Dec 142012
 

By Bob Smith.

Amazon, Google an Starbucks
Hiv avoided pyein some tax
Throwe a loophole in the law
Fit’s bin mair than a bittie lax

Multinationals they div employ
Accoontants tae fin sic wyes
Thae chiels are up tae scratch
An in tax laws are richt wise

You an me we pye oor dues
We micht hae a girn an sweir
An fit the tax mannie tells us
Is nae aye sae bliddy clear

It seems its nae agin the law
Fer firms tae use sic ploys
Bit morally it’s jist nae richt
If the law faavour’s “ big boys”

Time fowk pit a stop tae iss
Mak the slippery buggers think
Jist boycott the likes o Starbucks
Fin ye buy yer next coffee drink

Pye yer dues shud be the cry
Yer bunk balance micht tak a hit
Fit wye shud the rest o us suffer
Cos ye employ a tax swerving git

©Bob Smith “The Poetry Mannie” 2012

Sep 212012
 

By Dave Black. 

In November 2010 the Aberdeen-based oil and energy company Wood Group signed a contract with Dorad Energy to build a natural gas power station in Ashkelon, Israel.
This contract is worth approximately £563 million and the 800-megawatt power station will produce 8% of Israel’s electricity in the near future.

New gas fields have been discovered within Israel’s off-shore area and Wood Group is intending to expand its operations. Shlomo Cohen, the Group’s Israel manager last year stated that:

“The company considers this project as a cornerstone for extensive operations in Israel”.

On numerous occasions Wood Group has been given the opportunity to clarify whether or not the new Ashkelon power plant will supply electricity to illegal settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. It has refused to do so, even when asked by a local MP. However it has stated that it is

“…safe to say that Wood Group does business in a number of parts of the world where there are distressing conflicts which cause hardship and inequity”. 

Israel’s occupation of the West Bank has been ongoing since 1967, noted as the longest occupation in modern history.  This occupation has seen mass government-backed Jewish settlement building in the area, in clear contravention of the Geneva Conventions. Settlement building was also deemed unlawful by the International Court of Justice in 2004.

Despite the flagrant breach of international law, and the consistent Palestinian position that settlement building in the West Bank is a critical barrier to any peace agreement, Israel continues its policy unabashed and unpunished.  The United States continues to fund Israel to the sum of $3 billion a year and the European Union fails to tear up its trade agreement with Israel, whilst paying lip service to the language of human rights, democracy and justice.

However, although still very small, there have been increasing signs of discontent with Israel’s ongoing occupation and settlement building.  For example, this month the Co-operative, the UK’s fifth largest supermarket, built on its previous policy of refusing to stock goods produced in Israeli settlements, and has ended all trade with companies such as Agrexco who carry out part of their agricultural production in these colonies.

Early Day Motion 2717, raised at Westminster earlier this year, may be also relevant to the Wood Group’s activities.  The EDM is entitled “Proposed EU Legislation on Financing of Illegal Activity in the West Bank” and welcomes the findings of a recent EU report following visits to Jerusalem and Ramallah last year.  The motion ends by calling for:

“economic operators aiding and abetting the building, maintenance or servicing of illegal Israeli settlements [to] be excluded from public contracts in the EU”

 To date the motion has 77 signatories.

Take action

Write to your MP, ask them to sign up to EDM 2717 if they haven’t already, and request that they write to Wood Group to clarify its position on potential fuelling of illegal Israeli settlements.

Write to Wood Group and ask that it takes heed of Palestinian civil society’s call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions on Israel.  Read more about the BDS campaign here

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Apr 062012
 

If you are of the opinion that the City Garden Project controversy was all about what flavour of city centre park Aberdeen should have – think again. There seems to have been a much bigger picture involved here, and the politics are murky.  Mike Shepherd writes.

The power of the print media in shaping opinion

The public referendum has been held, and the City Garden Project won by the smallest of margins: 52-48%. Feelings are still poisonous in the city, as it is clear that a marginal result was swung by dubious means.

On the City Garden Project side, unregistered groups spent a disproportionately large sum of money on campaign material, whereas the officially registered groups were restricted to spending about £8,000 only.

Some of the claims made by supporters of the City Garden Project were outrageous and substantially misleading. One newspaper advert is now being investigated by the Advertising Standards Authority.

Even Aberdeen Council were responsible for punting a justification for the City Garden Project with the questionable claim that a new park could create 6,500 new jobs in the city.

The local papers showed a bias in favour of Sir Ian Wood’s project and framed their reports to show one side in a much better light than the other (“Yes, vote for change” or “No, don’t vote for change”). Ludicrous claims were accepted uncritically – such as oil companies leaving Aberdeen if the scheme did not go ahead.

I had been advised by an expert that:

 “Newspapers are very powerful at shaping public opinion”

and:

 “You will need the support of a PR company during the campaign.”

It was very good advice, but in practice not something that a campaign group of limited influence and funds could realistically put in place. Yet, it was clear from canvassing in the street that the combined effort of relentless advertising, the glossy brochures and the press bias was having an effect.
Whereas many would stop and give me a considered analysis of how they would vote, a large minority were reflecting City Garden propaganda back at me, phrases recognizable from glossy brochures or Evening Express headlines.

Our society today is witnessing a battle between democracy and political lobbyists / PR companies. Out of this, democracy is not doing that well. It’s a shock to see this writ large in Aberdeen, but at least the Gardens Referendum result has made this crystal clear to any thinking person in the city.

