Jul 062012
 

Disillusioned and dissatisfied with the speed, quality and transparency (for lack of a better word), Suzanne Kelly sums up her dealings with Aberdeen City’s FOI officers.

In 2007 I made my first Freedom of Information request to Aberdeen City Council.  This concerned travellers’ sites (the city had the brainstorm of telling travellers to go to the Torry  Battery – I pointed out that it was an Ancient Monument which the City was supposed to safeguard).

I received a reasonable answer in a reasonable timeframe.

However, it seems as if FOI request handling is far from straightforward of late.

I have been given information late on several occasions.  I have been refused information which I should have been given (as the Information Commissioner later agreed).  I have been given contradictory information. I have even, in my opinion, had disingenuous interpretations made of straightforward requests.    A few examples will illustrate the types of failings I believe need to be addressed.

1.  How many deer were shot on Tullos Hill?

Initially the first figure of deer shot was 22.  This was later changed to 23.  The figures continue to change.  An email of 22 June 2012 from the FOI Office implies 33 shots were fired.  Yet this same reply came with a copy of a handwritten notebook, in which 35 deer were listed as  killed.

Still another document sent at the same time shows 34 deer were killed.  Even though the last animal was -we are told- killed on 9 May, June FOI requests said 23 deer were killed.

This hardly seems like accurate information management to me.

2.  CJ Piper & Co. -  A mystery to ACC

‘CJ Piper & Co.’ is an entity connected to the tree scheme and the cull.  This company co-wrote a report with ACC on the tree scheme – recommending the destruction of 22 deer this year.  ACC paid CJ Piper & Co. at least £44,000.  However, there is no ‘CJ Piper & Co’ listed with Companies House.  There may be very simple explanations for this.  Whatever the explanation, we are not likely to get details anytime soon.

The FOI officer advised me:

“ACC is unable to provide you with information on ‘C J Piper & Co’, including  whether or not this is a registered company, … as it is not held by ACC. “

Precisely how Aberdeen City can spend public money and make payments to a company without holding its details may be of interest to the Information Commissioner as well as Audit Scotland.   It must have been extremely difficult to write a report with this mysterious firm, but ACC managed it.

There is of course the assumption that Chris Piper (a known forestry expert) is the main force behind this company, but the public should have the right to know this company’s details and whether there are any other directors/shareholders.

Should someone being paid to plant trees be the same person who writes a report recommending deer should be slaughtered in order to plant trees when they stand to gain financially from the contents of the report? The relevant issues will be looked at in the next Aberdeen Voice.

3.  How much has the Tree for Every Citizen and deer cull cost? 

I have received two spreadsheets under FOI legislation on this question.  The  latest spreadsheet was meant to show all the incoming and outgoing money on the deer cull and tree scheme.  But it raised more issues than it answered, including:

  • Thirteen lines of 32 line items are classed as ‘unknown concerning ‘ – this is unacceptable
  • Who are ‘Highland Estate Services’  – did they carry out the cull?  How did they and other contractors win work on this project?
  • What exactly are the ‘interdepartmental charges’ on Line 15 for £3000?
  • Where do the accounts show  the £43,800 returned to the Forestry Commission?  Accounting for this returned grant, it would seem ACC spent £167,512 minimum on the tree scheme and cull to date
  • Where are any entries to reflect all the deer fencing that was put up, or the £480 per week site clearance charges that went on over several months?
  • One of the few income streams coming in would have been the deer carcasses which were sold to a game meat dealer.  Where is an entry in the books showing how much money the City made from destroying this herd of deer?

4.  Correspondence between ACC and the Scottish SPCA – Someone is hugely mistaken

A story in the Evening Express recently claime 2 deer were found dead ‘ahead’ of the cull (the story appeared in 2012; the deer died of unknown causes in…2010).   The ‘news’ item quoted heavily from a letter ACC sent to the Scottish SPCA.

I asked for copies of letters to and from ACC and the Scottish SPCA (which told me there were a handful of letters on the Tullos topic).

However, Aberdeen FOI office says:

“… ACC holds a high volume of correspondence with the SSPCA relating to Tullos Hill. As such, it has proven to be quite difficult in identifying the particular letter to which you refer.  … it [FOI office]  is not aware of ACC supplying a copy of any letter to the Evening Express.”

So, not only do the City’s FOI people contradict the Scottish SPCA over the quantity of correspondence, but the ACC FOI office also cannot find a letter from ACC to the Scottish SPCA, quoted heavily in a news story (a copy of which I sent with my request).

At this point I can be forgiven for asking whether there is an political pressure at work on the FOI team concerning the cull.

5.  Q:  ‘Who or which agency performed site clearing work at Tullos?’

My question could not have been more straightforward; I asked ‘who or which agency’ performed site clearing work at Tullos (work which was worth apparently £480 per week).  The answer I first got smacked of sarcasm:  ‘a private contractor’.   Somehow, I had already managed to deduce that myself.   Sarcasm is fine in creative writing, but I question its place in a FOI response.

