Jun 252013
 

Alex Mitchell makes a welcome return to Voice, his insights inspired by his walks around the city and his musing on contemporary affairs.

January 22. Looked out the window this morning and thought, ‘Snaa’s all gone’, then switched on the radio to find that the roads are very hazardous 15-plus miles in all directions out of Aberdeen but especially in the rural hinterland.

One begins to wonder whether it is actually a feasible proposition to live in these inland places.

Winter conditions are obviously much more extreme and also persist much longer – they set in earlier and end later – than on the coast.

Everything is so much more time and trouble, takes so much longer – basic survival becomes the overarching preoccupation, crowding out other interests and concerns.

Even the summers in these inland locations are oppressive – just too hot, no cooling sea breezes, no access to the coast and dead, still air.

This, of course, is why humanity has always tended to cluster around seaports, river estuaries and coastal locations, quite apart from the business and employment opportunities associated with ports, the rivers and the sea – trade, commerce, import/export, fishing, boat and shipbuilding and transportation.

February 10. A Sunday afternoon spent in Union Terrace Gardens, assembling birds’ nesting boxes from kits with a view to building up the resident wildlife.

Cold, rain and sleet, but we were in a sheltered spot under the arches which support Union Terrace itself. Back to the Gardens the following Friday to see the fifteen birds’ nesting boxes, now varnished, being located high up on the trees by skilled personnel with a cherry-picker.

A much milder, Spring-like day, bright and sunny and clumps of snowdrops in evidence.

This is the kind of small-scale incremental improvement, largely undertaken by volunteers, which can transform our civic amenities at modest expense.

February 17. To Holburn Junction and west end of Union Street. Bell’s Hotel is in a very run-down state, the bar still open for business but otherwise closed up, the frontage ill-maintained with much vegetation and a large tree growing out of upper storeys.

Plans for redevelopment, extending the building back to Justice Mill Lane, seem to have stalled.

Further along, in the old Watt & Grant building, one of a clutch of gents’ outfitters, G*Raw, is having a closing-down sale, advertising 70% off. Aberdeen City Council has reluctantly granted planning permission for change of use to a bar/restaurant.

The long-established Austin Reed premises are in poor condition and are advertised for rent, but it is difficult to find tenants for any premises westward of the Music Hall – too far from the main centres of retail activity in St Nicholas Street, Union Bridge and the Union Square mega-mall.

Along Bon Accord Street and Langstane Place to Justice Mill Lane: the Radisson Park Inn hotel looks as tacky and out-of-place as ever, its paintwork and finishes deteriorating already. Similarly, the Travelodge at the other end of the IQ office building. Across Justice Mill Lane, the former Budz Bar premises, closed for refurbishment in 2007 and never reopened, are a major eyesore.

We have become so indoctrinated into regarding property as a wonderful can’t-fail asset and investment that it is difficult to accept that property can, in fact, be effectively worthless or even a net liability, costing more to service and maintain than it can ever earn in rent or other income.

The familiar pattern in the city centre has usually been that ground-floor premises can be let out for use as shops, bars, restaurants and fast-food outlets, but that upper floors are left unlet and unused.

 it is difficult, if not impossible, to force landlords to maintain unwanted buildings to an acceptable standard

Upstairs premises used to accommodate professionals such as dentists, tailors, solicitors, architects and accountants, but less so nowadays, perhaps because of the lack of modern facilities, car parking or uncongenial surroundings. The question would obviously arise as to whether it is possible to operate conventional business activity in a street or locality largely given over to pubs and bars.

Much the same would apply to the residential accommodation which used to prevail on the uppermost floors of these old buildings, where the means of exit in the event of fire might be a concern.

The private-sector solution to buildings which are expensive to maintain but which can be neither sold nor let out would be to demolish.

‘Listing’ and Conservation Area status operate to prevent such action, but it is difficult, if not impossible, to force landlords to maintain unwanted buildings to an acceptable standard; many proprietors simply cannot afford to do so, in the absence of any income stream.

Some may resort to deliberate fire-raising to remove a building regarded as a financial liability and money-pit. Derelict and empty buildings are quite likely to be set on fire anyway, by vandals, tramps and rough sleepers.

This is pretty much the position we had reached in relation to MarischalCollege some years ago. The building was impossibly expensive for its owners, the University of Aberdeen, to maintain to any acceptable standard, given that they had little use for it.