Local politics

After two years of campaigning to keep the Gardens, I have been able to observe how local politics works. It is clear that the current council administration is very business friendly and they will tend to make decisions that primarily favour business interests. At just about every council meeting you will hear the phrase “Aberdeen is open for business.”

Local democracy commonly involves a conflict between what business wants and what is in the interests of the general public. For example, if Aberdeen Airport is allowed to land flights at night, Dyce residents will get woken up by the noise. The conflict between business and public interests came to the fore after the consultation on Sir Ian Wood’s scheme two years ago. Over 50 local businessmen wrote to the council asking for the result to be ignored:

‘due to misunderstanding of the project among the public’

and an ‘inability’ to appreciate its impact. The council – to their shame – did this. The current Council administration (an SNP / Lib Dem coalition) appears to favour business almost every time.

There are a number of reasons why business gets its own way with the council. Many councillors are instinctively business friendly and will tend to support projects that are favoured by local commercial interests. This is certainly true of the Conservatives on the council and of many councillors from the other parties too.

There is also a powerful business lobby. Businessmen make up two thirds of the Aberdeen City and Shire Economic Forum (ACSEF), a “public-private partnership that drives economic development in the region”. Funded by both Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire Councils, ACSEF is a non-elected body that have been given a significant degree of control over local economic policy. There is no doubt that ACSEF exerts power and influence over the activities of both councils.

  advanced societies work by a system of checks and balances between moneyed interests and the public regard

ACSEF were involved with the City Garden Project in the early days and described it as one of their flagship projects. Two of the board members, including the Chairman Tom Smith, are directors of the Aberdeen City Garden Trust, the group that organised the architectural competition and who hope to take the project forward to completion.

Extensive networking appears to go on amongst the “great and the good”. Politicians, local businessmen, council officials and senior figures in local organisations turn up and meet at parties, functions, charity events and business meetings. One Freedom of Information request gives an indication of how much hospitality is provided to council officials for instance:
http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/76531/response/199821

To the worldly wise, this will not come as a surprise. However, advanced societies work by a system of checks and balances between moneyed interests and the public regard. This does not appear to be working too well in Aberdeen.

The SNP and the City Garden Project

The SNP have been intimately involved with the City Garden Project since its inception. Alex Salmond was present at the project launch  in 2008.
http://www.eveningexpress.co.uk/Article.aspx/933616

But only recently have both Alex Salmond and Callum McCaig, the SNP leader in the council, explicitly endorsed the City Garden Project.

Yet, the majority of SNP councillors have supported it throughout (the notable exception being Clr. Muriel Jaffray). This is clear from the voting records every time the project has come up for debate in the Council. The SNP support has been instrumental for the progress of the City Garden Project through successive council votes.

  Major businessmen such as David Murray, Brian Souter, Jim McColl and Martin Gilbert have now endorsed the SNP.

The SNP have a reputation for populist politics and it may seem surprising that they have embraced such a controversial project for the city. I believe that there is a much bigger picture here, and one that takes precedent over local politics. The SNP are essentially a single-issue party; they want independence for Scotland. The realpolitik of the SNP is that much of what they do is focussed towards this end.

A key aim for the SNP has been to secure the support of major business figures in Scotland. This is partly financial; the party has no natural source of funds apart from membership fees, but they are also trying to secure influence leading up to and beyond any independence date. Major businessmen such as David Murray, Brian Souter, Jim McColl and Martin Gilbert have now endorsed the SNP.

Sir Brian Souter, founder of the bus company Stagecoach, caused controversy when he donated £500,000 to the SNP in 2007. Shortly afterwards, the SNP dropped an election commitment to bus re-regulation, although they denied that there was any connection to Sir Brian Souter’s donation.

Sir Ian Wood has not given open support to the SNP, yet the SNP continue to court the billionaire’s favour. Not only has Alex Salmond given his own backing to the City Garden Project, the machinery of Government has also been used to bankroll the scheme.

Scottish Enterprise funded the public consultation two years ago and also allowed grant money to be used for the technical feasibility study. Although the public rejected Sir Ian Wood’s project in the consultation, it didn’t stop Scottish Enterprise from giving Aberdeen City Garden Trust £375,000 of public money from its available funds for major infrastructure projects.

Another niggly problem has been the concerns of Audit Scotland

The Scottish Government are keen to provide investment money for the project through TIF funding. Yet it has been established that the initial proposal did not rank very highly by comparison to other investment and infrastructure projects elsewhere in Scotland.

The Scottish Futures Trust, who carried out the ranking, has refused to make their calculations public in spite of Freedom of Information requests to do so. Another niggly problem has been the concerns of Audit Scotland, who have questioned the long term capability of the indebted Aberdeen Council to pay back a risky loan for the project.

The proposed use of valuable investment and infrastructure funds for something as trivial as building a new park is shocking. The business case is dubious and the council can’t afford the risk. Political considerations seem to have taken precedence to a strict business evaluation on the Aberdeen TIF case.

Sir Ian Wood discussed independence recently and gave an indication of what he wants from the Scottish Government:

“The Wood Group will not endorse a Yes or No vote on independence. But Sir Ian added: “What’s key is the extent to which our clients, and to some extent ourselves, anticipate that a Scottish Government would continue with a similar oil and gas policy to the UK.

“The suggestion right now, from the discussions I’ve heard, is that there’s a lot of overlap between the present Scottish Government’s thinking on the development of the oil and gas industry and the UK government’s thinking.”

