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ARB ruling: your money's safe with the Woolwich

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The Architects Registration Board delivered a rap on the knuckles last week to an Edinburgh architect who failed to advise the inhabitants of tenement blocks being refurbished by his firm that they stood to make money out of windfall shares.

Fraser William Harris, 51, of the Edinburgh practice Harris Johnston, was found guilty of 'unacceptable professional conduct' last week in the first case of its kind to come before the arb's professional-conduct committee. The architect, who qualified in 1974, was reprimanded - the least severe of the arb's punishments (the others are fine, suspension and being struck off ) - for not consulting tenants of Bonnington Terrace, Seaforth Terrace and Rossie Place, all in Glasgow, about their entitlement to Woolwich Building Society shares when it converted into a bank in 1997.

The three projects Harris was working on were part of a local-authority scheme in which the tenants and council put in money for the work. Harris Johnston was the first named on three Woolwich accounts.

Harris, who chose not to attend the hearing last Thursday in Central London, decided to accept shares issued for the Seaforth Terrace account because Woolwich stipulated that account holders could only be issued with shares from one account. The windfall was only around £1200, to be split across 30 tenants in the three blocks, but Fraser's actions meant that only one of the blocks was entitled to any of that money.

In fact Fraser did not cash in the shares, presenting his certificate as evidence, and the pcc accepted that neither the defendant nor the firm made any direct financial gain, but ruled that if in doubt he should have consulted the other potential beneficiaries.

Fraser indicated to complainant James Learmouth's solicitor that he intended to use the shares as part payment for the refurbishment work on the 'dormant' Seaforth Terrace project, which was awaiting a local authority grant, and that the wording of the arb's position on such matters was unclear. He said he was 'embarrassed to have been perceived to have acted in an unprofessional manner' in a letter read out at the hearing, but had been 'confused' and would be willing to aid the board in re-writing code six.

But in his verdict pcc chairman Michael Churchhouse offered a statement for architects put in similar positions to render a rewrite unnecessary. 'Where an architect holds a number of accounts with a building society which entitles him to a free share-holding, but where he can only elect to receive the shares on one of those accounts, he should consult with the beneficiaries as to the course of action they wish to adopt in connection with the shares or with the proceeds of sale of those shares.'

The committee added that Harris should put matters right insofar as the beneficiaries of the three Woolwich accounts are concerned.

arb assistant registrar Richard Coleman told the aj that in the two years since the so-called 'whistle-blowers charter' was drafted, not one instance of whistle-blowing has occurred. But he dismissed notions that the entire section of the forthcoming code ought to be erased, saying that 'all serious professions, such as solicitors' had such a charter in their codes.

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