Shirley Porter

Shirley Porter
Shirley, Lady Porter
Lord Mayor of Westminster
In office
Preceded by Dr. David Avery
Succeeded by Dr. Cyril Nemeth
Deputy Lieutenant of Greater London
In office
Leader of Westminster City Council
In office
Succeeded by David Weeks
Councillor (Hyde Park Ward)
In office
Personal details
Born 29 November 1930 (1930-11-29) (age 80)
Clapton, London, England, U.K.
Nationality British
Spouse(s) Sir Leslie Porter (Deceased)
Children John Porter, Linda Porter
Residence Park Lane, Mayfair, London
Religion Judaism

Shirley, Lady Porter, DBE, (born 29 November 1930) is a former Conservative leader of Westminster City Council in London and a prominent philanthropist in Israel and the UK.[1][2] She is the daughter and heir of Jack Cohen, the founder of Tesco supermarkets. She was appointed a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1991 by John Major after delivering "a spectacular victory" in Westminster for the Conservatives in the 1990 elections.[3] In July 2003 John Prescott instructed his Permanent Secretary to set in motion the procedure to have her stripped of the title. By 2004 the action appeared to have been halted.[4] This has led to some detractors erroneously claiming the title had been removed.[5]

While leader of Westminster City Council she oversaw the "Building Stable Communities" policy, later described as the "homes for votes" scandal and was consequently accused of gerrymandering.[nb 1] The policy was judged illegal by the district auditor, and a surcharge of £27m levied on her in 1996.[6] This was later raised to £42 million with interest and costs. She eventually settled in 2004, paying a full payment of £12.3 million.[7] Kit Malthouse, Deputy Mayor of London, described it as one of the greatest post-war political scandals and said: "The highest court in the land found her guilty of gerrymandering. There isn't a much worse offence than that in politics. It is definitely up there in the hall of infamy."[8] Writing in The Spectator in 2006, author and journalist Leo McKinstry described her as "the high priestess of Tory sleaze," whose actions helped to "undermine the reputation of the Conservative party in the 1990s and pave the way for the arrival of Tony Blair."[9]

She moved to Israel in 1994 during the inquiry, and lived there until 2006.[10]


Background and political career

Shirley Cohen was born in Upper Clapton, London, on 29 November 1930. Her father, John Edward "Jack" Cohen, was the founder and owner of Tesco, and her mother was Sarah "Cissie" (née Fox), the daughter of a master tailor.[11][12] Cohen opened the first two Tesco stores in 1929. By 1939, he owned over 100 Tesco stores across the country.[13] The family lived at 7 Gunton Road, Hackney, a former council house in the East End of London that Jacob had purchased from Hackney Council with the help of a £1,000 council loan.[14]

Between 1939-1945 she boarded at Warren School For Girls in Worthing, Sussex.[2] She then spent a year at La Ramée, a finishing school in Lausanne, Switzerland, followed by a year at St. Godric's Secretarial and Language School in Hampstead, London.[2][15][16] She married Leslie Porter (10 July 1920 - 20 March 2005) on 26 June 1949 at the New West End Synagogue, Paddington, London.[17][18] They had two children, a son and daughter.[2]

Shirley Porter became a magistrate before entering local politics. In 1974, she was elected to Westminster City Council as a Conservative councillor for Hyde Park Ward. In the early 1980s, she chaired the Environment Committee, calling for strict enforcement of litter laws. In 1983, she was elected as Leader of the Council. Her initiatives and policies included the Say No to Drugs Campaign and the Plain English Campaign and she was also involved in the abolition of the Greater London Council. She became the Lord Mayor of Westminster in 1990 and later a governor of Tel Aviv University.[19]



Earlier in her career, Porter garnered national attention for her involvement and implementation of anti-litter campaigns in Westminster. In a 1985 interview with The Times' Shirley Lowe, Porter explained that litter was the reason why she had first entered local politics in 1974. She said: "I was walking along the street with a friend one day and it was filthy and I said, 'My God, somebody ought to do something about this,' and my friend said 'Why don't you?'"[20] Despite sitting on the Highways and Works Committee, which was responsible for street cleaning and refuse collection, Porter did not mention litter again until late 1976 following a visit to Leningrad and Moscow. On her return she told the Paddington Mercury of her distaste for the Soviet regime but continued "one thing they must be given credit for is the cleanliness you find everywhere... I should hate to think that we need such a repressive regime to get our cities cleaned to their standards."[21]