He went on:

 “What’s important – and I think the First Minister realises this – is that they must provide as much clarity as possible over the next two years towards the vote in 2014, so that we minimise the uncertainty.”
http://www.scotsman.com/captains-of-industry-and-finance-join-clamour-for-clarity

I have no doubt that this will happen.

The SNP are hoping to secure a majority at the council elections on May 3rd. This is possible, but as a one-issue party they tend to do better in national elections than local elections. They are also heavily identified with the Union Terrace Gardens issue and this appeared to have cost them votes in the Scottish elections last year.
http://aberdeenvoice.com/2011/05/the-election-the-utg-effect/

If they do not get a majority, this raises the intriguing possibility of an administration run by a Labour-SNP coalition. The Lib-Dems are likely to see their vote collapse outside the West End of the city. The Labour group are vehemently opposed to the City Garden Project and it could be that a condition for agreeing to form a coalition is that the scheme is dropped.

The “Union” in Union Terrace Gardens refers to the union of the United Kingdom and Ireland in 1800. Perhaps it is ironic that the park has ostensibly become a pawn in the big game of Scottish independence. It would be immensely sad if this was the case. Aberdeen’s heritage could end up sacrificed for the sake of political wheeling and dealing.

This would not bode well for a future Scotland. As Paul Scofield, playing Thomas More, said in A Man For All Seasons:

“I think that when statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties, they lead their country by a short route to chaos.”

Dec 152011
 

Voice’s Suzanne Kelly provides further detail regarding The Scottish Information Commission’s decision on Aberdeen City Council’s handling of FOI requests regarding  sales to and contracts won by Stewart Milne related companies.

 

This week the Supreme Court sided with Aberdeen City Council and rejected Stewart Milne’s appeal concerning profit-sharing on a land deal.

Milne bought land from Aberdeen City Council (property worth some £5 million was sold to him for c £375,000) with a clause stipulating Milne had to share any related profits with the seller, Aberdeen City Council.

After lengthy appeals, the Milne Group must pay £1.7 million pounds to Aberdeen City Council (legal costs are at present unknown).

Precisely how and why the cash-strapped City Council made this deal still remains unclear.  Once acquired, the property was sold from one arm of the Milne group of companies to another, and on this basis, Milne’s position was that there were no profits to share.  The Courts have disagreed.

This issue spurred a freedom of information request to the City Council.

What land had been sold to Milne-related companies?  What contracts had been awarded to the Milne companies?   Was a group of companies receiving preferential treatment by being sold public assets without the assets going on the open market to the highest bidder?  Was a construction firm buying land at considerable discount with one hand, and at the same time under-bidding competition to win work?

It is a year (and a few days) since the initial FOI request was lodged with Aberdeen City Council.  Late replies, denials that information was held, assertions that information was too difficult and costly to obtain were some of the obstacles in the way of obtaining information.

If not for the Information Commission, there would be no chance of this information – concerning public assets and the public purse – coming to light.  As it is, the City has until 23 January to finally comply.  At that time it must either disclose the information or lodge an appeal against the decision.

The decision will be disclosed to the public  around 16th December.  In the meantime, here are some of the important issues and facts to emerge from the Information Commissioner’s decision.

On 10 December 2010 a FOI request was sent to Aberdeen City.  Such requests are to be answered within a specific time frame and are backed up by legislation.

The City failed to respond in time. Aberdeen’s representatives said the information was not easy to obtain, would cost over £600 pounds to collect, and that some of the data was immune from disclosure.  When the request was largely turned down, an internal investigation by ACC into its handling of the affair was requested as the law permits.  The City was sorry it was late in responding, but it was not going to release the information.

Findings:

The Information Commissioner’s office was supplied with the entire (lengthy) chain of emails from the first request through the refusal and the internal investigation.  The Commissioner will soon release its report into ‘Case 243/2011’ and these points are among the findings:-

  • ACC FAILED to comply with Part 1 of the Information (Scotland) Regulations 2002 (FOISA)
  • ACC  FAILED to comply with the Environmental Information (Scotland) Regulations 2004
  • ACC FAILED in dealing with the request by wrongly claiming that section 12(1) of FOISA was applicable to the request
  • ACC FAILED to provide reasonable advice and assistance under Section 15(1) of FOISA.
  • ACC FAILED to meet statutory timescales for handling the request

Background:

The comprehensive decision from the Commission covers the history, legal issues and relevant points of my request.  The Background section covers my initial questions to Aberdeen:

1. List of property (including but not limited to land, buildings, building services, material goods, etc.) Aberdeen City sold to the Stewart Milne Group, Stewart Milne Homes and/or any associated companies, and/or directly to Mr Stewart Milne. List to show property name/description, date of sale, sale price, minutes/reports of the City Council approving/recommending the sale, and if available the market value at time of sale.

2. List of property or services (including but not limited to land, buildings, building services, material goods, etc.), the Stewart Milne Group, Stewart Milne Homes and/or any associated companies, and/or directly to Mr Stewart Milne sold, managed or built for Aberdeen City Council. List to show property name/description, date of sale, price, reports/minutes of the City Council recommending the purchase, and if available the market value at time of sale.

If any aspect of this request is not clear, then please contact me directly for clarification.

