Sainsbury’s PR company in Hackney Council contract row

Sainsbury (Excel) Plymouth

Sainsbury's: Destination Hackney? Photograph: Graham Richardson

Opponents of a proposed large Sainsbury’s for Stoke Newington have cried foul after discovering that the public relations company hired to lobby for the scheme has also been hired by Hackney Council to design a website to promote local businesses.

They claim that the dual roles PR firm Four Communications has taken on creates a conflict of interest which means that campaigners against the supermarket development are not operating on a level playing field.

“This is an Alice in Wonderland situation where the council is spending council tax payers’ money with Four Communications, which on the one hand is supposed to be promoting local businesses and on the other is promoting a development which, if it goes ahead, is likely to damage local businesses,” says Simon De Deney, Vice Chair of Hackney Liberal Democrats.

The £14,320 contract to design a ‘Destination Hackney’ website to assist local firms involves extensive meetings with Hackney businesses, organised with help from council staff.

“The design company will be expected to meet with local businesses to understand businesses’ web needs and ideas,” the tender document describing the website contract says. “Officers have identified a range of local business associations and groups to be engaged in the design process through a programme of one-to-one forum meetings and workshops.”

London Assembly member Andrew Boff, who is also a Hackney resident, wants the council to think again. “There clearly is a conflict of interest here and a failure to tackle it would let down small businesses in the area affected,” he says.

Concerns have also been raised about the very close connections between two serving Hackney councillors and Four Communications.

Councillor Alan Laing, who until last year was the council’s Cabinet Member for Neighbourhoods and Regeneration, was taken on as a full time Account Director with the company in August 2010 and continues to work for the firm.

Announcing his appointment, Four Communications described Cllr Laing as a ‘strategic new hire’ and added: “We are keen to use Alan’s extensive network of contacts within London politics and he brings a superb track record of delivery within public affairs in both the private and public sectors”.

Cllr Karen Alcock, who until recently was Deputy Mayor, also works for Four Communications and has been employed by the company since at least 2005. As councillor for Stoke Newington’s Clissold ward, Cllr Alcock is one of the elected representatives whose constituents are most directly affected by the Sainsbury’s development plan.

A spokesman for Hackney Council said: “Cllr Laing and Cllr Alcock are both employees of Four Communications as declared on their Register of Interests, and have not been involved with this project or its procurement process as per the Council’s contractual requirements for organisations, to avoid conflict of interests.”

However, Rosanne Berry, Chair of Stoke Newington Business Association and owner of Rosa Lingerie, a shop close to the proposed new supermarket site, remains worried about the links between the PR company and the councillors.

“I am concerned that when small businesses are struggling you want your councillors to be fighting on your behalf and not to be influenced by their connections with outside companies,” she says.

Simon De Deney agrees: “Councillors Alan Laing and Karen Alcock’s employment by Four Communications only makes this cat’s cradle of interests more tangled,” he says.

Some PR companies actively avoid potential conflicts of interests when lobbying on behalf of developers. “We have a policy of not working for councils in areas where we work in other capacities,” says Andrew Howard, managing director of Hard Hat Communications, which recently represented Barratt Homes in Hackney.

In a statement, Nan Williams, Chief Executive of Four Communications said: “This project [Destination Hackney website] was won through a transparent and regulated tendering process during which we disclosed that other parts of our business, with totally separate project teams, do work in the borough on regeneration. Current projects include work for Newmark Properties in Stoke Newington.

“Similarly, we disclosed in writing that Councillor Karen Alcock and Councillor Alan Laing are both employees of Four Communications but would not be involved in any stage of the Destination Hackney project and have declared their work with Four Communications in the Members Interests and at council meetings where appropriate. We are confident that there is no conflict of interest nor the potential for one to arise in the future.”