13 Feb 2017
Ian Springett, chief executive of Agents’ Mutual, denied pressuring estate agents to leave Zoopla and Rightmove.
At Friday’s Competition Appeal Tribunal hearing, he continued to be cross-examined by Paul Harris QC, who is representing the Connells’ owned brand Gascoigne Halman.
Gascoigne Halman was an independent agent when it signed up to Gold membership of OTM in January 2014. Connells acquired the firm in October 2015.
The Competition Appeal Tribunal hearing, which is scheduled to last a further week, is dealing with the ‘one other portal’ competitive issues arising from counter-claims in response to cases brought by Agents’ Mutual against Gascoigne Halman and another agent, Moginie James, as it seeks to enforce their contracts.
Welsh agent Moginie James is not part of the proceedings at the tribunal.
In Friday’s cross-examination, Mr Harris revealed email evidence from agency groups in Wales, north-east England and near Bristol.
Mr Harris said these showed Mr Springett discussing group decisions by agents.
In one email exchange with Mr Springett, it was alleged a Bristol agency group discussed building a “critical mass” of agents to drop other portals except Rightmove.
Mr Harris asked Mr Springett: “Where was the email back saying ‘whoa, no you can’t do that as a collective’?”
After reading out another email exchange with an agent in Maidstone, Mr Harris said to Mr Springett: “What’s interesting is that local agents are getting together to make group decisions.
“Nowhere do you or agents say ‘hang on, you can’t have collective group decision about which portal to retain’.”
Mr Harris suggested that Mr Springett was arranging to beat competitor Zoopla by arranging group decisions of agents to leave Zoopla for Rightmove.
The intention, Mr Harris alleged, was that OTM could eventually take Zoopla’s place as the main competitor to Rightmove.
Mr Harris read other emails from another agency group, IEAG, and commented: “They have obtained the impression from you, Mr Springett, that their plan is based upon most agents dropping Zoopla to go with Rightmove and then dropping Rightmove to go with you.”
But Mr Springett replied: “I really don’t think he could have obtained that impression. He could not have got that from me.”
Mr Harris responded: “What’s extraordinary is that these witnesses get the same impression, to drop Zoopla, and then eventually drop Rightmove.”
But Mr Springett said: “I don’t accept anything I said causes them to get that impression.”
Mr Springett also denied that when he spoke to group chairmen, he was pressuring for a collective outcome.
In another conversation with a Welsh agency group chairman, Mr Springett denied he suggested they should not sign with Zoopla.
Mr Harris said: “In this context them collectively signing to Zoopla means they all agree to drop Rightmove.
“That’s the logical conclusion,” Mr Springett said.
Mr Harris put to him: “And you were telling this to him as leader of the west Wales group to make that decision collectively?”
“No, I was advising him alone,” said Mr Springett. “I have always made it very clear to agents that they had to make an individual decision.”
Mr Harris countered: “That’s nonsense, isn’t it, Mr Springett? I suggest to you that is thoroughly misleading and downright wrong.”
“No,” Mr Springett replied.
The hearing continues
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