I was asked to clarify what I meant by Stewart Milne associated companies, and on the same day as the request was emailed to me, I sent this list from Companies House:-

05232604

D

STEWART-MILNE CATERING LIMITED Dissolved
SC305012 STEWART MILNE CENTRAL LIMITED
SC152943 STEWART MILNE COMMERCIAL LIMITED
SC083265 STEWART MILNE CONSTRUCTION LIMITED
SC054259 STEWART MILNE DEVELOPMENTS LIMITED
SC191167 STEWART MILNE (GLASGOW) LIMITED
SC057709 STEWART MILNE GROUP LIMITED
SC132524 STEWART MILNE HOLDINGS LIMITED
SC137803 STEWART MILNE HOME OPTIONS LIMITED
SC065403 STEWART MILNE HOMES LIMITED
SC096898 STEWART MILNE HOMES (SOUTHERN) LIMITED
SC056620 STEWART MILNE INVESTMENTS LIMITED
SC063606 STEWART MILNE INVESTMENTS (SCOTLAND) LIMITED
SC349644

D

STEWART MILNE KITCHENS AND BATHROOMS LIMITED Dissolved
SC204848 STEWART MILNE PART EXCHANGE LIMITED
SC145941 STEWART MILNE PROPERTIES LIMITED
SC192726 STEWART MILNE (WEST) LIMITED
SC305009 STEWART MILNE WESTHILL LIMITED

The City also wanted to know what time period the request covered.  This was a bit of a surprise – was the list of property sold so extensive that a cut-off date was needed?  Dates of 1980 to the present were chosen.

On 9 February 2011 the City advised that the request would be too costly, and that it did not hold information relating to property it had sold to Stewart Milne companies.  An internal inquiry into how the City handled my request was offered and accepted.   This inquiry proved rather fruitless, and on 4 May 2011 the Office of the Scottish Information Commissioner was asked to look into the case.  The investigation began.

The Information Commissioner’s office contacted Aberdeen City Council on a number of points.  One of the issues was whether or not all or part of the FOI questions should have been dealt with as an Environmental Request (EIR).  The City then told the Commissioner’s office it ‘no longer wished to withhold the information in the reports (about tenders) in their entirety.  Some but not all the information on contracts Stewart Milne companies had won in September was released.  This included information about new build work at Byron Park, Hayton Road and Rorie Hall.  The documents were heavily redacted.

It was nine months since the FOI questions were first asked of ACC.  At one stage during the Commissioner’s investigation there was an opportunity to re-state the case and explain why the information should be put in the public domain.  I wrote about the state of Aberdeen’s finances, the fairly recent criticism of the City’s fiscal operations by Audit Scotland, the lack of transparency in the City’s dealings, and my concern for the disposal of public assets without clear attempt to get the best possible market price.

The decision notes my claim that ‘public assets should be bought and sold in a fully transparent manner, especially in such a cash-strapped city as Aberdeen.’  I wondered if my efforts would be enough.  I waited.

Findings & Analysis:

One of the most important reasons for refusing the request was cost.  If the costs were truly going to exceed £600 (the threshold over which public authorities do not have to respond – but can if they wish to), then someone at ACC’s Freedom of Information Office should have offered  guidance as to how to reduce the cost of the search.  This never happened.

Aberdeen’s initial cost estimates indicated that many people would have had to spend hours on the request, and some of these hours were going to be charged at over £15 per hour.  As it turned out, the maximum hourly rate that a public entity can charge for searches is £15 per hour.   Perhaps someone in the City’s Information area should have known this?

Over the course of the dozens of e-mails exchanged, I made clear I did not accept Aberdeen’s claim that supplying a list of the property would be to arduous and too expensive.

At one point the City said some of its records were only on paper format.  I informed the Information Commission that the City holds an Excel spread sheet detailing the property that it owns and that I considered it likely that the Council would have a similar spread sheet for property it disposed of.

Aberdeen said such a record did exist, but that it didn’t show to whom property had been sold.  (This seems like a very poor state of record-keeping if it is the case).  The City said its list would be ‘meaningless’ to me.  The City estimated that it sells some 10 pieces of property per year, and we would be talking about 140 sales from 1996.  In summary, the City said it would cost £1,117.50 (a rather precise figure I thought) to get the details I was after.

Item No. 50 of the Commissioner’s decision reads:

“…the Commissioner is surprised that the Council is unable to establish the identity of the purchaser in relation to individual property disposals in a less labour intensive manner, he accepts that the Council does not have simple access to the information requested…”

Here are some other points from the report concerning the issues:-

51.       “Having considered the Council’s submissions, the Commissioner accepts that it has identified a reasonable method of locating and retrieving the information Ms Kelly has requested.  This involves two distinct stages:  firstly identifying those property sales in which the purchaser was one of the parties of interest to Ms Kelly and then secondly locating and providing, for only those transactions involving relevant purchasers, the particular pieces of information requested by Ms Kelly about that transaction.  The Commissioner is satisfied that the information requested could all be located within the file relating to the property sale.”

52.       “Turning to the Council’s estimates of the staff time required to complete this process, the investigating officer reviewed the copy of a file provided by the Council.  Although this contained over 780 pages of information, the investigating officer was able to identify the purchaser of the land or property within two minutes of opening the electronic file.  Although, in this case, the purchaser was not one of interest to Ms Kelly, the investigating officer went on to locate the types of information about the sale she had requested.  The investigating officer was able to identify and extract the relevant information from this file within a further 15 minutes.”

53.       “Having considered the Council’s (somewhat limited) submissions and the investigating officer’s review of the sample file, the Commissioner is unable to accept the Council’s estimate that it would take 30 hours to establish which files involved sales to relevant parties.  This suggests that this initial stage would take an average of just under 13 minutes per file….”

