EXCLUSIVE: Desperate to salvage the company’s sagging reputation, Brick by Brick employees appear to have been indulging in a bit of online onanism.
By STEVEN DOWNES
Staff at Brick by Brick, the council-owned housebuilder, have been breaking online standards rules by posting favourable reviews for the loss-making company that employs them.
There has been a flurry of warm and positive reviews about Brick by Brick posted online in the past three weeks – since about the time that the council’s auditors reported that the house-builders had failed to pay over £110million in interest repayments and promised profits to the council.
Many of the most recent “excellent” reviews – which have contributed to BxB getting a Google rating of 3.9/5 – contrast markedly to others, which are very critical of the company.
Yet despite Google rules that ban this form of online onanism, it is clear that many of the 5-star reviews appear to have been written by Brick by Brick staffers. Others seem to have been posted by contractors who have worked with Brick by Brick. There are others which share a distinctive family name with senior BxB staff.
Over the past week, Brick by Brick has been running an expensive public relations campaign, providing lengthy statements to the construction and housing trade press and putting up the company’s CEO, Colm Lacey, for interview in an attempt to spin the company’s flawed reputation for late-completion of projects, massively expensive cost overruns, and failure to deliver shared ownership homes.
But resorting to “fixing” the company’s Google reviews, as well as being utterly unethical, is also a sign of the increasing desperation at the company.
Since it was founded in 2015, Brick by Brick has received at least £260million in loans from Croydon Council, plus countless millions in secret subsidies through land sales, including six sites sold for just £1 each.
Google reviews are supposed to be objective measures of customer satisfaction, which can be used by companies to help boost their reputation. The global search engine giant says it “has strict guidelines relating to its reviews”.
“Note that Google has numerous methods of tracking your identity via your Google accounts and your IP addresses both at home and at work and we can assure you that it will eventually backfire if you violate any of their guidelines and could seriously harm your Google rankings,” the company’s review guidelines state.
Listed among what they describe as “the most important guidelines which are commonly violated” are “Conflict of interest” and “Impersonation”.
Under the latter, Google warns, “Don’t post reviews on behalf of others or misrepresent your identity or connection with the place you’re reviewing.”
And they describe the conflict of interest offence thus: “Reviews are most valuable when they are honest and unbiased. If you own or work at a place, please don’t review your own business or employer. Don’t offer or accept money, products, or services to write reviews for a business or to write negative reviews about a competitor.
“If you’re a business owner, don’t set up review stations or kiosks at your place of business just to ask for reviews written at your place of business.”
It is hard to consider the slew of reviews that have suddenly popped up in connection with Brick by Brick as “honest and unbiased”.
One 5-star review was posted by someone called Akin Lisk-Carew. There’s no comment attached. It is the only review that Google has a record of Lisk-Carew ever posting.
Perhaps it is mere coincidence, but on Brick by Brick’s website, one of its employees is listed as Akin Lisk-Carew, who is an “assistant development manager”. The profile photograph of Lisk-Carew on the Brick by Brick website looks very much like the picture with the Google review of Brick by Brick.
Then there was another 5-star review, this posted within the last three weeks, and which praises Brick by Brick’s “Professionalism”. This came from someone called “Kat Thomas”.
Funnily enough, at Brick by Brick, there’s a member of staff called Katrina Thomas. She’s listed as a “development manager”. Perhaps it is just a coincidence?
Then there’s another 5-star review which praises the company’s “Professionalism” and “Quality”, and which was also posted within the last three weeks.
This one is attributed to Claudia Evans.
It just so happens that there’s a Claudia Evans working at Brick by Brick, too. She, like Lisk-Carew, is an assistant development manager.
Of course, this may all be just mere coincidence. Like the glowing reviews of Brick by Brick posted in the last few weeks by Jack Phelps and Emily Phelps. Might they be related to Chloe Phelps, who just happens to be the deputy CEO at Brick by Brick? What are the chances, eh?
The positivity of some of the more recent comments attached to the welter of 5-star reviews that have started to appear about Brick by Brick also echo some of the less-than-honest lines being pushed out by the company’s boss, Lacey, and their spin doctors.
“Excellent developer providing well-designed social housing for people of Croydon, not an easy task to create high quality and affordable homes. Well done Brick by Brick,” wrote one, apparently unaware that BxB has managed to deliver a grand total of three purpose-built council homes since 2015.
Someone calling themselves “Jack Wild” posted this: “Trying to do an almost impossible task, given the situation councils have been left in by the government. Good quality homes and good to see profit going back to the council and not into private developer’s pockets.” Seems that no one advised Wild of the findings of the auditors’ report and Brick by Brick’s failure to turn a single penny profit in five years.
Or this, from “Fraser Wylie”: “Local developer with great understanding of the communities they work within, delivering affordable homes across the borough of Croydon.”
Or this, from “Simon Edwards”: “Excellent local developer bringing much needed affordable homes to Croydon!”
Notably, none of these reviews manage to state whether they are actual customers of Brick by Brick, owners or tenants in some of the homes that the company has managed to complete.
These reviews are all a lot more favourable and gushing in praise for Brick by Brick than the reports that Inside Croydon has received from disappointed customers, some of whom have lost thousands of pounds in legal fees over the company’s shambolic handling of shared-ownership homes, or from the communities who feel ignored and rail-roaded by lip-service consultations over BxB’s planning applications – some of which have also been caught out as being less than trustworthy or frank.
The unfavourable Google reviews posted online are starkly different from most of the more recent postings.
“AWFUL COMPANY!!!” someone called “Anna B” typed with her caps lock on.
“Very pushy and unprofessional sales team. Tried to get us to complete on a purchase at the beginning of lockdown. Thanks to god we were spared from buying from this untrustworthy company. They owe us £500! Bought something better through someone else! Don’t even bother dealing with them. I feel bad for people who have to now…” They gave BxB a 1-star rating.
So did Silke Zetsche. She wrote seven months ago: “I am dealing with BxB at the moment. The process of buying BxB house has been the most defeating and stressful experiences.”
Barry Holman was unimpressed as well. “Do not trust this company. absolutely disgusting service. Paid a deposit on a property which they then sold to someone else. Sales team are clueless.” One star.
There is such a contrast between these customer experiences and some of the reviews that have popped up just recently, it is hard to understand how they can be about the same company.
Who to believe, eh?
Read more: Lacey could lose job over latest pitch to sell Brick by Brick
Read more: The Audit Report: Brick by Brick has paid nothing to council
Read more: Wood comes knocking with brief to investigate Brick by Brick
Read more: Even Labour councillors are turning on Brick by Brick plans
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