She soon joined the "Clean Up London" campaign. She encouraged hoteliers to join forces to attack the squalor that was affecting their businesses. Her enthusiasm also aided her election as vice-chairman of Highways and Work on 28 June 1977. Her anti-litter activities within the CUL campaign continued. The Paddington Mercury described Porter as "fast winning a reputation as as Paddington's Mrs Mops". She also mobilised schoolchildren in her campaign, raising brooms over their shoulders like rifles at the Lord Mayor's Show and singing "Pick up your litter and put it in the bin". By 1978, Porter had been elected as Chairman of the Highways and Works Committee, in the same year she launched the "Mr Clean Up" anti-litter campaign.[22]

In January 1979, a series of strikes began to unfold as part of the "Winter of Discontent". Westminster was struck by the striking rubbish collectors and mounting waste in the streets. As a result, Porter opened thirty-three emergency rubbish dumps across the borough. Porter told press reporters that they would privatise rubbish collection if the strikers did not return to work. This practice was installed later on.[23]

Porter's successive litter campaigns included the "Cleaner London Campaign", followed by the "Cleaner City Initiative" in 1980. Activities included the deployment of additional street sweepers in particularly squalor-ridden areas of Westminster for a 2-3 week period. Porter also increased the regularity of rubbish collections and convinced local businesses to sponsor litter bins.[24]

She threatened to resign in September 1980 when her department of Highways and Works faced a £1 million budget cut; "I will resign in the event that they cut our basic services and that means keeping our frontline services and a clean and litter-free city."[25] In 1981, Porter launched "Operation Spring Clean", a cleaning blitz of the West End.[26]

Soho sex trade

In the late 1970s, Soho residents were troubled by the growing sex industry. Between 1965 to 1982, the number of sex shops had doubled from thirty one to sixty five. In 1982 Porter became Chairman of the General Purposes Committee and set to work in alleviating the issue. Porter and her aides soon proceeded with a fact-finding mission. The Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982 stipulated that Westminster could shut down any pornographer that did not hold a license. Porter soon decided that the number of sex shops in Soho would be limited to twenty. The legislation also insured that any successful applicants would require a minimum of 6 months residency in the UK as well as a clean police record. It was also legislated that sex shops would have to conceal their practice with blinds. Other measures included the requirement of business owners to keep a register of their staff. By February 1983, just thirteen sex shops remained in Soho.[27]

Homes for votes scandal

The Conservatives were narrowly re-elected in Westminster in the 1986 local council elections. Fearing that they would eventually lose control unless there was a permanent change in the social composition of the borough, Porter instituted a secret policy known as 'Building Stable Communities'.[nb 2]

Eight wards were selected as 'key wards' - in public it was claimed that these wards were subject to particular 'stress factors' leading to a decline in the population of Westminster. In reality, secret documents showed that the wards most subject to these stress factors were rather different, and that the eight wards chosen had been the most marginal in the City Council elections of 1986. Three - Bayswater, Maida Vale and Millbank, had been narrowly won by Labour, a further three, St. James's, Victoria and Cavendish had been narrowly lost by them, in West End ward an Independent had split the two seats with the Conservatives while in Hamilton Terrace the Conservatives were threatened by the SDP.

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. Much of this designated housing lay vacant for months or even years before it could be sold. To prevent its occupation by squatters or drug dealers, these flats were fitted with security doors provided by the company Sitex at a cost to local tax payers of £50 per week per door.

Other council services were subverted to ensure the re-election of the majority party in the 1990 elections. In services such as street cleaning, pavement repair and environmental improvements, marginal wards were given priority while safely Labour and safely Conservative parts of the City were neglected.

