Analysis: Conflict of interest alerts politicians

A ground-breaking deal between two London boroughs' PR teams has raised eyebrows across the local authority communications sector. In an unprecedented move by a local authority comms department, Richmond-upon-Thames Borough Council has called in Westminster Council to review its comms function.

Not only will Westminster carry out a review of the department, but Westminster head of comms Alex Aiken will effectively take control of the three-strong Richmond PR team, currently managed by Emma Anderson, for a year from 1 May. Anderson is to leave Richmond in the coming months

While Aiken will spend one day a week at Richmond, senior media officer Cormac Smith will be seconded there full-time. When the year is up, the £80,000-a-year contract - to be partly funded by leaving a comms officer post vacant - will be reviewed.

Richmond's Tory administration has defended the move, citing Westminster's comms function's recent excellent status in the Audit Commission's Comprehensive Performance Assessment. The Westminster department is widely respected among the local government PR community. Richmond's own unit, by contrast, was found by an internal assessment last year to be under-resourced, making it fit only for handling media enquiries.

Yet the move has raised eyebrows, and not only because of its controversial - some say ground-breaking - approach to local authority PR. The Tory party was Aiken's last employer before Westminster - he was head of campaigns at Central Office before he gave up party politics for local government in 2000.

Opposition Lib Dems are up in arms and believe the deal between Tory administrations should have gone out to tender - as would happen with other bought-in services.

'It smells,' says Lib Dem councillor Sir David Williams. He says while the Lib Dems believe there is no basis for a legal challenge to the move - as Aiken has given up political activity - it would be easy for the Tories to take political advantage from his appointment.

Breaking ranks is Richmond Tory councillor Marc Cranfield-Adams, a PR practitioner by trade - he was head of corporate comms at the United Kingdom Accreditation Service until January, and is now studying for an MSc in PR. Speaking in his capacity as a councillor, he says while Aiken is respected and unlikely to let politics sway his role, it might be difficult to replicate his Westminster success in the different conditions of Richmond. Besides that, Cranfield-Adams says other companies specialising in local authority PR should have been given the chance to bid for the contract.

The Tories have defended their decision not to tender the contract by saying immediate expertise was needed. Aiken, meanwhile, has denied that his Tory background will influence his work. His deputy Suzanna White says: 'This isn't about one person - it's a partnership between two departments,' and pointed to Westminster's code of corporate governance, ruling out political interference.

Aside from politics, there is a question of whether or not the deal will work. One former London borough PR head points out that Westminster's services come cheap at £80,000 - a sum that wouldn't buy more than a decent comms manager once run-on costs are taken into account.

Another source - a local authority PR expert speaking on condition of anonymity - is extremely uncomfortable about the deal, saying it raises subtle but potentially serious conflicts of interest.

'I know the Government is encouraging local authorities to form partnerships, but I'm not sure if that should apply to something as sensitive as PR,' he says. Given that one element of council PR work is bidding for regeneration and other funds, and that authorities compete against each other for the money, he wonders whether another council's PR team can truly fight for both corners at the same time.

And yet those in outside consultancies welcomed the news. Marina Pirotta, an ex-local authority head of comms - now managing director of MPC - is in favour. 'It's good for local government to look at other resources out there,' she says. She considers a year will be enough time for the Westminster team to carry out a review, put a strategy in place and build a team.

The Lib Dems have promised they will scrutinise the new PR team's work for any sign of political bias. They also believe the local press will take a suspicious view of the deal.

At the Richmond and Twickenham Times, retiring editor Malcolm Richards, who left the paper last week, was certainly sceptical. He says: 'Richmond council already has a perfectly good, efficient press office. Why change it?' He believes the Tories have become 'paranoid' and wanted someone closer to their own way of thinking to take charge of communications.

Incoming editor Paul Mortimer said he would reserve judgement. But his early impression was that it was unusual and 'slightly worrying'. Time will tell if his fears are well-founded.

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