The ‘West End Extra’ reports;
“CITY Hall has been accused of using public money to promote Conservative “propaganda” just weeks before a highly contested election and in breach of government regulations.
A newsletter outlining improvements that are being considered for the area was sent to about 5,000 homes in Churchill ward, Pimlico, which is likely to be one of the closest fought in local elections next month.
But it was immediately slammed as “blatant electioneering” and “a return to the bad old days of Shirley Porter” – the disgraced former council leader was found guilty of gerrymandering and eventually paid £12million to settle the surcharge imposed on her following the “homes for votes” scandal.
A formal complaint was made to chief executive Charlie Parker this week and Labour group leader Paul Dimoldenberg, who wrote the book The Westminster Whistleblowers about his dogged pursuit of Lady Porter, said: “You know full well that the aim of the newsletter is to persuade residents that, after years of council neglect, something is now happening in Churchill Gardens. This is certainly giving assistance to Conservative attempts to shore up support for their candidates who are facing widespread and increasing criticism for the years of council neglect.”
Mr Parker rejected the claims in a letter to Cllr Dimoldenberg and said: “The content is not political, making no reference to elected members.” He said the newsletter was signed off by the council’s legal team, adding: “With regard to your concerns that this impacts on election matters, I believe that it does not – a position confirmed by the head of legal services.”
Labour believe they have a good chance of stealing a seat in the Churchill ward and they said the newsletter was intended to convince locals that the Tory-run council had not forgotten them.
Cllr Dimoldenberg said: “This is the use of council money and council staff to support the Conservatives’ election efforts. It is an absolute disgrace and it looks like both Westminster Conservatives and Westminster Council have reverted back to the bad old days of Shirley Porter.”
While not mentioning the Conservative party or their councillors by name, the leaflets bore the “Better City, Better Lives” branding that has become synonymous with the Tory leadership.
Council leader Philippa Roe has described the catchphrase as her “vision for Westminster” and the phrase is a regular motif in her public addresses.
Murad Gassanly, who lives in Churchill Gardens and is standing as a Labour candidate, was part of the early consultations on the regeneration work, branded “Team Churchill” by City Hall.
He likened the newsletter to “propaganda” and questioned why it had been rushed out to residents in the days before the election and said the issues that were being tackled had been a problem for residents of the estate for many years.
“Why haven’t they done something before this election?
“Why suddenly start this now and send out a newsletter weeks before the election?
“We’ve been talking about these issues for years and the fact they are happening now is so blatant electioneering, coming weeks before the election. This is the most marginal ward in Westminster, clearly they are very concerned,” he said.
Among the issues that the newsletter identifies is the Balmoral Castle, which has been lying empty since 2006, while £20,000 is spent each year on scaffolding to support the building.
It also highlighted problems with drugs and anti-social behaviour on the estate and a lack of facilities for young people.
Tom Ball, a former architect who has lived on the estate for more than 30 years, said he was concerned that the architectural firm Levit Bernstein had been appointed to the project while it was still unknown what works would be carried out.
He said: “They [the council] have refused to tell me. It is a simple, straightforward, request. What are these architects briefed to do? Now I’m even more alarmed when I hear it being described as the regeneration of Churchill Gardens estate. I fear there’s something sinister behind all of this.”
A copy of the newsletter is here Churchill_Gardens_Newsletter