Fighting still rages on the homes front

AN ARGUMENT over a lucrative contract involving some of Scotland’s highest-profile PR firms has landed on the desk of Communities Minister Malcolm Chisholm.

It follows Edinburgh City Council’s decision to award a 250,000 deal to work on the Edinburgh housing stock transfer programme to Pagoda PR, based in Edinburgh.

Pagoda - chaired by former Tory minister Sir Michael Hirst and with former Edinburgh Council leader Keith Geddes as policy director - won a four-way pitch for the prestigious contract. However, concerns have been raised when it was revealed that Pagoda also listed Communities Scotland, the stock transfer regulator, as one of their clients.

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"There is huge disquiet," says one senior PR executive with experience of public consultations.

"There are real concerns that there is a conflict of interest. Geddesl is their number one director and many of the other firms who pitch for this type of work feel really disappointed. It’s not just sour grapes, it’s more of an uneasy feeling amongst the whole public relations community. I think the Communities Minister should be aware of this."

The contract will perform an important function in pushing through the proposals to transfer all of Edinburgh’s 24,000 council houses to a single new Housing Association. The ballot is scheduled for the spring of 2006 and, subject to a "yes" vote, the stock will transfer in the winter of 2006.

Gordon Beattie, head of Beattie Media, says: "You can’t run with the foxes and chase with the hounds. I would find it astonishing if Communities Scotland allowed a public relations firm that has worked for them to represent a local authority seeking to transfer their housing stock to a registered social landlord."

Beattie has already written to Chisholm expressing his concerns. He says he fully accepted the decision of the appointment panel not to award the contract to Beattie Communications, but was concerned by its decision to appoint Pagoda PR to the role.

"It would appear that Pagoda also works for the regulator, Communities Scotland - according to Pagoda’s own website."

The housing stock transfer rules stipulate that all tenants should receive independent advice and information on the detail of the proposed transfer and what it would mean for them and their housing future. Concerns were raised that the information being disseminated might be seen as not independent if the body seeking to transfer housing stock, its new landlord and the regulator are all represented by the same PR consultancy.

Pagoda has already undertaken a number of consultation programmes on housing stock transfer programmes throughout Scotland. The firm has worked with Scottish Borders Council from the initial tenant consultation through to a successful ballot in favour of transfer providing advice on public consultation, focusing on tenants and other stakeholders such as housing staff, voluntary agencies, elected members, community organisations and the wider public.

Pagoda worked with the Highland Council on 52 public meetings and roadshows to consult tenants on the options for future ownership and management of council housing, and the firm is now working with Inverclyde and Aberdeen City on a similar consultation and communication exercise.

Ian Coldwell, managing director of Pagoda, says he is awaiting confirmation from Edinburgh Council to confirm the housing transfer account was theirs. He says they no longer work directly for Communities Scotland: "We carried out a short internal communications audit for Communities Scotland a year ago and are no longer retained by them. We do not see why this is in any way relevant.

"We are extremely pleased to have won the Edinburgh tender. It is the latest of a number of communication contracts we have won against Beattie in recent months. We believe we have a very strong public sector offering and are disappointed that Beattie should choose to respond in this way."

A spokesperson for Communities Scotland confirms that Pagoda worked for them in 2003 on an internal communication project for their staff, and Chisholm says that he would respond to the letter in due course.