There was no serious prospect of sale or of finding a suitable tenant. The private-sector response would have been to demolish, but that was unacceptable to public opinion.

In the meantime, like much of Union Street and the city centre, Marischal College was deteriorating and quite likely to be set on fire and burn down. The only available solution was, in effect, to take the building into public ownership on the basis of a 175-year lease to Aberdeen City Council, since when it has been renovated and put to productive use.

The Council should be able to buy the buildings at modest expense – the landlords want out, after all

This seems to me to be the only workable solution to other such instances of ‘market failure’, where no private-sector solution is forthcoming or acceptable, such as the former Watt & Grant buildings on Union Street and the Victoria Buildings at the foot of Bridge Street, facing down Guild Street.

The Council should be able to buy the buildings at modest expense – the landlords want out, after all – and purchase and renovation costs might form the basis of a future TIF application, given the improving effect on the whole surrounding area which we have already seen happen to spectacular effect with Marischal College and Broad Street.

March 7. The Criterion Bar, Guild Street: a proposal to convert to a Sainsbury’s supermarket.

This used to be an iconic Aberdeen pub, occupying a prominent corner site opposite the railway and bus stations, and was an obvious port of call for many a thirsty traveller or football fan. It had an attractive Edwardian-style interior, featuring much carved wood and etched glass, apparently now largely destroyed.

The pub had been closed these last two years pending another proposal to convert to a Rice & Spice food store.

Whether or not a Sainsbury’s will be of greater utility or amenity than the long-established Criterion Bar remains to be seen.   There are two other bars nearby, Aitchie’s Lounge and the Lorne Bar in Trinity Lane, behind the Tivoli Theatre, and of course the Carmelite Hotel.

April 30. Sunny, but cold and windy. Parked the car at the Union Square mega-mall and walked up to M&S via the Green and Correction Wynd, Xmas gift voucher in pocket.

This is one of the first fine, sunny days for weeks, but the Green is completely empty at 2.30 on this weekday afternoon, with nobody going into or coming out of the various premises. Much the same absence of pedestrian footfall evident in Hadden Street.

The longer-term problem with the decline of M&S is that they have always been a mainstay and linchpin of the nation’s High Streets

Through the tunnel under Union Street and up Correction Wynd – an agreeable medieval ambience in the vicinity of the Mither Kirk, but again not a soul – not even a ghostly soul from the Ghaist-raw – to be seen. Along St Nicholas Lane, past the Prince of Wales, to M&S, which is advertising a sale, up to 70% off.

There is a glaring disconnect between M&S’s TV advertising and in-store displays, invariably featuring slender, snake-hipped young people, and the reality of the small numbers of mostly elderly customers trailing wearily around their overheated menswear department looking for a pair of trousers that might conceivably fit the larger person.

I settle for a pair of shoes I don’t really need or want – got to offload the gift voucher somehow.

The problem with having only elderly customers, especially elderly customers who don’t buy much, is that we oldies must sooner or later fall off the perch, and where will M&S, not to mention the Conservative and Unionist Party, or Aberdeen Journals, be left then?

The longer-term problem with the decline of M&S is that they have always been a mainstay and linchpin of the nation’s High Streets – a destination store, in fact – and if there is less and less reason to go back there, then the High Street and our town centres are even deader than we thought.

Walked back to the mega-mall via Correction Wynd and Carmelite Street. The rowan trees planted in enclosures alongside the Aberdeen Market in Hadden Street and in Carmelite Street and Rennie’s Wynd seem to be taking hold and coming on now, but the surrounding shrubs are being overwhelmed by faster-growing weeds.

Container gardening is a very labour-intensive business, as I am sure we all know, and ACC may not have the manpower to do it properly.

May 15. Mary Portas, self-styled Queen of Shops, is back on TV, now trying to work her dubious magic on the nation’s High Streets. She is in the Kentish seaside resort of Margate, being whiny and self-pitying when local traders refuse to let her into their public meeting on the not-unreasonable grounds that she had slandered the town on an earlier visit.

One might as well try to persuade people to take their holidays in Albania

Ms Portas had no real idea what to do about Margate and neither would I, Margate being the equivalent of a Lanarkshire mining town where the coal ran out decades ago.

At one stage Mary P is back in London, trying to persuade the throngs of mostly young people descending on Camden Market to spend their Saturday in Margate instead.