I wrote back:

“…the name of the company / companies involved should be specified.  This should please include their Company Registration Number by which they are listed in Companies House – if not listed, then please specify”

The FOI officer replied:

 “ACC is unable to provide you with the name of the private contractor (a sole trader).  ACC considers this information to be excepted under Regulation 11(2) and Regulation 10(5)(f) of the EIRS.  Please refer to the attached exception notices”

Perhaps they should have just said they were refusing to answer the question in the first place.   I am not completely certain that a sole trader should be called ‘CJ Piper AND COMPANY’, either.

Private entity  or not, the person/company was paid with public money, and we should know who is connected with it, how it was appointed, and what other work it has done.

6.  Is the use of a present tense verb reason enough to deny that a debt existed?

Rumour reached me that the failure of the first planting had cost the taxpayer about £44,000.  I asked the FOI office:

“Is it true that Aberdeen City Council owes a sum for previous, failed planting? “

The answer came:

“No money is owed by Aberdeen City Council to any agency or organisation for the previous planting.”

When I obtained a SNH letter proving £43,800 debt for the previous failed planting indeed existed,  the Chief Executive Watts denied the £43,800 had anything to do with my FOI request.  The Chief Executive indicated the £43,800 for the failed tree planting on Tullos Hill had nothing to do with the current scheme.

In the first place, it certainly has every relevance to the phase 2 tree planting.  In the second, my question did not say anything about phase 2 – just a ‘previous failed planting’.

The FOI people also defended their answer, writing  that since the debt had been paid, it no longer existed – and therefore they considered my question was not relevant.  The debt was paid in March; I asked my question in May.

I may be alone, but I see a connection between the £43,800 repaid for the previous failed planting and the £44,000 I asked about for a previous failed planting, irrespective of my  use of past or present tense verb in  my question, it was abundantly clear what information I had wanted.

7.  FOI 10703 The Tree scheme won’t cost us anything

I asked a ‘non-factual’ question, and wondered how the FOI office would cope.   I did get an interesting reply.

I asked,

“ Why is the ‘a tree for every citizen’ project something that must be adhered to so precisely?”

The reply came:

“Elected members made a commitment in their Vibrant Dynamic and Forward Looking statement … to plant a tree for every citizen to support the ongoing development and improvement of the quality and quantity of public open space in the City.  Officers have been challenged to deliver this commitment.  

“Aberdeen has a relatively small area of woodland cover (8.8%) as a percentage of its total area.  ….   Woodland recognised to offer a range of benefits for human well-being, creating a pleasant environment for people to live and work in, as well as being of great biodiversity value. 

“Creating these woodlands … will deliver on all these points, with the additional benefit of being created at no cost to the City Council due to the levels of external funding being obtained to deliver the project.  This demonstrates that the Tree for Every Citizen is not taking resources from other services within the City.”

I have to wonder how this answers ‘why’ we must adhere precisely to a scheme which condemned the existing meadowland ecological system.  is the above answer a factual, quantifiable piece of information – or is it political waffle?  The FOI did not attribute their answer.

8.  Marischal College – on time and under budget?  Where’s the proof?

Back when the idea of gutting Marischal College to create offices (too small for the  Council’s needs) first emerged, people were telling me that the costings for alternative projects had been done very hastily and all alternatives were dropped quickly in favour of the Marischal plan.

My FOI ENQ 7172 uncovered that ACC spent £20K on consultants to look at the Marischal project.  However while I found out that costings on alternatives were done, I can’t see them .

I had asked:

“What were the costings done on the alternatives to Marischal College development?”

FOI Answer:

“ACC are of the opinion that… because the Copyright and Patents Act 1988 forbids Aberdeen City Council from copying the cost analysis on the Marischal Project without the owners consent. … ACC is not obliged under the terms of the FOISA to provide you with the information requested. “

How can ACC have paid consultants to look at costings – and the taxpayer not be allowed to know what the results are because of ‘copyright’ ?  Certainly copyright is meant to stop people profiting from the writings of other people, not to prevent the public finding out how its money could have been spent.

#                              #                              #

We are asked to have sympathy for the FOI staff and are told many of the requests they receive are ‘frivolous.’  However, the purpose of this Freedom of Information office  is to fulfil Aberdeen’s legal duties under Freedom of Information Legislation.

I haven’t counted up how many emails I received from the FOI office apologising for lateness in replying to me (all FOIs are meant to be answered within a certain time frame).  Let’s suffice it to say at least 50% of my requests are answered late.

There is also the matter of a judgment from the Information Commissioner against Aberdeen.  A FOI request concerning Stewart Milne group companies of mine went largely unanswered by the Council, which said the law was against the information coming out.  The information Commissioner had a different take, and eventually  five  errors were identified in how ACC FOI staff handled my questions were identified.

If we want FOI responses  to be accurate, swiftly delivered and comprehensive, then this department needs immediate overhauling.  I will be asking Councillors and the Information  Commissioner  to investigate further.