Another vital part of 'Building Stable Communities' was the removal of homeless voters and others who lived in hostels and were perceived less likely to vote Conservative, such as students and nurses, from the City of Westminster. While this initially proved successful, other Councils in London and the Home Counties soon became aware of homeless individuals and families from Westminster, many with complex mental health and addiction problems, being relocated to their area.

As the City Council found it more and more difficult to move homeless people outside Westminster, increasingly the logic of the 'Building Stable Communities' programme required the concentration of homeless people within safe wards in the City. In 1989 over 100 homeless families were removed from hostels in marginal wards and placed in the Hermes and Chantry Point tower blocks in the safe Labour ward of Harrow Road. These blocks contain a dangerous form of asbestos, and should have either been cleaned up or demolished a decade before, but had remained in place due to funding disputes between the City Council and the by now abolished Greater London Council. Many of the flats had had their heating and sanitation systems destroyed by the council to prevent their use as drug dens, others had indeed been taken over by heroin users and still others had pigeons making nests out of asbestos, with the level in flats in Hermes and Chantry Points well above safe norms. One former homeless refuge was sold off at a discounted price to private developers and converted into private flats for young professional people at a cost to the ratepayer of £2.6 million.[28]

Labour councillors and members of the public referred this policy to the District Auditor to check on its legality, and as a result it was ordered to be halted in 1989 whilst investigations continued. In 1990, the Conservatives were re-elected in Westminster in a landslide election victory in which they won all but one of the wards targeted by Building Stable Communities.

Porter stood down as Leader of the Council in 1991, and served in the ceremonial position of Lord Mayor of Westminster in 1991-2. She resigned from the council in 1993, and retired to live in Israel with her husband.

Court cases and surchage

In 1996, after legal investigation work, the District Auditor finally concluded that the 'Building Stable Communities' policy had been illegal, and ordered Porter and five others to pay the cost of the illegal policy, which were calculated as £27,000,000. This judgement was upheld by the High Court in 1997 with liability reduced solely to Porter and her Deputy Leader, David Weeks. After the judgement, the scandal and its effects were discussed in Parliament on 14 May 1996.[29]

In 1998, BBC2 screened a documentary, Looking for Shirley, which profiled Westminster City Council's efforts to recover the surcharge and Porter's efforts to move her estimate £70m assets into offshore accounts and overseas investments.[30][31]

The Court of Appeal overturned the judgement in 1999, but the House of Lords reinstated it in 2001 (see Porter v Magill [2001] UKHL 67, [2002] 2 AC 357[32]). In Israel, Porter transferred substantial parts of her great wealth to other members of her family and into secret trusts in an effort to avoid the charge, and subsequently claimed assets of only £300,000.[33]

Final agreement

On 24 April 2004, the still Conservative controlled Westminster City Council and the Audit Commission announced that an agreement had been reached for a payment of £12.3 million in settlement of the debt. The council declared that the cost of legal action would be far greater than the amount to be recovered, while Porter still maintained her innocence. The decision was appealed by Labour members on the Council and the District Auditor began another investigation. The ensuing report, issued on 15 March 2007, accepted the position of the council that further action would not be cost effective.[citation needed] The Auditor further stated that Westminster had recovered substantially all of Dame Shirley's personal wealth and had acted at all times in the best interests of the taxpayers of the City.[citation needed]

The Labour Party in London has continued its pursuit of Porter and following the settlement, Porter has returned to Westminster to live, buying a £1.5m flat with family money (her husband and son are independently wealthy)[34][35] The former Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, subsequently requested that Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney General, commence an investigation as to whether or not Porter committed perjury or other offences, during the conduct of the 'homes for votes' case.[36]

It is also in question whether Porter is now a full-time resident in the United Kingdom, considering her commitments to the Porter Foundation and the trust's various Israel-based projects. In November 2007, The Jerusalem Post cited her as a "permanent fixture" at the annual Balfour Dinner hosted by the Israel Britain and Commonwealth Association as she does "reside in Israel".[37] Along with her London home, she has property in the resort of Herzilya Pituach, north of Tel Aviv.