The point unintentionally made here is that people come to Camden because it offers something they want – the antiques and vintage fashion market, the surrounding specialist shops, the pubs, cafés and bars, the whole scene and ambience. People travel from Margate to Camden to experience this.

Nobody travels from Camden to Margate. One might as well try to persuade people to take their holidays in Albania.

The issue is partly one of scale.

A large community can support all kinds of special-interest activities because even just 1% of the population of London, or even of Bristol or Edinburgh, is still a lot of people, with considerable combined spending-power; but 1% of the population of, say, Banchory is only about fifty people, and 1% of the population of a village might be about five people.

Minority or special-interest activities which may well be viable business opportunities in a city or large town are unlikely to be so in a small town or village. A city will normally be able to support a university, possibly two universities, which are large employers in their own right and give rise to many spin-off activities.

Villages, on the other hand, are all too often unable to support as much as a primary school, a pub, a fish and chip shop or an Indian takeaway.

This lack of business opportunities, jobs or choice of employer means that small village communities are of little interest or use to anyone who has to earn a living, and even middle-class retirees tend to shun depressed and run-down places like Margate.

Salesmanship seems to be a fast-shrinking area of employment

Last year I wasted a day in Ecclefechan, Dumfriesshire, which really did seem like the Village Of The Damned, even on a sunny weekday. If a community is to remain viable it simply has to have an economic base of investment, enterprise and employment.

One of the most significant trends of our time is the gradual disappearance of secure and decently-remunerated jobs, such as allow people to lead an independent, adult existence, leave the parental home, get a place of their own and, in due course, finance the purchase of a house in a neighbourhood fit to raise a family in.

One might think of the hierarchy of staff who would be employed in a High Street bank back in the days of Dad’s Army, as compared with the skeleton staff of a modern bank, of which there are in any case far fewer than there used to be. Similarly, insurance offices and travel agents.

Salesmanship seems to be a fast-shrinking area of employment. When do we interact with a salesman/woman nowadays, except perhaps when buying a car?

The internet means that things we used to pay people to do we can now do for ourselves. This reduces the cost of living and makes poverty more bearable, but it also means fewer job opportunities and lower wages in many of such jobs as remain, for example, in journalism.

The recent council elections in England revealed a high degree of discontent in rural communities such as Boston, King’s Lynn and Wisbech to the effect that there are simply no decent jobs, or jobs that pay a living wage. The jobs there used to be on the land, in farming, have largely been mechanised out of existence.

The point was made that locally, the average wage has converged on the National Minimum Wage of about £6-7 per hour, whilst quite a few employers in practice contrive to pay even less than the Minimum Wage.

  I was a bit concerned, since it is not normally a good sign when whales and dolphins come up-river

Employee benefits such as pensions have been cut back and working conditions are deteriorating. People are caught by the twin pincers of falling wages and rising house prices. The average wage no longer finances the purchase of the average house, or indeed any house.

Such council housing as existed was sold off in the 1980s and the tied cottages occupied by farm workers are long gone.

Local discontent tends to target East European immigrants, but their impact is mixed.

They compete for certain kinds of work and housing, possibly driving wages down and rents up, but some industries – fruit-picking, fruit and veg processing and hotels – would not survive without immigrant labour, and their children sustain enrolment in local schools, many of which would otherwise close.

Immigration from Eastern Europe is probably one of the few dynamising elements of the Fenland economy, if the truth be told, and the same may also be true of much of Scotland.

June 4. The BBC’s Springwatch has highlighted the activities of the dolphins which congregate around the entrance to Aberdeen harbour. The first time I saw these creatures I was a bit concerned, since it is not normally a good sign when whales and dolphins come up-river, usually suggesting that they are lost and confused.

Dolphins and whales would normally avoid a noisy, heavily-trafficked locale such as the harbour entrance. The attraction for the Aberdeen dolphin pod is the confluence of fresh water coming down the River Dee and the salt water of the North Sea.

Salmon, returning up-river to breed, can only access the river of their birth via the narrow harbour entrance, and are thus easy pickings for the waiting dolphins. The Aberdeen dolphins were described as ‘large, fat, talkative, loud and they repeat themselves’.

They have evolved as larger animals to cope with the cold North Sea, acquiring an extra layer of blubber in the process.  They chatter a lot between themselves, loudly and repetitively, so as to be able to work as a team to trap the incoming salmon.