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Jun 282012
 

Following the release of the City Garden project business case on Thursday afternoon, youth councillor Kenneth Watt comments on the financial plan.

“The report highlights initial concerns with the City Garden Project. All risks featured in the business case are of high or medium risk.
Most concerning is the risk of running out of private sector donations, which is the most severe risk in the report, at 75%. Aberdeen City Council are expected to gamble over half of the funding through the risky TIF scheme. 

“There’s no substantial back-up plan for failure to capture private investment.”

“Even if capital costs increase by just 10%, the loan won’t be repayable in 25 years and the council will have to increase its borrowing to over £100m. A leading economist said last year that capital projects such as these could easily cost double.
( Ref:
 Neil Baxter, Press and Journal 14/5/2010 )

“This project could really drive the city in to more debt which is not what my generation needs.”

“I’m worried about the long-term impact the project could have on the city. There has been no investigation in to the effect of building another theatre on our existing arts venues. I fail to see real evidence on how over 8000 jobs are going to be created by replacing a park with a park, adding an extra floor to the Art Gallery and improving pedestrian routes in the city centre.”

“The risk is just too high and I remain unconvinced by the business case. People inAberdeenvalue public services and are already feeling the effect of £618m of debt. They don’t need more worry caused by short-sighted economic plans centred around a park pushed only by the city’s out-of-touch wealthy elite.”

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Apr 062012
 

Old Susannah comments on UK Government proposals to access emails between all citizens in the name of preventing Terrorism.

There will be dancing in the streets, celebrations at public squares (as long as they are vibrant, dynamic and have connectivity), and rejoicing all ‘round: the government has found the way to stop terrorism! Result! Yes, the government is getting rid of terrorism. And your basic right to privacy.

Why didn’t we think of it earlier, we are all wondering. Yes, the Government has decided it has the right to record each and every email you receive and send. And that is how terrorism will be stopped once and for all.

I’m happy to give up my private life forever in order for government snoops to be able to catch the bad guys. I’m thrilled to be treated like a new prison inmate every time I want to get on a plane. I’m sure you are as well.

So what if there are the occasional cases of disabled and/or elderly people being strip searched for having mobility aids. If the occasional frightened child is separated from its parents to be frisked, then so be it. It’s the price we pay for having the fantastic safe and secure lifestyles we have.

It was said by an American founding father, Benjamin Franklin that ‘They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.’ How times have changed.

You could also wonder how secure your business secrets will be when they are intercepted by unknown government spooks. Do people ever mis-use information? Hardly ever. The slightly paranoid J Edgar Hoover kept files on American citizens, and would occasionally blackmail people into doing his bidding. Liberty and Justice for all, except if the FBI wanted you.

That would never happen here. Of course a senior police official was recently found guilty of accessing data on an ex-partner of his right here. I’m sure this was just a one-off, no need to trouble ourselves about it.

It’s also a very good thing that terrorists would never use the Royal Mail. Except for those charming people who sent bombs to Celtic’s manager, that is. No one would ever think of using the post for smuggling, planning terrorist attacks or anything else we should concern ourselves with. Phew!

It would be terrible if there were any civil disobedience over this great move. For instance nothing is stopping you from going to an internet cafe, and creating a free email account under the name of john smith. If enough people did this, and only sent or checked emails at internet cafes, then this little snooping plan of our kind government’s would be toast.

Old Susannah thinks this great scheme might run into a few wee problems anyway. For one thing, I keep getting all sorts of ‘spam’. Multiply all the emails selling you drugs or which try to get your personal details out of you by the country’s population, and you’ll need a bank of computer storage just to keep the spam.

Perhaps we should all go back to sending letters.

If anyone wanted to sign a petition against this great piece of legislation, although I can’t think why they would, the online petition is at http://www.avaaz.org/en/stop_the_big_brother_law_a/?tta

Celebrity Blog from Cattie the Millipede and Milly the Caterpillar

Greetings everyone from our safe house in Torry, where we were airlifted to after our beautiful meadow home on Tullos Hill was destroyed – for a LibDem election pledge. We are surviving the cold snap OK, because we have lots of dead leaves to hide under to keep warm. (gardeners should always leave some dead leaves or other mulch around to keep plants – and creatures like us – warm).

We are even more worried now about our old friends on Tullos Hill. The deer have nowhere near as much gorse to shelter in and it’s cold. The birds lost lots of their shelter too when the gorse was ripped out. We are fine – but we wish our friends were, too.

Election Notes

The Labour Party have announced they would – end the Granite Web in its tracks if elected! Rather than borrowing £140,000,000 to put concrete ramps over our garden, chop down 250 year-old trees to turn into wood chip, they seem to want to spend time and energy on helping people.

Gerry Brough, city employee who has generously volunteered to work on the project is said to be incandescent with rage. So no change there then.