The Commissioner’s findings on the issue of retrieving the information are even more concerning than just this over-calculation on the City’s part.  Looking back to an earlier point, it seems the Council are no longer keeping records of crucial information such as how public assets are disposed of:-

43.       “The Council explained that there is no longer a comprehensive database which records all transactions…”

After a less-than-glowing recent report from Audit Scotland into Aberdeen’s property management – why is there ‘no longer a comprehensive database’ concerning important transactions?

The decision then goes to the matter of the ‘duty to provide advice and assistance’.  The Information Commissioner found

“…the Council offered no advice and assistance to Ms Kelly on how she might reduce the scope of her request…” and “Given that the Council provided no advice or assistance to Ms Kelly in either narrowing the scope of her request, or accessing some of the information of interest to her, the Commissioner finds that the Council failed to comply with its duty…”

Part of my FOI request concerned contracts won by Milne companies.  Were we selling land at very favourable rates to a bidder who might put in low bids?  Would it be possible that a contractor won work by bidding lower than the competition, but that another company connected to the contractor bought land at profit-making prices – possibly even to the detriment of the public purse?   This possibility crossed my mind.

The Council felt harm would be done if details of contracts awarded were publicised.  I commented that there was a need for confidentiality during negotiations of a contract, but not once a deal is concluded where public money is being spent.

The Commissioner noted that my requests were about one year after the contracts were awarded.  The tenders had been evaluated; the contracts were issued.  As it turned out, the unsuccessful bidders had been advised of the details after the award – but by some kind of oversight or another on the part of Aberdeen City Council, this information was never made available to the public despite EU law making such disclosure mandatory.

This is what the Commissioner’s investigation found:-

“The Commissioner is unable to accept that a competing company would be able to gain significant insights into the relevant company’s capabilities, pricing or bidding strategies from the disclosure of this information [information re. Bids]… the commercial sensitivity of that information will have diminished with the passage of time, and in particular with the award of the contracts in the subsequent phase in the Council’s home building programme.  The Council has provided no evidence to support its submission regarding the continued risk or harm following from the disclosures of that information.”

More to come:

The decision has been released to me and the City.  They have until 23 January 2012 to lodge an appeal or comply.  The Commissioner’s intervention and in-depth analysis is greatly appreciated and clearly was much needed.

This report will be available to the public via the internet c. 16 December.  It will prove a valuable read to other researchers and anyone interested in how Aberdeen City Council handles information and requests for information.  However, one year on from asking the initial questions, there are still crucial questions unanswered:-

  • Who suggested selling land to Milne companies?  What was their position in ACC?
  • Exactly what public assets have been sold to Milne related companies?
  • Who in the City was involved in progressing and approving the sales?
  • Were any bids won by placing bids with very low likely profit margins?
  • What internal audit procedures, if any, flagged up any issues with the sales or contract awards?
  • Does anyone within this chain of decision making have any links to any of the Milne-related companies?

Further information on this subject will be forthcoming.  Aberdeen Voice will be reporting on the City’s next move.

Dec 122011
 

Aberdeen Voice  has learned that the Scottish Information Commissioner has upheld Voice reporter Suzanne Kelly’s Freedom of Information request with regard to land and property sold by Aberdeen City Council to Stewart Milne and associated companies.

Less than a week having passed since Stewart Milne’s appeal to the Supreme Court failed, the Scottish Information Commissioner has decided that the Council must provide Kelly with information on land transactions between Aberdeen City and Stewart Milne companies.

The Supreme Court had been asked to review the details of a land purchase Milne Group made from Aberdeen City Council. The Supreme Court found that Milne must pay the City £1.7 million over the land deal.

The cost of the legal action is at this point unknown.

Kelly had followed the case, and had heard from several sources that there may have been other deals regarding the property developer and the City.

In a Freedom of Information Request made to the City, Kelly asked for a list of property sold to Milne and/or associated companies and the selling price, as well as a list of contracts the Milne companies had won from Aberdeen (there are several companies connected to Stewart Milne). Kelly wanted to analyse the contracts won and land purchased. The City initially refused her request.

An appeal was lodged, and the Information Commissioner was asked to look at the history of the freedom of information request and the grounds for refusal. The Commissioner issued its findings on 9 December 2011. The Commission decided that Aberdeen City Council and its Freedom of Information officers failed to act properly on a number of issues.

Key points include:-

  • The City did not always respond to correspondence and requests in a timely manner.
  • The City said it did not have a comprehensive record keeping system and finding the information would be very difficult. Kelly proved to the Information Commissioner that the City keeps much of its property portfolio details on spreadsheets.
  • The City said it would cost over a thousand pounds to find this information.
  • Kelly received some of the requested information during the course of the investigation including details of c. £10 million worth of construction contracts won by Milne and associated companies. No information has as yet been released by Aberdeen to show what property it sold to Milne.

The property dealings of Aberdeen City council had come to the attention of Audit Scotland some time ago. In its findings Audit Scotland found:-

  • evidence of procedural and administrative deficiencies and poor record keeping,
  • cases where accurate and relevant information was not reported to elected members,
  • a lack of evidence to support the valuation at which properties were sold, and
  • cases where the Council may have achieved a better price. Overall, it appears that there is a potential loss of capital receipts which may be more than £5 million.

The City is considering a number of budget and service cuts, and this spurred Kelly on. Kelly states.

