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Lady Porter Tries Keeping Rubbish Out of Westminster : Government: An admirer of Margaret Thatcher, she struggles to make rich municipality run more efficiently.

May 06, 1990|LESLIE SHEPHERD | ASSOCIATED PRESS

LONDON — Margaret Thatcher is not the only grocer's daughter to disturb the old order. Lady Shirley Porter is trying to dust the cobwebs off Westminster, which includes Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey.

As leader of Westminster City Council since 1983, Lady Porter has struggled to make one of Britain's richest municipalities run as efficiently as her father's supermarket chain.

The sprawling metropolis of London has no citywide government or mayor. Each of the 32 boroughs elects its own council, which in turn picks a leader. Westminster's 60 councilors are up for election this month

Lady Porter, wholeheartedly embracing Prime Minister Thatcher's free-market revolution, has sold the borough's garbage collection and recreation facilities to private contractors.

Since she became head of the council, more than 9,000 council-owned apartments have been sold to their occupants as part of a national effort to turn tenants of public housing into property owners.

She is an international expert on litter and often is seen walking around her bailiwick, picking it up. Lady Porter entered politics in 1974 specifically to tackle trash and lists her recreations in Who's Who as "cleaning up London" and "waste-hunting."

Her animated brand of radical conservatism invites frequent comparisons with Thatcher, who grew up above her father's grocery store.

Sir Jack Cohen, Lady Porter's father, parlayed an East London vegetable stall into the Tesco supermarket chain and imbued his younger daughter with his motto: "You can't do business sitting on your armchair."

Lady Porter became head of Westminster Council as a free-market Conservative determined to eradicate the socialist structures that had long dominated local government in Britain.

Her strong-willed, sometimes autocratic style has inspired allegations of financial mismanagement, most notably after Westminster sold three old cemeteries for the equivalent of 8 cents each. Critics claimed it was a case of desecrating the dead to cut costs.

In addition to councils, some boroughs have ceremonial lord mayors. Westminster's handles the extensive ritual associated with a 400-year-old district in the heart of a pageantry-loving country.

An American-style mayor is more to Lady Porter's taste, and she would like to be one. She said it's the best way to "cut through the bickering and the red tape and serve the interests of the people."

She sees her goal as saving Westminster from becoming home to only the very rich and very poor. Lady Porter says she wants to give Westminster back to the middle classes, "to encourage them to stay so that we don't finish up like New York."

A recent survey by the magazine Harpers and Queen said Lady Porter is the 20th richest woman in Europe, with an estimated personal fortune of 50 million pounds ($84.5 million). Her title derives from the knighthood of her husband, Sir Leslie Porter.

Lady Porter's family background was reflected in her comment recently before a meeting of foreign journalists: "We believe in services to the customer. We are a service-oriented council. It's in my blood that people should be treated as customers."

Her 170,000 customers are Westminster's permanent residents. They include the members of the Royal Family, who live at and around Buckingham Palace, and the prime minister, currently Thatcher, who lives down the road at 10 Downing Street.

Every day, the population swells to more than 1 million with tourists, shoppers and workers who throng the Oxford Street shopping district, West End theaters, Hyde Park, Victoria Station, the houses of Parliament, the government offices of Whitehall, and the local church, Westminster Abbey.

They leave enough litter to fill Trafalgar Square to the height of Admiral Nelson's column five times a year.

Westminster claims that no council has done more than Lady Porter's to fight rubbish. Prince Philip, who once accompanied her on a garbage inspection detail, has taken to greeting her at social functions by calling across the room, "How are the litter bins?"

Businesses pay for the upkeep of 500 garbage cans, and 31 uniformed wardens can fine litterers 10 pounds ($17) on the spot. A telephone hotline is planned for residents to report litterers, noise and curb-fouling dogs.

Permanent residents get discounts on tourist attractions. Residents can deal with officials by telephone or fax and "one-stop services" mean the availability at one counter of everything from election registration to parking permits.

Westminster is among the first British boroughs to introduce glass recycling bins.

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