In effect, the dolphins are having to shout to make themselves heard against the background of submarine noise generated by ships moving in and out of the harbour. They have become a significant visitor attraction viewed from the Nigg car park and elsewhere.

  • Comments enabled – see comments box below. Note, all comments will be moderated.
May 142013
 

Whilst the more senior levels in Scottish football argue interminably about structure and finance, life goes on in the Highland League, with a last-day title decider between the top two teams set to rouse passions and tribal rivalries, just as it should. That’s this week. Last week, the Highland League Cup final was played. David Innes was in Banff supporting his hometown club Keith and doubled up by reporting for Voice.

The venue, Princess Royal Park was controversial. Although it’s a pleasant ground, there is no shelter for fans other than the impressive stand and the weather forecast was inconclusive.

It didn’t rain, it was pleasantly warm in the Banffshire coast sun and the pitch was in lovely condition for the time of year, so the organisers got it right.

Locos dominated early on and after missing a couple of chances, former Maroon Jason Begg put them ahead in 18 minutes.

Harlaw midfielder Clark Bain was dominant and although Keith posed a threat via Andy McAskill playing wide right, they were fortunate to turn around only a goal down.

Darren Still’s half time advice must have helped as the Maroons started the second half, playing uphill, in much more aggressive manner, yet it was Inverurie who looked more likely to add to their score. Then a crucial momentary lack of concentration by Stuart McKay allowed Sean Keith to cross for Andy McAskill to level at 1-1 after his first shot was blocked.

Locos came back and pressed hard. They almost went ahead again straight away, then a long free kick by Locos’ ‘keeper Andy Reid bounced off the Keith post with the defence assuming that the shot was going wide.

That bit of luck seemed to galvanise Keith and when defender Kieran Adams handled a shot on the ground, talisman and skipper Cammy Keith showed no mercy and buried the penalty behind Andy Reid. Suddenly the noise was coming from the Maroons fans.

Even Reid’s foray forward for a late corner couldn’t see Locos break down Keith’s defence with Stuart Walker and Gary McNamee dominant, and when McAskill broke away in stoppage time, Steven Park’s clumsy tackle earned the defender a red card and Keith a penalty. This time Cammy Keith’s shot hit the post but there was no way back for Locos, heads down and with a player short.

The final whistle saw gleeful celebrations on and off the pitch as Keith salvaged something from a poor season and delivered long-serving Darren Still his first trophy as the Maroons’ manager. It was a delight to see so many ex-players joining the young team as it soaked in the glory. Players are well taken care of at Kynoch Park, although the club does not pay the inflated wages offered by others. They repay that loyalty by continuing to offer their support.

The club chairman Sandy Stables, his board and committee put in incredible efforts to keep the club they love going, and even if they are never rewarded by big attendances, they put smiles on the faces of those who do attend on afternoons such as this.

Keith have an energetic squad of young players, with a few experienced hands around to guide them through the tough times. This victory will help instil belief in the squad where the traditional Keith team spirit is hugely in evidence. Rumours abound of a few experienced signing over the summer, which, allied to the abundant energy of the loons, might just see them cause a few upsets next season.

Locos manager Kenny Coull has admitted that his squad needs major restructuring and a few of the older players, who have served the club brilliantly since their days as a fledgling Highland League club, may have to move on.

Whatever the summer holds, it has been an exciting 2012-13 in the Highland League, with the Aberdeenshire Shield Final going ahead this week, before the title showdown at Pitmedden on the scheduled final day of the season. It’s the best fitba going.

  • Comments enabled – see comments box below. Note, all comments will be moderated.
Apr 262013
 

With thanks to Dave Macdermid.

A North East subsea services and training company is the latest organisation to provide financial support for Aberdeen tennis player Bruce Strachan, in his bid to build a full time career in the sport.
Tullos-based SUBC Engineering Ltd, which operates globally, will assist the 18-year-old with equipment, training, subsistence and tournament entry fees.

Colin Burney, the Managing Director of SUBC believes it’s vital to give Bruce every chance of succeeding in what is one of the world’s most competitive sports.

“It’s fantastic that Bruce is attempting to follow in Andy Murray’s footsteps and SUBC is only too happy to play a small part in helping to make that happen. He’s a real talent and certainly deserves to succeed in his quest.”