Apr 062012
 

A report on the UTG referendum was discussed at a meeting of full council on Wednesday with a view to it being approved before being sent to the Scottish Government. Friends of Union Terrace Gardens chairman Mike Shepherd was permitted to give a deputation. Aberden voice presents Mike’s deputation in full.

“I was allowed to give a deputation here in January when I said that the FoUTG would agree to take part in a referendum if it was fair.

We agreed to the referendum in spite of the shameful behaviour of this council in ignoring the result of the public consultation two years ago. We agreed for two reasons.

First, we saw the CGP as a juggernaut pushed through relentlessly by business and a friendly council. There were only two options to stop this; either through the referendum or legal action. We chose the referendum.

Secondly, we chose this route through public spirit. We were only too aware of the poisonous attitudes building on both sides of the issue. Aberdeen was at war with itself. A fair referendum was the only way of killing this beast.

I also told the council that the referendum would have to be fair because implicit in taking part was that we accepted the final result, whatever it was. This was said in good faith.

THIS WAS NOT A FAIR REFERENDUM!

We do not accept the result. The process was flawed. Internet and phone voting should not have been allowed as without signatures, this was open to fraud. The Green party have also asked me to complain about their shortened message in the information pack that was sent out.

The City Garden Project supporters were allowed to spend tens of thousands of pounds on PR, newspapers, leaflets and radio ads. This money spent on advertising bought a marginal result for the referendum.

The ads were often misleading and in some instances blatantly so. We were told of a bogus £182M investment, consisting of a bogus £15M of private investment and a bogus £20M Art Gallery grant which didn’t exist. One misleading ad is under investigation by the Advertising Standards Authority.

This council also misled the public. The claim that a new park could create 6,500 jobs was utterly ludicrous. They did not explain the risks of borrowing through TIF properly, even when Audit Scotland expressed their concerns about the long term implications for the Council’s finances.

You are £618M in debt, you cannot afford the risk on further borrowing.

The council were partial to one side of the referendum. The ACGT were allowed to show a video in the Art Gallery, council property, yet we were excluded until after several days of complaint on the matter.

This was a dishonest referendum. The public were misled right up the City Garden path. The council should vote to ignore the result. Furthermore, this report should not be passed onto the Scottish Government as suggested. The proposal to spend valuable investment and infrastructure money on something as trivial as a new park is a disgrace.

We do not accept the result of the referendum and we intend to carry on campaigning to save Union Terrace Gardens. Thank you.”

Evening Express report here.  http://www.eveningexpress.co.uk/Article.aspx

Mar 082012
 

The Council has taken a bit of a pasting recently, probably in Voice as much as anywhere. That’s what happens when we invite citizens to pen articles for us. One of Aberdeen Voice’s founders, Ross Cunningham, makes a welcome return by musing on some of the things that councils responsible for the city actually got right over the years.

Let’s face it, our city council is pretty woeful.
Hundreds of millions in debt, essential services cut, hair-brained schemes to revamp the city centre and deafness to those who wish to voice their opinions on the city itself.

But, was it always like this? Surely our great city’s leaders must have been competent once upon a time?

I’m sure there are many more fantastic schemes the council has facilitated over the years that I’ve left out, so please feel free to add to the list. But first try these…..

1. Raising Union Street to street level from Union Terrace to Castlegate

What a superb plan. It almost bankrupted the city when it was built in the 19th century but that was the problem of Aberdonians back then and not ours. Can you imagine having to go downhill and back up again to get from KFC to Poundland? No thank you!

2. Putting the Canal Street signpost on top of a pole instead of at street level

Brilliant! We were all tired of seeing people scoring out the C and S to formulate a crude and badly-spelled statement. To hell with delivery drivers unfamiliar to the area who may not have a TomTom to guide them. Someone needs to treat these things anally!

3. Britain In Bloom champions umpteen times

Being an ex-gardener, the floral displays in the city have always delighted me. Considering we are surrounded by grey, the colour and vibrancy the flowers provided were always a welcome sight. It looks like we may have a new place to show off our horticultural nous very soon. I’d rather we just did up the old one.

4. Revamping Marischal College

It’s amazing what you can do with a pressure washer nowadays. The granite sparkles with a freshness not seen for at least half a century – apart from the old church on the side – and it sits across the road from the recently-evacuated monstrosity. Still, the view from the never-ending queue to wait to discuss inaccuracies on your council tax bill is better than it ever has been.

5. Rebranding the city arms logo

Does anyone remember when the leopards on the city logo looked a bit too fierce and menacing? Surely not the sort of image the city would wish to portray? The answer? Make them look more like a cartoon drawn by an infant, with their tongues sticking out. Sorted.

Feb 242012
 

Peter Veritas makes the case for voting “Retain”.

1.  There is a very real danger that the City Garden Project will bankrupt Aberdeen.

The City Garden Project (CGP) is planned for a greenfield site which would require substantial excavation. It is a five acre, five storey, underground construction that would span both a main road and a railway track

It’s roof would be required to hold approximately ninety thousand tons of topsoil, the same weight as the worlds largest aircraft carrier.  It is projected to cost £140M.