If the city is awarding contracts based even in part on low bids, then I question the wisdom and prudence of selling land at a fraction of its potential market value to a successful bidder. The City has a massive property portfolio, and if must keep detailed and accurate records of its transactions. In light of the Supreme Court decision last week, the decision from the Information Commissioner is extremely timely and most welcome. I look forward to receiving the information I have sought for so many months.”

Milne is also a director of Aberdeen Football Club. It is slated to sell its existing Pittodrie Stadium ( the UK’s first all-seater stadium ) and use the proceeds to build a stadium in greenbelt land near Loirston Loch. Planning permission was hotly contested, with local community councils objecting to the plans. The area is home to a variety of wildlife. The club’s income is thought to be in steady decline, as attendances have fallen and the team struggle to climb the league.

Says Kelly,

“I shall contact Aberdeen Council if I have not heard from them shortly, and as soon as the information is made available to me, I will report back. The Commissioner agrees that the public have a right to have the information I have fought long and hard to obtain.”

Nov 242011
 

By Bob Smith.


Silence we need noo an again
Yet it’s affa hard ti find
Aabody fleein aroon at sic a rate
Takin pairt in life’s daily grind

Silence wid be a bonus
Fin we jist sit aroon an think
Yet afen silence passes by
t’s past afore ye blink

Silence on a bonnie day
On a hilltop far fae toons
Watchin the cloods floatin by
Is een o life’s great boons

Silence fae noise o motor cars
Or mobile phones eynless  ringin
Silence jist ti rest yer brain
An ti hear the birdies singin

Silence is a gift ye ken
An een nae afen gien
Wi chatter, clatter an bangin
Silence seen becomes yer freen

A “Silence Day” we shud hae
Fin ti scraich an yell’s a crime
An raakin up the decibels
Wid git some a hefty fine

Silence tho micht be nae gweed
Ti an aul body bi thersel
Silence wi naebody ti spik ti
Wid bi seen as a livin hell

It canna be ower muckle ti ask
Fer fowk ti be a bittie quairt
Iss micht jist hae fowk smilin
Fin silence it taks pairt

©Bob Smith “The Poetry Mannie” 2011
 Image credit: © Craig Hanson | Dreamstime.com 

Sep 302011
 

By Mike Shepherd. 

A document has appeared purporting to reveal and counter ‘myths’ about the proposed Union Terrace Gardens development.  It has been posted on the Aberdeen and Grampian Chamber of Commerce (AGCC) website.
Some of the claims are disingenuous and others stretch the idea of a ‘myth’ somewhat.

AGCC: “Fiction: This is Sir Ian Wood’s project. Fact: The City Garden is not and never has been Sir Ian Wood’s project.”

The City Square has always been seen as Sir Ian Wood’s project. Sir Ian announced his proposal at  HM Theatre in November 2008.  The Evening Express reported the launch with the headline;

Options revealed in Sir Ian Wood’s vision for Union Terrace Gardens EE13/11/08

The same article also states:

The businessman wants to raise Aberdeen’s Union Terrace Gardens to street level and create a civic square.”

A media quote picked at random clearly shows that it has invariably been perceived as Sir Ian’s project.

Back my vision for the city or lose £50m, Sir Ian warns P&J 14/04/2010

So exactly whose vision is it then, Sir Ian?

What is referred to as ‘my vision’ is in fact the vision, aspiration and hopes of many, many Aberdonians for the future economic and civic wellbeing of our city and region as North Sea oil winds down.” BBC20/4/10

Excuse me, I don’t think so.

AGCC:  “Fiction: The City Garden Project will destroy the only green space in the city. Fact: It will create new, bigger, greener and more attractive gardens. It is about gardens and open, distinct spaces on different levels, using the natural slopes, for all sorts of activities.”

The development will destroy the existing Gardens and according to the technical feasibility study, all 78 mature trees including the old elms will be chopped down. It is hard to accept that the new “City Garden” could ever support mature trees on the existing scale.

AGCC: “Fiction: It will destroy our history and heritage. Fact: Wherever possible, the project will preserve and enhance our history and heritage.”

This is the most disingenuous of all the ‘myths’ in the document.  The first draft of the design brief for the City Squarecalls for a …

“21st century contemporary garden”

…to be built in place of the Victorian park. Union Terrace Gardens was planned by Alexander Marshall Mackenzie, who also designed many of the surrounding buildings including the Art Gallery. If Union Terrace Gardens feel as if they belong, this is the reason why. The city square WILL destroy a key part of our history and heritage.

AGCC:  “Fiction: Aberdeen City Council is selling off public land for this project. Fact: The land involved will remain in public ownership.”

This is misleading as it doesn’t explain the whole picture. The land will most likely remain with the Council for the time being. However, the ground will probably be leased for a long period, 125 years has been suggested. A lease-hold on this time-scale while technically not ownership, is nevertheless a significant property deal.  Any structure on the land, including the so-called City Garden, will not be publically owned. This will belong to the private company or trust if they get planning permission.

AGCC: “Fiction: Aberdeen City Council is spending money it cannot afford on this project, money that could be better spent elsewhere. Fact: Aberdeen City Council has not allocated any revenue expenditure to the City Garden Project, over the past year.”

We know that considerable Council officer time has been allocated to work spent on the project. We do not know if the City Garden Project intends to reimburse the Council for this or not. ACC minutes show that the Council lawyers have not yet signed  off the relevant project agreement that would allow this to happen.