Bruce recently lifted his first title of the year, winning the Stirling Grand Prix and in the process defeating former Australian Open Junior Doubles champion Graeme Dyce 7-6 (6), 7-5 in the final.

In addition to SUBC Engineering, Bruce is supported by a number of organisations and individuals including the Paul Lawrie Foundation and David Lloyd.

The North East Open Men’s Singles champion for the past two years, Bruce is currently in the middle of a hectic competition schedule featuring the AEGON British Tour and the ITF Futures event, with a couple of events on mainland Europe planned for later in the spring.

For further information contact Dave Macdermid on 07710 580148,  dave.macdermid@tennisscotland.org

Dec 062012
 

Baby, it’s cold outside, but thanks to Black & White Publishing, three Voice readers will shortly be settling down in comfy chairs with a glass of vintage port, carpet slippers singeing before an open fire, to read Richard Gordon’s Glory In Gothenburg.

We asked, Everybody knows that the Dons’ goalscoring heroes that night were Eric Black and John Hewitt, but who scored most goals for the Dons in the whole tournament?’

As if any true Red needs reminding, the top European scorer that season was Andy Harrow.

Just kidding! It was, of course, Mark McGhee, bustling, intelligent line-leading striker of legend, the man who got in an ill-advised, bleezin’ scrap with Fergie in the boot room the day after the final. The man whose picture graces the cover of Glory In Gothenburg greeting the well-refreshed Red Navy as it disembarked from the St Clair, 48 hours after the wettest and most joyous evening of our lives.

So, who are the lucky fans whose names were randomly generated by Fred the Ed’s quincunx from a bulging virtual postbag?

Step into the spotlight:

Andrew Mackie, Stonehaven

David McLean, Aberdeen

Russell Cranna, Aberdeen

Congratulations from all at Voice and Black & White Publishing. And probably from the author himself, he’s that kind of guy!

We’ve sent the winners’ names and addresses to the publisher, who assures us Richard’s terrific tome should be delivered shortly, possibly in time to read on the bus to Motherwell on Tuesday!

Thanks to all who entered.

Come on you Reds!

Nov 192012
 

As we mentioned in our review of Richard Gordon’s Glory In Gothenburg, Black & White Publishing have offered us three copies of this marvellous volume to give away to readers in a free-to-enter competition.

The competition is open until Wednesday 28 November, and you can enter here.

What do you need to do?

As if any encouragement was needed, think back to the glorious 1982-83 season. Savour that Cup-Winners’ Cup run from a sunny summer evening at Pittodrie when the Dons hammered Sion, to the near-Gothic grey, thundery night in May 1983 when we…well, you know the story.

OK then, everybody knows that the Dons’ goalscoring heroes that night were Eric Black and John Hewitt, but who scored most goals for the Dons in the whole tournament?

The first three correct entries picked randomly for the editor’s virtual ‘coon-skin Davy Crockett hat will win copies of Richard’s book. Remember to tell us your name and address so that the publishers can send the prize directly to your door. You’ve no idea how difficult it is to get stuff to you without this information.

No correspondence on this please. No bribes, favours, flirting or threats. Nobody from Voice or their family members are eligible for entry and the editor’s decision is final. Nae arguing, right?

We’ll publish winners’ names, but none of their other information as stalking of minor celebrities is not to be encouraged.

Good luck.

Come on you Reds!

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.”

Mar 152012
 

By Stephen Davy-Osborne. 

Following a sell-out performance at Aberdeen’s AECC last month, the students of some of Aberdeen’s secondary schools are set to receive a boost to their fundraising for next year’s Rock Challenge, after an Aberdeen singer announced the proceeds of his latest single will all be donated to the cause.
Myke Black tells Aberdeen Voice all about it.

Myke Black, 25, is an acoustic singer/songwriter based in Aberdeen, and released his debut album, ‘Nice Little Earner’, at the end of 2010.

Speaking of his decision to donate the proceeds of his latest single Do What You Want to Rock Challenge, Myke said:

“I was very impressed by what the charity aims to do, and achieves, for young kids every single year. I am always happy to do my bit for charity, plus the last time I released anything was at the end of 2010, with my debut album Nice Little Earner. So this was an opportunity for me to do something worthwhile for a good cause, and an incentive to record and release a brand new track”.