Union Square, which is of a similar size, was built on a flat brownfield site with good access. The final cost was £250m.

Marischal College is a much smaller existing building that was recently renovated.  No major construction was performed.  The final cost came to £65M.

Given that context, how can we be expected the believe the estimate for The City Garden Project is realistic? Should the City Garden Project experience a similar scale of overspend to the Scottish Parliament Building or the Edinburgh trams, then the shortfall could conceivably be of the order of £360M.  The city, which is already £560M in debt, would be liable for this overspend.

It could not be rolled up into the existing loan, and would require immediate payment.  Failure to cover the overspend would result in us being left with a dirty hole in our city centre.  The only options open to the council would be to auction off it’s remaining assets, such as the other parks, to property developers, and to increase council tax  massively.  Public services which have already suffered severe cuts would be totally decimated.

2.  Aberdeen has suffered badly from previous developments.

St Nicholas House, the New Market, The Denburn dual carriageway, the Denburn Health Centre, The St Nicholas Centre, and Virginia Street are all universally acknowledged as failures that now blight our urban landscape.  Aberdeen lost many beautiful buildings to clear the way for those developments.

The people who campaigned against those architectural and planning atrocities are also campaigning against The City Garden Project.  They’ve been proven right time and time again. Perhaps it’s time we listened to them?

3.  We already voted against this Project under a different name.

There is something sinister about the City Garden Project.  It was originally conceived as the City Square Project (CSP), and envisioned as a five acre flat concrete piazza.  That proposal only emerged after Peacock Visual Arts were given planning permission to embed an unobtrusive arts centre into the hillside of Union Terrace Gardens.  Sir Ian Wood pledged £50M to build The City Square, but promised to scrap the Project if the public rejected it.

That was then put out to a flawed public consultation, in which the public voted against by a substantial majority, despite the online survey mysteriously defaulting to a “yes” vote.  Sir Ian then reneged on his promise and continued to push the concept, the council ran roughshod over the electorate, and by the casting vote of the Lord Provost, consigned the Peacock plan to the dustbin.

Sir Ian has consistently stated that he will only contribute his £50M to this particular proposal and nothing else, and that if we reject his proposal then he will divert the money to Africa.  His behaviour is baffling.

4.  There has been an air of deception around The City Garden Project.

The City Square Project was rebranded as The City Garden Project.  During the Project’s second coming the public were presented with six designs and invited to vote on them. None Of The Above was not a option.

Aesthetically, the public appeared to favour the Winter Garden design.  From a conceptual perspective The Monolith design was arguably the most cohesive.
The appointed panel then refused to release the outcome of this public vote and instead selected The Granite Web, a design for which very few people acknowledge having voted, and which many people considered to have been among the weakest.

CGP propaganda has continually claimed that Union Terrace Gardens are a dangerous place, but Grampian Police crime figures reveal that they are actually among the safest places in the city centre. Neighbouring Belmont Street, which the plans propose to connect to the Granite Web, is statistically the worst area for street crime.

Under the rules of the referendum, registered campaign groups are limited to £8k spending to maintain a level playing field.  However a mysterious group of anonymous business people has allegedly ploughed £50K into sending pro-CGP propaganda to every home in Aberdeen City.  This is not within the spirit of the referendum and is arguably a breach of the rules.

It has been claimed numerous times that the 250 year old elm trees in Union Terrace Gardens are diseased, but a recent report by a tree surgeon has given them a completely clean bill of heath.  These elms are among the last surviving in Europe, and they flourish both due to their isolation from other elms, and because the pollution of the city prevents Dutch Elm disease from spreading to them.  These trees are all covered by a preservation order.

5.  Those arguing in favour of the City Garden Project are mostly connected to it in some way.

Scotland’s top public relations firm were engaged to promote the Project, which may be why the majority of stories that have appeared in the local press have been fawningly in favour of the CGP.

Those who have argued the merits of the Project, both in the press and on-line, are interconnected people with an as-yet unknown agenda.

In addition to the numerous PR professionals being paid thousands of pounds each day to present the case, there are several property developers, the owners of assorted the premises on Union Street, and various oil company executives.

No fewer than three city councillors, who backed the Project, recently announced that they intend to stand down, and have also revealed that they are planning to leave the city.  Virtually all of those involved are members of Acsef, Scottish Enterprise, the Institute of Directors, and The Chamber of Commerce.  The same dozen people feature time and time again in the groups which have come out publicly in favour of the Project.  The same people wearing different hats.

6.  The economics have no basis in fact.

Tax Incremental Funding (TIF) is intended to fund the redevelopment of brownfield sites.  Businesses which later setup in and around those sites pay increased business rates which repay the cost of the development in a similar manner to a mortgage.  The business case for this Project bends the rules since the increased rates will not be gathered for the site itself, but from two new industrial estates, located several miles away and for which planning permission has already been granted.