In November 2009, ahead of a BBC radio play depicting the principal events of Shirley Porter's time as leader of Westminster city council in the 1980s,[38]Council leader Colin Barrow apologised unreservedly to all those affected by the "gerrymandering" policy. He criticised Shirley Porter by name for the first time and added that her actions were "the opposite of the council's policies today".[39]


The Porter Foundation

The Porter Foundation is a UK-registered charitable trust established in 1970. In particular, Shirley Porter and her late husband have donated funds to Zionist causes such as Tel Aviv University, where the latter became chancellor. The foundation has given several naming donations to the university: the Porter Institute for Poetics and Semiotics, the Cohen-Porter Family Swimming Pool, the Shirley and Leslie Porter School of Cultural Studies, the Cohen-Porter United Kingdom Building of Life Sciences, the Porter Super Centre for Environmental and Ecological Research. The foundation also provides scholarships and has paid for equipment and books.[citation needed]

A special project is the Porter Senior Citizen Centre in Jaffa, a facility for elderly and poor Jews in the area (mostly Sephardic Bulgarians). It provides legal advice and companionship. The family charity also developed the Daniel Marcus Nautical Centre, in memory of the Porters' late grandson, who was killed in a car crash in Israel in 1993 while on military service. Other causes include endowing galleries in Britain's National Portrait Gallery, where The Porter Gallery exists on the ground floor ;[40] the Royal Academy and the V&A.

An upcoming philanthropic project that Porter is involved in is the construction of a new building for the Porter School of Environmental Studies on the TAU campus. According to Tel Aviv University, the building which is expected to be completed by November 2010, will be built according to principles of green design with technologies and materials that will reduce the building's impact on the environment. It will also be the university's first "green building", and one of the first of its kind in Israel. The purpose of the new development will be as a "living laboratory" for teaching and research on green architecture, both within the University and outside.[41][42] On 23 April 2009, Porter, the founder of PSES was awarded a "Green Globe" for her significant contribution to the environmental movement in Israel.[43] The Porter School of Environmental studies website has a video clip showing Dame Shirley Porter describing the new project.


In a review of the biography of Dame Shirley Porter by Andrew Hosken (see "See also"), Nicholas Lezard in The Guardian described her in the following terms: "She remains, by a considerable margin, the most corrupt British public figure in living memory, with the possible exception of Robert Maxwell.".[44] In a London Review of Books review of the same book by Jenny Diski, Diski called the Homes for Votes scandal Porter's "biggest, stupidest and most cynical act of corruption". Diski, without justifying Porter’s behaviour, accused many of Porter's critics of "snobbery and an undeclared racism". She cited the "echo of something more than simple class snobbery in the judgments made of her voice and decor".[45][dead link]

See also



  1. ^ Gerrymandering, the word used by the auditor, is not quite the right term to describe the actions of Westminster Council. Nick Cohen, writing in The Independent, said: "Technically, [gerrymandering] means drawing electoral boundaries to the advantage of the governing party. Westminster was more ambitious: the council was not merely changing the boundaries, it was attempting to change the electorate." Cohen, Nick (16 January 1994). "Dumping the poor". The Independent (London). Retrieved 201110-05. 
  2. ^ All facts below are taken from the description of facts as printed in the decision of the Judicial Appealate Committee of the House of Lords of the Westminster Parliament in Porter v Magill [2002] 2 AC 357.