“I have to admit that I knew nothing about the charity when they first approached me. But once I was told about what they do and the scale they do it on, I was more than keen to get involved!”

Rock Challenge is a worldwide performing arts competition for children aged 12-18, which sees young people express themselves through a piece of dance or drama with their school.

Underlying the event is a message encouraging young people not to get involved with drugs or alcohol; to be their best without the need for stimulants.

Myke was invited to perform the charity single at the AECC as part of the Aberdeen heat of Rock Challenge back in February.  He said:

 “I performed the song live in front of 3000 people and it was very well received. I also watched all the performances by the 7 schools that were taking part that night and I was blown away by their efforts.”

Myke added:

“I feel privileged to be a part of Rock Challenge UK and The Be Your Best Foundation and I would be more than happy to continue to with my involvement in the future, providing they feel the same way!”

The single Do What You Want is available for download from iTunes now.

Feb 242012
 

By Mike Shepherd.

The polling cards are out for the Union Terrace Gardens referendum and you have until March 1 to vote. The hype means you’ll have been bombarded with leaflets, pamphlets, news items and radio adverts.
If ‘connectivity’, a ‘21st century contemporary garden’, or ‘street-level access’ are key factors in deciding your vote, look no further; vote for the City Garden Project.

If you are undecided or swithering then read these very good reasons for voting to retain Union Terrace Gardens. 

1. Your vote will preserve the look and feel of the Granite City. Union Terrace Gardens are an integral part of the heritage of Aberdeen. Planned by the same architects who designed the Art Gallery and the frontage of Marischal College, they show an architectural harmony in the city centre which would be destroyed by a modernistic City Garden.

2. Your vote will not result in a ghastly modern structure replacing our park. Although described as the City Garden, it is in fact a mixture of buildings, flyovers, underpasses and parkland. The design has a passing resemblance to 1960s-style new town architecture. At one public meeting, someone said that the underpasses in particular were likely to end up as urban no-go areas. I have even heard a supporter of the scheme conceding that it will look dated after about five to ten years.

3. Your vote will stop a multitude of new glass box office blocks being built in the city centre. Council documents show that consideration has been given to plans to build a central business district in the city centre and encourage office block construction. The building of the City Garden Project, “will encourage development in the city centre sooner, and on a bigger scale, than might otherwise be the case without public investment in enabling infrastructure.”

4. Your vote will improve our much-loved park. Jimmy Milne, oilman and MD of Balmoral Group, has said:

“I and many of my business contemporaries, are committed to establishing a fund which will help bring the gardens back to their former glory. Without destroying our heritage, and without putting Aberdeen City further into debt, it would not be difficult to breathe fresh life into the park. Improved access, new planting, cleaning and restoration, park wardens and live events could all be relatively easily and cost effectively achieved.”

5. Your vote will ensure that the mature trees in Union Terrace Gardens will be saved. All 77 trees will be kept, including the twelve elms, some of which are at least 200 years old.

6. Your vote will stop our Council borrowing £70m they can’t afford. Aberdeen City Council, £562m in debt, is being asked to borrow £70m through a risky tax scheme to help fund the City Garden Project. If there is insufficient money to pay back the loan, Council funds will be required to service it.

7. Your vote will avoid significant disruption and pollution in the city centre for the near three years it will take to build the scheme. The technical feasibility study for the project estimates that the equivalent of 3,947 dump trucks of earth and 4,605 dump trucks of granite will be excavated from the Gardens causing ‘large environmental impacts from noise, transport, dust and energy use.’

8. Your vote will avoid the major traffic problems caused by the movement of heavy lifting equipment, dumper trucks and lorries in and out of the city centre. It is estimated that the City Garden will take almost three years to build. It is likely that there will be major traffic problems in the city for much of this time. City centre business will be impacted by this and may never recover.

9. Your vote will avoid much, if not all, of the Council’s cultural activities being displaced to the underground building in the City Garden. The council funds institutions occupying cosy, intimate venues such as the Music Hall, Lemon Tree and Belmont Cinema. A review of council-funded cultural activities will be made with a view to possible relocation to the underground concourse.

10. Your vote will avoid any consideration that the future of the HM Theatre could be in doubt. Two major performance venues will be built in the City Garden only yards from HM Theatre. Councillors have asked if this will have an impact on the future of HM Theatre. No specific assurances have been given.