The 6,500 jobs and £122M of projected annual revenue are a product of these new industrial estates working at full capacity. This is almost  guaranteed to occur anyway without The Granite Web.

Furthermore, the paid author of the reports is PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC), which has recently been fined £1.4m for audit failure.  PWC rates the TIF case at Risk Level 3, where 4 is the highest risk.

7.  To save the architecture of the Denburn Valley

None of the Granite Web mockups, artists impressions, or video, have addressed the issue of the rear elevation of Belmont Street.

This is home to some of Aberdeen’s most spectacular architecture, descending right down to the level of Denburn Road.  Architecture which will be obliterated when the CGP connects to it, some five storeys further up.

Most of these buildings are either local businesses or publicly owned concerns, and several of them have picturesque balconies below the finished level of The Granite Web.

8.  To retain our sheltered park.

Union Terrace Gardens lie in the Denburn Valley which offers shelter from the wind and urban pollution.  Raising the area up to street level would turn it into a wind trap.

The wind would howl round the concrete walkways and other architectural features of the granite web, plants would struggle to survive, and people would avoid the area, preferring instead to travel along the relatively sheltered confines of nearby streets. It’s a fallacy to claim that this development would enhance connectivity.

9.  Union Terrace Gardens have been cynically starved of funding – in order to ‘pave the way’ for this redevelopment.

Union Terrace Gardens was the centre piece of Aberdeen’s famous successes in the Britain in Bloom contest.  Over the course of the past eight years the council has cut funding, with the result that the Gardens are no longer maintained at previous award-winning levels

The beautiful Grade A listed public toilets were closed, the famous giant draught boards were ripped out, the winter skating rink was no longer installed and concerts and other public events were discontinued

A modest investment would both regenerate the Gardens, and improve access to them.  There is no need to risk bankrupting the city for what amounts to no additional benefit

10.  The curse of Corbie Haugh.

Back in the seventeenth century, the area where the Gardens now stand was a wood called Corbie Haugh. The ancient Scots word for crow is corbie and the wood was named after the crows which gathered in the grassy valley and within the bank of elm trees. The elm trees in the Gardens date back over 250 years to that eighteenth century wood.

An ancient legend, The Curse of Corbie Haugh, holds that when the crows depart, the city will be ruined. If the elms are chopped down, the crows will indeed depart, and if they city ends up burdened by an additional £360m of debt, then it shall indeed be ruined!

SAVE OUR CITY FROM DISASTER BY VOTING TO RETAIN UNION TERRACE GARDENS.

 

Feb 172012
 

Old Susannah looks at the Granite Web, and the impressive effort it has taken to spin.

By Suzanne Kelly.

Tally Ho! Yet another vibrant and dynamic week in the Granite Web City.  Whilst Friends of Union Terrace Gardens, Aberdeen against Austerity, and Democracy Watch engaged in some inexpensive grassroots campaigning by flyer, the mysterious Vote for the CGP group pulled out all the stops and spent, spent, spent.

You could be forgiven for thinking that Northsound is playing City Garden Project commercials non-stop. The Art Gallery has a swish new display showing the Garden plan in its Alice-in-Wonderland perspective and garish colours, and issues of The Granite Web compete in the ugly stakes with the A3 VFTCGP colour flyer sent out before.

News reaches Old Susannah that visitors to Aberdeen Royal Infirmary are being cheered up no end by pro-City Garden Project posters on the walls. There is no escape at work either, as employees of Wood Group (no surprise really), Nautronix, and Taqa all seem to have received lovely e-mails from bosses hinting gently that they should vote for the CGP.

I do find it very touching that employers are looking after their employees so well and giving gentle guidance which puts no pressure on them at all.

Why do I call the VFTCGP members secret? Because I was told in so many words by the BIG Partnership, which does PR for this group and, coincidentally, the artwork for the CGP, that “if the members want to stay secret, it’s up to them.”

But before I return to my Myth-busting busting activities started last week – I only got through the first four of the ten Myths the CGP team say we’re suffering from – condolences to Rangers fans.

Was this one of the top Scottish clubs? Yes.

Will this leave a massive hole in Scottish football? Yes.

Will other sides face similar financial clubs? Looks like it.

I believe one tycoon is still paying some £60,000 of his own money each time his team plays. I do hope this mogul is not getting overly financially stretched. I’d again ask the question if Loirston Loch land – in a Special Area of Conservation – should really be turned into a 21,000 seat football ground with offices and museum in this climate.

  Donald’s granny was Scottish. This gives him good cause to call Alex Salmond ‘insane’

Well, I would ask, but the continuous concrete covering of anything green in Aberdeen seems unstoppable. Thankfully, we all have one tireless, gentle campaigner who is not giving up the fight for ‘Scotland’s heritage’. Step forward, Mr Donald Trump.

You might have seen one or two small news items saying that this gentle giant wants to build the galaxy’s greatest golf course on a no-doubt-underused stretch of coastline. He’s got rid of many of the view-blocking trees, but there are horrible plans to build windfarms offshore which could actually be seen by his guests, if you can believe that!