  1. ^ London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 52382. p. 7. Monday, 31st December 1990. Retrieved 10th June 2009.
  2. ^ a b c d "PORTER, Dame Shirley, (Lady Porter)". Who's Who. Oxford University Press. 2011. Retrieved 2011-10-05. 
  3. ^ "Corruption". The Independent on Sunday (London): p. 3. 6 July 2003. 
  4. ^ "Lib Dem MP is battling for Porter to lose Damehood". Evening Standard (London): p. 10. 20 February 2004. 
  5. ^ Kay, Richard (1 September 2009). "Untold tale of a scandal". The Daily Mail (London): p. 35. 
  6. ^ Law Lords order Dame Shirley to pay £27 million Daily Mail. 14 December 2001
  7. ^ Porter pays £12.3m in homes for votes case The Telegraph. 6 July 2004
  8. ^ Watt, Nicholas (6 July 2004). "Dame Shirley pays council £12m surcharge". The Guardian (London): p. 6. 
  9. ^ McKinstry, Leo (18 March 2006). "High priestess of Tory sleaze". The Spectator: p. 47. 
  10. ^ "Dame Shirley Porter back in Westminster" The Guardian, 7 August 2009
  11. ^ Oppenheimer, P.M. (2004). "Cohen, Sir John Edward (1898–1979)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 2011-10-05. 
  12. ^ Hosken 2006, p. 7-8
  13. ^ Sir John Edward Cohen at Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
  14. ^ Hosken 2006, p. 5-6
  15. ^ Hosken 2006, p. 5
  16. ^ Abdela, Lesley (1989). Women with X Appeal: Women in British Politics Today. London: Macdonald & Co. p. 187. ISBN 9780356171845. 
  17. ^ Pimlott Baker, Anne (2009). "Porter, Sir Leslie (1920–2005)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 2011-10-05. 
  18. ^ The Times. "Sir Leslie Porter | Times Online Obituary". Retrieved 2011-01-29. 
  19. ^ "Sir Leslie Porter (obituary)". London: The Times. 2005-03-23. Retrieved 26 March 2010. 
  20. ^ Lowe, Shirley (27 September 1985). "Westminster whirlwind". The Times (62254): p. 11. 
  21. ^ Hosken 2006, p. 36
  22. ^ Hosken 2006, p. 37
  23. ^ Hosken 2006, p. 43
  24. ^ Hosken 2006, p. 47
  25. ^ Hosken 2006, p. 48
  26. ^ Hosken 2006, p. 51
  27. ^ Hosken 2006, p. 68
  28. ^ Ware, John (8 October 1994). "The brass neck of Dame Shirley Porter". The Spectator: p. 27. 
  29. ^ Parliamentary Debates, House of Commons, May 14, 1996, column 772.
  30. ^ "Looking For Shirley". First Sight. BBC. BBC Two. 1998-10-15.
  31. ^ Dame Shirley moves pounds 70m out of Britain The Independent, Thursday, February 14, 1998
  32. ^ "Magill v. Weeks [2001] UKHL 67 (13th December, 2001)". Retrieved 2011-01-29. 
  33. ^ Porter's son in US loan row The Observer, Sunday, February 18, 2007
  34. ^ Evening Standard. August 7, 2006.
  35. ^ Matthew Weaver. "Guardian August 7, 2006".,,1839223,00.html. Retrieved 2011-01-29. 
  36. ^ Letter from Mayor Livingstone to Lord Goldsmith, August 18, 2006
  37. ^ "Grapevine: Peers gather for peerless anniversary". Jerusalem. 2007-11-06. 
  38. ^ "Friday Play, Shirleymander". BBC. 
  39. ^ Bar-Hillel, Mira (2009-11-27). "Westminster chief: We're sorry for Dame Shirley and 'homes for votes'". London: London Evening Standard. Retrieved 30 July 2010. 
  40. ^ Rayner, Jay (1999-02-28). "Dame Shirley of Tel Aviv". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 26 March 2010. 
  41. ^ "Founding Donor, Dame Shirley Porter". Tel Aviv University. 
  42. ^ "Tel Aviv University webflash". Tel Aviv University. February 2008. 
  43. ^ Dame Shirley Porter (Founding Director) Tel Aviv University
  44. ^ Nicholas Lezard. "Review: ''Nothing Like a Dame: The Scandals of Shirley Porter'' by Andrew Hosken".,,2041497,00.html. Retrieved 2011-01-29. 
  45. ^ "Be mean and nasty". London Review of Books. 2006-05-25. 


  • Hosken, Andrew (2006). Nothing Like a Dame. Granta Books. ISBN 978-1-86207-809-3. 
  • Dimoldenberg, Paul (2006). The Westminster Whistleblowers: Shirley Porter, Homes for Votes and Scandal in Britain's Rottenest Borough. Politico's. ISBN 978-1-84275-179-4. 

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