Aberdeen could change forever if the City Garden is built, and probably not for the better.

We have the chance to keep the leafy, green heart of the Granite City. 

VOTE: RETAIN UNION TERRACE GARDENS

Jan 062012
 

Over three years ago, Sir Ian Wood announced the City Square Project with the intention of replacing Union Terrace Gardens with “a cross between the Grand Italian Piazza and a mini Central Park.” It has since been renamed the City Garden Project. The cost of building the project is nominally £140 million, of which it has been proposed that £70M of this would be borrowed by Aberdeen City Council involving a tax scheme.  Mike Shepherd offers some analysis of current local government trends, the recession, and what it may mean for Aberdeen.

So what is the justification being put forward for this expensive project, a project that has caused so much controversy since it was announced?

The project’s supporters allege the City Garden Project is needed to ensure that Aberdeen is attractive enough to retain energy professionals long term and to ensure Aberdeen’s economy is based on tourism post-oil.

For instance, an advert by ACSEF in the Press and Journal (January 2010) stated that:-

“Creating a new heart for Aberdeen presents a unique opportunity to put the city on the ‘must visit’ list.”

 Aberdeen City Council is £562 million in debt (2010 figure).
See:
http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Publications/2011/02/21143624/4

Last November, Perth and Kinross Council approved demolishing the listed Perth Town Hall to build a Civic Square in its place, a move that has raised much controversy.  The BBC reported:

“The council said many local businesses supported the civic square proposal. And council officers have argued that full demolition and reuse of the site as a public space would provide the most additional value to the local economy.  The cost of scheme is estimated at £4.4m, but the report said an additional 15,000 people per year would extend their stay in the city, with an extra 60,000 coming for events. “This would result in a combined additional spend per person per visit of £23 generating a total gross expenditure of £1.65m per annum,” it added.
See:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-tayside-central-15742937

Perth and Kinross Council is £222 Million in debt (2010 figure).

A similar controversy has been raging in Cork, Ireland, where the struggling Cork Council has been involved in a plan to install the Sky Garden Project. Celebrity TV gardener Diarmuid Gavin’s Irish Sky Garden won the gold medal at the Chelsea Flower Show (It looks like a giant hanging flower basket).

  There is a pattern here. Local governments the world over are in serious debt

The Council agreed to put the garden on permanent display in the city’s Fitzgerald Park at a cost of at least €300,000, with more than €1.7 million given to the project by Fáilte Ireland, the Irish tourism body.

In tones, redolent of the Aberdeen controversy, the Irish Independent wrote:

“THE taxpayer could be hit with a further bill of over €100,000 in costs connected to Diarmuid Gavin’s award-winning garden.

“Workers’ Party councillor Ted Tynan said the council needed to clarify precisely how much the garden cost, and what the council would pay in transport, insurance and operating costs. He also expressed disbelief that the garden — including its 30-metre high floating ‘pod’ and crane — may only open for three months each year.

“I love gardens and flowers and parks, but this is absolutely ridiculous. You’d put a hell of a lot of flower beds around the city for this kind of money. We should keep our feet on the ground not in the clouds with a sky garden’,” Mr Tynan said

“There are 500 boarded-up council houses in Cork and 120 people with various disabilities waiting on home adaptations. But the funding to go to all this has been cut by central government,” he added.

“Last night, the council said support for the “iconic garden” was in line with the policy that led to the creation of successful visitor attractions in the city.”

“This is part of a long-term policy to create a necklace of top tourist attractions that will bring people to Cork, get them to stay longer here and spend more money here,” a council spokesman said.

“Fáilte Ireland insisted that the garden would generate significant tourism earnings.”

See: http://www.independent.ie/national-news/diarmuid-gavinrsquos-euro2m-lsquosky-gardenrsquo-growing-in-cost-2661548.html

There is a pattern here. Local governments the world over are in serious debt. Services and amenities are being cut, yet it doesn’t stop them from spending money on expensive big-ticket items that might bring visitors in.  There is a feedback loop between local government, chambers of commerce and national government that serves to create the syndrome, “if we build it, they will come”.

  While a worthy cause, this has caused controversy as the annual budget will be part-funded by the city’s Common Good Fund

Where local economies have failed as in Cork for example, tourism may be the last throw of the dice to engender outside income.  There will be much competition for the dwindling number of international tourists as the recession bites. Recent reports suggest that countries such as Greece and Spain will focus relentlessly on promoting tourism as the last glimmer of light in their busted economies.