Now, windfarms don’t actually work very efficiently yet. The technology can, and should improve. But I guess we’re all agreed there are few things in life worse than being a rich golfer who might have to look at an offshore wind farm. For those people in favour of this kind of blot on the seascape, I would remind you that you’re forgetting something very important.

Donald’s granny was Scottish. This gives him good cause to call Alex Salmond ‘insane’ for supporting renewable energy. Please try to keep that in mind, thank you.

Finally, it might have been Valentine’s Day this week, but it looks like the May to December romance between Callum McCaig and Aileen ‘Ho’Malone is over. One of them is an over-blown, over-hyped, over-rated, naïve, headline-seeking soul, blissfully unaware that they are dangerously out of their depth. The other is Callum McCaig.

No more will they share a coalition; there will be no more romps on Tullos Hill; there will be no more late-night negotiations. Maybe yet the SNP will change its tune over the ridiculous cull of deer to plant trees that cannot possibly grow on Tullos Hill. Watch this space.

  the taxpayers’ side of this great granite garden bargain is to borrow £92m and pay the loan, and its interest, back over decades.

There is certainly a current in that direction, not least fuelled by public anger and the wasting of some £43,800 to date. Still, a break-up is hard to take. Final confirmation of this great bust-up comes in newspaper stories announcing that the coalition is still absolutely fine. I am thinking of offering my condolences to Mrs Robinson, sorry, I mean Aileen.

I’m still thinking on it. PS. Message to Irene – feel better soon!

And now back to debunking the debunking of the Myths. The City Garden Project seems to be the only entity that’s been presented with these Myths, and I commented on the first four last week. Here are a few choice words on the remaining five Myths. Thank you CGP for printing these not-at-all-wild and not-at-all-made-up Myths – we’re all really onside now. Their comments are in bold. Old Susannah’s are in regular type

5. It will cost the taxpayer millions of pounds – FALSE.

Sure. All this happens for free, and you’ve not paid a penny, and you won’t pay a penny. I wonder if the CGP forgot about the £422,000, or probably more, of taxpayers’ money Scottish Enterprise has already spent on this project? And, no doubt, our CGP friends don’t think it matters that some of your city councillors voted to set aside up to £300,000 of your money for legal costs.

Old Susannah is still mulling that one over. A billionaire is ‘giving’ Aberdeen £50m, but there isn’t enough money on his side of the fence to pay the legal costs the city will incur? So, rather than getting granny a new wheelchair, or providing 24/7 care at homes which have just announced cuts etc etc, Wood wants your £300,000. But this £722,000, nearly quarter of a million pounds, is small change.  we’re going to chop down existing, healthy trees, thus getting rid of wildlife that’s called the trees home for decades, if not centuries

Multiply that figure by ten and you get close to the amount of interest on the loan Aberdeen City Council has to sign for this project to go ahead, according to one of last night’s radio show speakers. Thanks to Original FM (on 105FM) for hosting last night’s debate. Anyway, the taxpayers’ side of this great granite garden bargain is to borrow £92m and pay the loan, and its interest, back over decades.

If the 6500 new jobs don’t come in and we don’t make £122m each year (I can’t wait to see how this happens), if we go over budget, if anything goes wrong – then it will cost us an unknown additional amount of money in repayments. The trams fiasco has reached a cost of nearly one billion pounds.

But this won’t cost you a cent. Honest, guv.

6. Fake, plastic trees – FALSE.

It’s a great Radiohead song but a lousy Myth. It has been suggested that fake plastic trees will be planted in the City Gardens to act as vents for the giant car park underneath. If any fake trees are seen they will be beside the flying pigs. 186 new trees will be planted, some of them mature and many will be Scots Pines.

Old Susannah doesn’t know where to start with this alleged Myth. She does find it reassuring to find that a job in public relations entails so much creative writing talent. I know of no-one who’s heard of plastic trees being part of the plan. However, if we’re building underground, then we’ll need plants with very tiny root systems. Goodbye 250-year old elm trees, one of only a few surviving clusters of elms free from disease, and home to wildlife. In comes progress. Who needs fresh air, wildlife, shade and beauty when you can have ramps?

   we’re going to chop down existing, healthy trees, thus getting rid of wildlife that’s called the trees home for decades, if not centuries

My favourite bit is the announcement that the trees stay in the Gardens forever, as wood chip and seating. Well, you can’t say that’s not sensitive to nature. Still, the BIG Partnership’s student placement has managed to make a meal of a non-existent plastic tree myth. Perhaps someone will explain how mature trees are going to be magically planted in the new Gardens?

Where will their roots go, as there is meant to be underground parking? How do we get to have a thriving pine forest in the city centre – something that doesn’t seem possible according to experts including local architects?

If Old Susannah has this right, we’re going to chop down existing, healthy trees, thus getting rid of wildlife that’s called the trees home for decades, if not centuries, plant some new trees, and have the world’s only pine forest in a city centre.