AGCC: “Fiction: The City will be taking on-board future liabilities relating to the construction and operation of the City Garden.  Fact: The City has agreed to consider a TIF scheme to provide public sector funding for the project. This will involve the City borrowing funds to invest in the project. The project will stimulate new business investment and generate additional extra economic activity in the area, resulting in an increase in the amount of business rates collected in future years. This will be used to repay the loan plus the interest charges.”

Doh! – “Fiction: The City will be taking on-board future liabilities” but then we are told “This will involve the City borrowing funds to invest in the project”.

The Council are £562M in debt and cannot afford any more borrowing for anything. As has been explained on these pages before by Mick Miller, the version of TIF suggested for the City Square Project involves major financial risk. If the amount of business rates does not increase sufficiently to pay back the loan, then the Council get left holding the baby.

AGCC: “Fiction: The majority of Aberdeen public has voted against redeveloping Union Terrace Gardens. Fact: 11,000 people (less than 10% of the population) participated in the public consultation which revealed that just over half were against the proposal. Many of those were basing their decision on misinformation. The majority indicated a need for change and for the location to be more attractive and accessible.”

This is probably the most outrageous of the so-called myths. A public consultation was held, the public voted No by a significant majority and it was ignored. The public were told that their votes would count. Even Sir Ian Wood acknowledged this in an interview as can be seen on an STV located on Youtube.

“”The citizens of Aberdeen…  will have the right to choose. There will be full consultation, it’s coming to the end of it now and they will decide. And that’s democracy in operation. That’s great.”
http://video.stv.tv/bc/news-l2-gardens-190210/?redirect=no

The scale of participation in the consultation was significant. ACSEF, who helped set up the consultation, noted:

“11,943 people went on to submit formal responses that have been recorded in the statistics.  This is a huge response rate when compared to similar style consultations. For example, the Edinburgh Tram consultation had just under 3,500 direct responses.”

When, later ACSEF discussed the results of the consultation at a board meeting onthe 22d March 2010, they discussed how to frame the result of the consultation as a favourable outcome for the city square in spite of the No vote:

“If views are roughly split there is an opportunity to say that although the public has spoken this is only in relatively small numbers.  Those wishing to see the status quo are in the minority compared to those who wish to see change such as updating and modernising the gardens.”
http://www.acsef.co.uk/uploads/reports/21/22%20March%2010.doc

The statement that the majority indicated a need for change is misleading, the majority said no to the City Square Project and did not endorse it.

If the public were misled during the consultation, who was responsible for the misinformation?  Where did these myths come from?

It is now acknowledged by all involved that the absence of a reference design was a fundamental flaw in the consultation. The consultation asked if people supported the project or not but the common perception was that the conceptual illustrations, based on the technical study, represented a final design. Many based their decision on not liking what they believed was a final design.”
http://thecitygardenproject.com/background.asp

The proponents of the City Square do not accept that they lost the consultation fairly. They cannot believe that the public cogently preferred either the Peacock scheme or the preservation of the existing gardens to a modern city square. But this is what happened.

AGCC: “Fiction: It will be a flat, concrete square. Fact: This is not the case. The design teams have been given a very clear brief that new gardens and space which will have street level access from all four sides will use the existing topography of the site to provide a unique, dramatic and creatively landscaped setting to better reveal and blend with the surrounding historic architecture.”

OK guys, explain to me how you can ”raise the level of the Gardens to that of the surrounding streets” (the Council’s words not mine) and use the existing topography to any significant extent?  So where did the idea of a unique and dramatic setting come from?

Here is the description of the existing Gardens as noted in the City Centre Development Framework:

They have a “topography which provides a unique and dramatic setting for the surrounding historic townscape and bridges and an essential component of the identity of the City Centre. “

I suspect that this is just the start of a large PR campaign to sell the concept of the “City Garden Project” to the Aberdeen Public. It will have only a limited impact. Aberdonians are highly educated and can think for themselves. They can make their own mind up about what they want the city centre to look like, whether it is the existing Gardens or a city square at street level. They are smart enough to see what is plausible and what isn’t.

Aug 182011
 

 An update on the Council – and non-council designs on Union Terrace Gardens by Mike Shepherd

Six architects are busy designing a modern square and a subsurface concourse for the proposed development of Union Terrace Gardens. The public can expect to see these designs in early October. The architects have been given a design brief by the project implementation team for the City Garden Project, telling them what it is they are expected to design.

Only part of the brief has been made public; most of our councillors still have not been fully informed as to what the architects are being asked to do with our public, open, green space.

Yet, the intention had been for the councillors to sign off the design brief, but this never happened. Councillors are informed about the City Garden Project in a series of meetings for a group called the Project Monitoring Board. The minutes of the meetings are posted on the council website. The April minutes state:

“MRC (Malcolm Reading Company – the company managing the competition) will produce a comprehensive design brief and this will be submitted to Council on 29 June 2011, for ratification, before being issued to the short listed companies.”

Two months later, the June minutes stated:

“Mr Brough informed the group that the project management group had met on Monday the 6th June and had discussed and also amended a draft of the brief that Malcolm Reading has written up. The final brief will go to council on the 29th of June for noting. Mr Brough informed the group that the brief for the design didn’t go into much detail and may seem vague as the brief needed to allow some leeway and not be too prescriptive to the architects.”

