Westminster City Council v Duke of Westminster
|Westminster City Council v Duke of Westminster|
|Court||High Court of Justice of England and Wales, Chancery Division|
|Full case name||Westminster City Council v Duke of Westminster and Others|
|Decided||26 November 1990|
|Appealed to||Court of Appeal of England and Wales|
|Subsequent action(s)|| 4 All ER 136
 24 HLR 572 CA (Civ Div)
|Judge sitting||Mr. Justice Harman|
Westminster City Council v Duke of Westminster was a legal case between Westminster City Council and Gerald Grosvenor, 6th Duke of Westminster heard in November 1990. The dispute concerned 532 flats in Page Street, Vincent Street and Regency Street, Pimlico, London. These had been designed by architect Sir Edwin Lutyens and erected between 1928-30 for Hugh Grosvenor, 2nd Duke of Westminster. In 1937 the Duke assigned the properties - for a peppercorn rent of 1 shilling - to the council on a 999-year lease with the stipulation that they be used only as "dwellings for the working classes... and no other purpose."
Westminster council argued that the term "working class" was now meaningless and that the stipulation should be overturned, allowing them to sell the leaseholds of the flats to anyone, against the present duke's wishes. The Duke maintained that the properties should remain available as low-rent accommodation for those who could not afford to purchase leaseholds. The case was dubbed Westminster v Westminster by the media.
'Building Stable Communities' policy
The Conservative Party had been narrowly re-elected to Westminster City Council in the 1986 local council elections, with a reduced majority of 4, and only held onto control of the council by 106 votes after the Labour Party failed to gain the marginal Cavendish Ward. Following the election and fearing that they would eventually lose control unless there was a permanent change in the social composition of the borough, council leader Shirley Porter instituted a secret policy known as 'Building Stable Communities' (BSC), focusing on eight marginal wards where the Conservatives wished to gain votes at the 1990 local council elections. An important part of this policy was the designation of much of Westminster's council housing for commercial sale, rather than re-letting when the properties became vacant. The designated housing was concentrated in those wards most likely to change hands to Labour in the elections and the policy was intended to force people on low incomes - perceived to be likely Labour supporters - out of the area by disposing of social housing. The council expected that this would result in "a pattern of tenure which is more likely to translate into Conservative votes."
The properties, collectively known as the Grosvenor Estate, had been built in Pimlico on the instructions of the 2nd Duke of Westminster, who owned the land. Previously, housing on the site had been "dilapidated" and prone to flooding and the "densely populated slum" was demolished in 1928 after being condemned by the Westminster Medical Officer of Health. Lutyens, who has been described as "arguably the greatest architect the country has produced", was at the time working as a consultant architect for the nearby Grosvenor House and was asked by the Duke to design new housing for workers on Page Street, Vincent Street and Regency Street.
In 1937 the Duke assigned the leaseholds of the 532 flats to Westminster council for 999 years, while retaining the freehold himself, with the condition that they be used as "dwellings for the working classes... and no other purpose."
As part of Porter's BSC policy, the flats were selected for Designated Sales. Since 1988 this had enabled anyone working in the City of Westminster to purchase council properties, or their leaseholds, at 30% of their true market value. A Home Ownership Centre (operated by estate agents Ellis & Co.) had been opened by the council in Victoria, London to facilitate the sales, described by BBC journalist Andrew Hosken as "the council's great machine of social engineering...that would sell thousands of council properties to prospective Tory voters." Although the council claimed that this would enable first-time buyers and middle-income families to settle in Westminster, there was no limit on resale values and in practice this meant that "the council's housing stock was wide open to property speculators looking for a quick profit by buying up a council flat at a huge discount and then selling a few years later at full market value." Challenged at the time by Labour councillors, who were just beginning to unravel the conspiracy behind BSC, Westminster council flatly denied that the designated sales were intended "to change the balance of the electorate in marginal wards, or indeed that purchasers were anything other than 'working class'."
The case was brought by Westminster City Council after Gerald Grosvenor, 6th Duke of Westminster, who at the time the wealthiest man in Britain, refused to withdraw the clause in the lease. As a compromise he said he would agree to 10% of the properties being offered for sale provided that the remainder were kept as low-rent accommodation, but this was rejected by the council. The council asked that the court set aside the stipulation on the grounds that the term "working classes" had "no meaning in contemporary society." Part of the council's case rested on a precedent set in Guinness Trust (London Fund) Founded 1890, Registered 1902 v Green  1 WLR 872 when the Court of Appeal had "unanimously ruled that the working class in Britain had been abolished."
The case was heard before Mr. Justice Harman at the High Court of Justice of England and Wales, Chancery Division, over 3 days in November 1990. John Colyer, QC, for the council, told the court: "As of today, the phrase 'dwellings for the working classes', whatever it meant in 1925 or 1937, has fallen out of the legislation."
Judgment was passed in the Duke's favour on 26 November 1990. Mr. Justice Harman ruled that the clause was "as valid today as when it was made" and that there was no evidence that the term "working class" was now obsolete. He also said that it was "unbecoming for the council to 'blow hot and cold' and seek now to set aside the terms under which it had accepted the second duke's generosity in 1937." Westminster City Council were, he said, under a continuing obligation to house the working class in Pimlico and could not sell the flats to anyone other than sitting tenants.
Dennis Skinner, the Labour MP for Bolsover, said: "There is still a working class. It's exploited every day by people with fancy names such as entrepreneur." Joe Ashton, the Labour MP for Bassetlaw, said: "The Lady Porters will always need the working classes to clean up after them. It shows that nobs [slang: nobility] like the Duke know more about how the world ticks than the heiress to a Tesco fortune." Sir Charles Irving, the Conservative MP for Cheltenham, disagreed and said: "We are all working class... Even the rich have to work."
John Mortimer quipped that Margaret Thatcher "had already abolished the working class and that these days, people [are] either 'middle-class or sleeping in a cardboard box.'" During the hearings the Sunday Correspondent newspaper offered a prize of a crate of brown ale for the best definition of 'working class'. The winning entry was: "Wearing overalls on weekdays, painting somebody else's house to earn money? You're working class. Wearing overalls at weekends, painting your own house to save money? You're middle class."
Shirley Porter said: "In a week when the son of a trapeze artist [John Major] has been battling to become Prime Minister... the courts have ruled that we must remain wedded to an outdated class system." Peter Bradley, then the deputy Leader of the Labour Group at Westminster Council, responded:
[Porter] says that the council's housing policies are intended "to enable less well-off families to become better off." She makes no mention of those Westminster people who are forced to raise their families in inadequate housing or, worse still, have become homeless as a direct consequence of her politically motivated depletion of the council's housing stock."
The BSC policy was eventually exposed and declared illegal.
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