Council “fixer” paid £1m to save Edinburgh trams

Tram project put back on track by chief exec's 'fixer'. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Tram project put back on track by chief exec's 'fixer'. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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QUESTIONS are being asked about the way the city employs consultants after it emerged that one “fixer” was paid more than £1m in five years to salvage council projects gone wrong.

Hg Consulting, the firm of troubleshooter Colin Smith, 59, has netted £1.08m for work on troubled city schemes including the tram project, Leith Walk improvements and the Water of Leith flood defences.

Council chief executive Dame Sue Bruce: Picture: Jane Barlow

Council chief executive Dame Sue Bruce: Picture: Jane Barlow

And repeatedly coming to the city’s rescue following high-profile and expensive blunders has won Mr Smith, described by insiders as ‘Sue Bruce’s fixer’, the reputation of the council’s own Winston “The Wolf” Wolfe – the Pulp Fiction character played by Harvey Keitel with a reputation for cleaning up impossible problems.

Mr Smith, who trained as a quantity surveyor is credited with helping save the tram project when it was in dire straits, playing the key role in setting up last-ditch talks between the council and contractors Bilfinger Berger at the Mar Hall Hotel that restarted stalled construction work and began rebuilding trust between the warring factions.

Figures revealed by a freedom of information request show that Hg Consulting was paid £928,752 for work on the tram project, £42,003 for the Water of Leith flood defences, and £13,950 for Leith Walk improvements.

Most of these payments were not disclosed on the council’s own register of contracts – and now concerned councillors are pledging to raise the issue at the next governance committee meeting. However, there is no evidence of wrongdoing and the council insisted it has followed procurement rules.

How did he come to the council? How does it ensure he’s the best person for the job?

Council insider

The firm is also set to pick up another £100,000 for liaising between developers behind the £850m Edinburgh St James project and the council.

The work was all carried out in the five years since Sue Bruce’s appointment as chief executive of the council.

Those who have worked with Mr Smith describe him as “effective” with “considerable ability and resources”. Little else is known about him, for whom no confirmed photograph exists, or his firm, which has next to no web profile.

A council source said: “There’s no website for it, there’s not a lot of public information about it – I think that’s slightly odd given the scale of the work that he’s been doing.

Sue Bruce's 'fixer', Colin Smith, has earned a reputation as the council's own Winston Wolfe. Picture: Contributed

Sue Bruce's 'fixer', Colin Smith, has earned a reputation as the council's own Winston Wolfe. Picture: Contributed

“I think it’s reasonable to ask, how did he come to the council? How does it ensure he’s the best person for the job? If the city needs a project manager for a particularly complex job, it should get the right person – that doesn’t mean giving it to someone who’s found favour for previous work.”

Conservative group leader Cameron Rose praised the impact Mr Smith had on difficult problems, but said he was concerned that the council needed to bring in an external consultant to manage major projects on a regular basis. “We certainly need scrutiny of how the contracts are allocated, and I will be referring this to the governance, risk and best value committee.”

An anonymous insider who has sat in meetings with Mr Smith described him as a “grey man” who keeps a low profile but gets the job done.

The source said: “He’s not a flash, flamboyant, £1000-a-day consultant caricature. He just looks like a council employee. He doesn’t come across as culturally any different. Sometimes, when you get guys from Deloitte or KPMG, they have a different manner – both good and bad.”

Money paid to Mr Smith’s firm for his services does not include the cost of any sub-contracting, or payments such as national insurance.

A spokeswoman for Edinburgh City Council said: “Hg Consulting has made a valuable contribution to the efficient delivery of key council projects. Their appointment has complied with council governance procedures.”

The Evening News contacted Hg Consulting to seek a response from Mr Smith, but did not receive a reply.

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