This document was provided to councillors and gave some vague details as to what was expected of the architects including a specification for “ a contemporary 21st century garden”. I was present at the Council meeting on 29 June and the design brief was never discussed. There was a lengthy debate on allowing smoking in homeless accommodation and that was more or less it. I asked the council executive why the design brief had not come up. I received this reply on 3 July, just after the council meeting:

“I reported to the Project Monitoring Group what was intended at the time of the meeting. However, it was subsequently decided, by members involved in determining the Agenda for Council meetings, that there was no need to obtain Council approval for this and that it should go to Council as an attachment to the normal quarterly City Garden Project Bulletin report.

“Also, the brief still has to be finalised, by the addition of various technical annexes, before being issued to short-listed companies on 21 July.”

This makes it clear that the brief had not been completed by the time of the council meeting on 29 June, and that ‘members’ had pulled the item from the agenda. The document provided to councillors was not a finalised version. I wrote an open letter to councillors criticising the decision not to allow councillors to ratify the design brief. http://aberdeenvoice.com/2011/07/an-open-letter-to-our-councillors-city-garden-project/

“You have now lost control over the City Garden Project. A non-elected body has now made decisions as to what our city centre should look like. They have decreed that the Denburn should have a “contemporary 21st century garden”, not you. It is this body that is also deciding what the large underground concourse should be used for. If conference and exhibition facilities are to be provided, then this will clearly have implications for the future of the Aberdeen Exhibition and Conference Centre at the Bridge of Don. However, this is not a decision that you will have any control over unless you turn down the city square plans.”

The public should be extremely worried about the loss of democratic control over the City’s assets. The public was ignored when they voted against the City Square in a public consultation last year, now the powers given to our councillors are being bypassed too.”

This was repeated in a letter in the Scotsman and later partly republished by Private Eye. The result was a major row in the council chambers, which still has not died down yet. Some councillors and council officials were very upset at the statement that councillors had lost control over the City Garden Project. Others were annoyed that they had not been allowed to debate the design brief. Labour Councillor Willie Young asked a series of questions at this week’s Council meeting.

http://committees.aberdeencity.gov.uk/ieListDocuments.aspx?MId=1972

One of the questions was:

“To ask the Chief Executive if it is normal for third parties who currently do not own, lease or have any pecuniary property rights over a public asset such as Union Terrace Gardens to actively promote, encourage architectural design briefs on an asset they currently do not own, lease or have any pecuniary right over?”

The Chief Executive replied to this as follows:

“No. Any party does so at their own financial risk. However, the Council by virtue of their decision of May 2010 and those of subsequent meetings have noted and encouraged the course of action undertaken by the City Gardens Trust.”

The following request was also made:

“Council agrees that in order to provide proper scrutiny over an area of land currently under the City Council’s direct control, and to ensure that no citizen or citizens of Aberdeen can accuse the Council of “losing control” over the City Garden Project, as well as to ensure beyond reasonable doubt that there will be a local democratic audit of plans for an area of the city centre that many Aberdonians care passionately about, Council undertakes without delay to determine a design brief to be provided to architects which meets the requirements of the citizens of Aberdeen as approved by elected members, the democratically elected guardians of this fine city.”

This was not debated at the Council meeting on Wednesday. However, I’m told it will come up for discussion at a later Enterprise, Planning and Infrastructure sub-committee meeting.

I would ask councillors to stand up and assert themselves on this issue. You are our elected representatives. There should be local democratic control over our public open green space, its function and its utility.  It’s not up to a bunch of businessmen and their friends to decide what our city centre should look like. Nobody voted for them.

Jul 082011
 

By Bob Smith.

Faar’s aa the ile siller geen?
I afen hear iss plaintive cry
Aiberdonians pyein throwe the nose
Hoose prices awa sky-high

Faar’s aa the ile siller geen?
Oor toon cooncil’s on its knees
Yet a gweed pucklie fowk ye see
Are drivin aroon in yon SUVs

Faar’s aa the ile siller geen?
Local services cryin oot in need
Aa the ile siller it seems
Gings ti satisfy shareholders greed

Faar’s aa the ile siller geen?
The social gaps nae hard ti figure
Yet bi aa reports it wid appear
Ile company profits are gettin bigger

Faar’s aa the ile siller geen?
Fit wye’s oor main street  lookin dreary?
Ile companies pleadin aboot unfair tax
Is gettin a wee bit bliddy weary

Faar’s aa the ile siller geen?
Nae doot some hiv made a packet
Bit fowk nae involved in ile
Fin things agin them stackit

Faar’s aa the ile siller geen?
His there bin ony benefit at aa?
Seems ti me maist likely
It’s bin pissed up agin the wa

©Bob Smith “The Poetry Mannie” 2011

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Apr 152011
 

By Bob Smith.

Destroy  his vision at yer peril
Ye bunch o ignorant plebs
He’s  mair money than the lot o ye
An aat includes ony media celebs

He thinks ye’ve gin aff yer heid
If ye turn doon his generous offers
We’ll nae survive withoot him
There’s nae  money in city coffers

Neen o yer speil  he wints ti hear
Aboot the green lungs o the city
Iss is  aboot pittin lots o dosh
In   his Acsef cronies kitty

A  fine specimen o a  roof gairden
Fae  some architect wull be seen
The toon centre  transformed says he
Fair sparkling  in front o yer een

Faa‘s mou dis aa iss crap cum fae?
O aye yon millionaire mannie Widdie
Some think  the billie a richt gweed chiel
Ti the rest  he’s  a  bliddy diddie

©Bob Smith “The Poetry Mannie” 2011