in discharging that duty, to disregard the political or electoral advantage of the political party which he/she may support,' he solemnly intoned. `There is no reason to hold that those who undertake to discharge the trust reposed in them by the public to exercise public powers for public purposes cannot make a judgment of what is preferable in the public interest without regard to their own or their party's political or electoral advantage.'
The district auditor in Birmingham dis- agreed with this view of his Westminster counterpart and was quoted by Tory Party local government vice-chairman Eric Pickles MP in the debate. The Labour group on Birmingham city council, the auditor said, 'was indeed trying to improve its standing with the electorate following poor results in May 1992'. But, he went on to conclude, 'we find nothing wrong with this principle in a democratic system. It is normal for any political party to revise its policies to reflect the views of the elec- torate as expressed in the ballot box.'
The Weekly Telegraph asked whether it is inappropriate, as Mr Magill had seemed to imply, to seek to change the social composi- tion of a borough. This was, they said, one of the aims of Westminster's policy. The leading article answered its own question: `Like other self-righteous outsiders called in to investigate political institutions and activities — Lord Nolan and Sir Richard Scott spring to mind — Mr Magill seems to labour under the delusion that there is some non-partisan, administrative golden mean to which elected representatives should always adhere.' It elaborated: 'It is not unreasonable to try to ensure, as West- minster attempted to by selling council houses, that a borough is not only inhabited by — and polarised between — the very rich and the very poor.'
The Weekly Telegraph recognised the political motivation of those who have attacked the designated sales policy: 'It can be used to discredit a crucial Tory policy of the Thatcher years, without having to make a suicidal frontal assault on the concept of home ownership. The national Labour Party knows this. Do its Tory counter- parts?'
Bernard Dineen, writing in the Yorkshire Post, had a different view of the ambition of those who have attacked Westminster's housing policy: 'The venom with which Shirley Porter has been attacked may seem puzzling but I gave three possible reasons in this column some months ago. She is a woman, she is rich and she is Jewish. Any- one who thinks these are not factors knows little about the nature of prejudice.'
Leader of Westminster Council 1991-93, 908 Beatty House, Dolphin Square London SW1