Aberdeen has caught up on the trend of pushing long-term tourism. The local chamber of commerce have been promoting a new destination marketing organisation for the city called ‘Visit Aberdeen’.

While a worthy cause, this has caused controversy as the annual budget will be part-funded by the city’s Common Good Fund; £107,000 for 2011 / 2012 and potentially for the next six years also. Arguably this is more ‘commerce good’ than ‘common good’.

The draft business plan recognises the future of the City Garden Project / Union Terrace Gardens as a primary issue. It is to be hoped that an organisation part-funded by Common Good money will not be promoting the controversial development of a public park that lies on Common Good land.
See: http://committees.aberdeencity.gov.uk/mgConvert2PDF.aspx?ID=15678

Are the citizens of Aberdeen willing to support the allocation of scarce resources to “a build it and they might come” vision for the city, allowing a public park to be developed for the sake of possible future tourists? Or is this all pie in the sky stuff that will use up money desperately needed elsewhere and will result in the appearance of the Granite City changing forever?

You have the chance to decide yourself.  The referendum on the fate of Union Terrace Gardens will be held in February.

 

 

 

 

 

Dec 292011
 

By Mike Shepherd.

The jury for the City Garden Project will announce the final scheme for the proposed development of Union Terrace Gardens sometime in January.  The choice will be between two designs, one with a web-based motif and the other with a big glass building in the middle which looks like a giant worm.

It is clear from both designs that most of the existing trees will be removed to build the new ‘garden’, whichever is built. 

New trees could of course be planted, but it would be decades before these grew to a comparable size, and this may not even be possible in those areas with a shallow concrete substrate. There will be claims that some of the smaller trees could be replanted, although the practicalities of this are obvious.

The big trees are particularly important as they absorb carbon and filter more pollution from the air compared to smaller trees. One study concluded that for this purpose:

“Big trees, the ones the Victorians planted for us, are what we need to maintain, but they are few and far between.”
See: http://www.theecologist.org

This week saw the shocking news that people living in Scottish cities are being exposed to dangerously high levels of pollutants. A WWF Scotland report identified three pollution hotspots in Aberdeen; Union Street, Market Street, and Wellington Road. These show  levels that are in breach of EU targets intended to protect human health. The main problem is the high levels of nitrogen dioxide caused by traffic fumes.
See: http://www.pressandjournal.co.uk

Aberdeen has a highly-polluted city centre. The solution to the problem would be to reduce the level of traffic in the city centre; pedestrianising Union Street has been suggested as an option.

It is also clear that we need to maintain the tree population of the city centre to help absorb the pollution. The key areas are Bon Accord Gardens, St. Nicholas churchyard and Union Terrace Gardens itself. Otherwise, Aberdeen city centre can hardly be described as awash with trees.

Yet, the proposed City Garden Project will remove a population of mature trees from the city centre. The problem is acknowledged in the Technical Feasibility Study for the project.

“Removal of mature trees and existing ecological habitat; 78 mature trees would be lost including 17 number mature Elm trees. The ecological value of these trees would take decades to replace as many of the trees are up to 200 years old.”

The City Garden Project will itself be a major source of pollution while it is being built (for the duration of almost two and a half years according to the same study).

“Excavation of rock/earth; It is anticipated that 30,000m3 of earth and 35,000m3 of granite will need to be removed from site. This which will cause large environmental impacts from noise, dust, transport and energy use. The removal of this volume of material is equivalent to approximately 3,947 dump trucks of earth and 4,605 dump trucks or more of granite to be removed from site or re-used where possible on site. This would have large environmental and social impacts on the local area and community surrounding the gardens.”
See:  
http://www.acsef.co.uk

It is clear from this, that the ecological downside of building the City Garden Project is substantial. The construction phase will see a protracted period of dirt and pollution in the city centre. By contrast, it is no exaggeration to describe Union Terrace Gardens as the green, living heart of the Granite City; its big trees acting as a natural washing machine, helping to keep us healthy by removing noxious pollution.

Those living in Aberdeen City will receive a postal ballot in mid February allowing them to decide between retaining Union Terrace Gardens or sanctioning the construction of the City Garden Project.

I will vote to retain Union Terrace Gardens.