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Grenfell survivors left shocked by Shirley Porter play

Theatre gives free tickets to those affected by fire disaster to see production that tells story of ‘homes-for-votes’ scandal at Westminster Council

01 June, 2018 — By Tom Foot

Jessica Martin as Shirley Porter in Shirley­mander. Photo: Simon Bohrsmann

SURVIVORS affected by the Grenfell Tower fire have been to see a play about Shirley Porter – the architect of one of the biggest local authority scandals of all time.

Two-hundred-and-fifty tickets were handed out to people living by the tower for the Shirley­mander show at the new Playground Theatre in Latimer Road.

It tells the story of the former Westminster Council leader who was exposed for the 1980s “homes-for-votes” scandal and whose administration left a legacy of unsafe tower blocks, homelessness and public land sold on the cheap. Close-knit communities are destroyed for profit and families are evicted and forced to move away.

The Playground’s artistic director Anthony Briggs said there had been “audible gasps” from the audience at parallels between the Porter story and the fire disaster last June.

He said: “It is not that Porter caused Grenfell Tower, but that kind of behaviour caused Grenfell Tower.”

Mr Briggs took on his role at the theatre three weeks before the fire at Grenfell, after leaving the Jermyn Street theatre in Mayfair. He said: “I was sent the play by the writer Greg Evans and, after the fire so much was still going on, but I knew I wanted to get it on the stage.

Jessica Martin and Jack Klaff in Shirleymander

“I did know of Shirley Porter, but I didn’t know entirely the details about what she had done. There is an educational element to the story, of course, but also it is just such a fantastic story, an outrageous story.

“Attitudes, they were appalling. In social services. There were audible gasps at some points – when they talked about The Points [two tower blocks in Harrow Road] that were asbestos-riddled blocks. They were condemned and knocked down after they were sprayed with asbestos that circulated through air ducts. People had to be kicked out of other flats.

“Any discussion about tower blocks around here obviously is a big deal. There is a palpable sense of anger among the people walking around. It is still here.”

Initially broadcast to great acclaim on BBC Radio 4, the play stars Jessica Martin as Shirley. It is being staged in the shadow of Grenfell Tower in the Playground Theatre, a 150-seater that opened last November in Latimer Road.

On June 8 a group of Labour councillors are to attend a performance, including Paul Dimoldenberg, who was on the opposition benches during the 1980s scandal.

Shirley Porter

He said: “For many of us that period was both exciting and horrific. The way in which the entire machinery of the council was abused to divert public resources to delivering an illegal political agenda was breathtaking.

“Being on the ‘front line’ and challenging Shirley Porter and her co-conspirators on a daily basis was a ‘crash course’ in political campaigning.

“At the same time, dealing with the impact on the lives of council tenants victimised by the council’s housing policies was very difficult to handle.

“It was not unusual for residents to break down in tears in our weekly advice surgeries. Sadly, that still happens today.

“The phrase that has struck with me over all these years is ‘mean and nasty’. Those were the words of the former housing committee chairman responsible for moving the homeless out of Westminster as the Conservatives tried to ensure victory in the eight ‘key wards’.”

Cllr Dimoldenberg, who wrote The Westminster Whistle­blowers, which tells the story of the homes-for-votes scandal, added: “I am looking forward to the play. The reviews have been good, with the actor playing Shirley Porter giving a tour-de-force performance.

“It will be great to laugh at her antics, but I hope, too, that Shirleymander does not forget the faceless victims of her reign.”

Westminster Council leader who moved families into contaminated tower blocks

TESCO heiress Shirley Porter was Conservative leader of Westminster Council throughout the 1980s.

She oversaw a “Building Stable Communities” policy in Westminster that was later ruled unlawful by the District Auditor and dubbed the “homes for votes scandal”.

The policy moved likely Labour voters – the disabled, homeless, elderly and poor people – out of marginal wards.

It saw families with young children moved into asbestos-contaminated tower blocks.

Senior council officers were also involved in the toxic administration.

Porter was ordered to pay a levy of £27million in 1996. She paid a final £12.3million settlement in 2004.

She moved to Israel in 1994 and set up the Porter Foundation that has funded dozens of philanthropic causes.

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