The pines must grow faster than genetically-modified Leylandii hedges if the drawings I’ve seen are correct, and of course, no-one can fault the accuracy of these precision drawings. I like the giant transparent child romping over the flowerbeds best. So, replacing grass and trees with grass, concrete and trees can be done for only £92m. RESULT!

7. It will cost people their jobs – FALSE.

As a result of the project a projected 6500 new jobs are to be created, not taking into account the hundreds of jobs that will come as a result of the construction. In addition, a transformed city centre will breathe new life across the city, helping us become a World Energy City long after oil and gas has run dry in the North Sea. Existing businesses will be retained meaning existing jobs will be safe-guarded.

These 6500 jobs are going to be wonderful! What will they be? Well, for openers we’ve seen how well Union Square has protected high street businesses. Our small high street shops are struggling whilst multinationals got a cheap rent deal in Union Square. But clearly what we need is….more shops. Surely there is nothing we’d rather do than shop, and you can’t have enough shops can you? It’s not as if a glut of shops will ever result in shop closures, price wars and endless sales, especially ‘Going out of business’ sales.

I wonder if there is any reason that a cafe culture has never really taken off in Aberdeen? Could it be that it’s often too cold, too windy or too rainy? Could it be because the City Council consistently refused to allow anyone to run a snack bar or coffee kiosk in the shelter of Union Terrace Gardens? Clearly not. One wave of the granite wand, and just like those convincing concept drawings, we’ll all be sitting outdoors in short-sleeved shirts, drinking decaf mocha lattes while Toto play on the brand new stage, in front of the existing indoor theatre.

Right. The taxpayer is propping up the AECC with extra money since it can’t make enough by holding events. Same for the Lemon Tree. But the new theatre won’t have any problems making a massive profit and creating loads of jobs.

 So, ‘how many theatres should a taxpayer prop up?’ is one question.

I for one can’t wait to sit through an outdoor electronic folk music competition in February. But, by winter, this theatre will be an ice rink, thereby competing with the ice rink the city tried to kill off before.

But no, there won’t be any harm to jobs. We’ll need people to cut down the trees and get rid of the wildlife. Then there will be jobs cleaning the graffiti off the Web. Yes, the Web will create more permanent jobs in small Aberdeen than the 2012 Olympics will create in Greater London. Rest as assured as I am on that point.

8. It will be entirely made from concrete – FALSE.

Obviously concrete will be used – would you like to relax, visit an exhibition or attend a concert on top of a cardboard box? The project has been carefully designed so there will be 95% more open, green space with a series of pathways providing access for people through, across and in and out of the gardens. These paths will be made of granite, crushed granite and wood.

By now, Old Susannah is finding the content of the dispelled Myths by BIG just a little bit patronising and smarmy. They thought they had to talk us out of believing in plastic trees. Now they explain that we need to sit on something more robust than a cardboard box. Thanks for that! Appreciated.

So, ‘how many theatres should a taxpayer prop up?’ is one question. ‘How many competing businesses should Scottish Enterprise suggest?’ is quite another. They used to have rules on displacement and suchlike, but these seem to have gone, probably about the same time as your employer started to tell you how to vote.

This project has been carefully designed. Of course it has. More green space, but somehow it manages to have a giant concrete, sorry, granite theatre which takes up some 15% minimum of the existing Gardens. They count the giant granite potato-crisp shaped thingy over the stage as green space.

 what if the architects were to give us some drawings showing how these ramps will work safely now rather than later?

Of course it won’t sustain any wildlife, and at best will be a thin wedge of sod over concrete, but if they want to call it green space, fine.

I guess these people call anything green space if they can colour it green with Crayolas on their paper plan.

Looking at the slope of the ramps both up and downwards, I’m wondering how the aged, infirm or wheelchair-bound are going to find this system easier than the current access. The current access could use an additional ramp and you could probably do this for less than £92m as well. For the truly baffled, there is ground level access on the north side, not far from the theatre. This is where vehicles somehow manage to get in.

Clearly there is no other way to ‘relax and visit an exhibition or attend a concert in this town.’ Let’s borrow £92 million and build this beauty.

9. There will be no railings in the Granite Web, people will fall from the paths – FALSE.

Safety will be paramount. The concept design shows the various walkways at different levels but the final design will show how these work safely. And, seriously, do you think any development in a country obsessed with health and safety would get off the ground without proper safety measures?

Our PR work placement is patronising us again. I might be old, but here’s a crazy idea – what if the architects were to give us some drawings showing how these ramps will work safely now rather than later? Are they going to be enclosed, and of course, not at all potential rat traps? Are they going to have fencing that somehow won’t look like Stalag 17? How will wheelchair users go up and down these steep ramps? Details, details.

Well, Old Susannah has run out of space for one week. We will return to normal definitions next week, and take a closer look at who is behind ‘Vote for the City Garden Project’. You will, of course, want to know what businesses are in this group, to make sure you can reward them with your custom. Or not.

Finally, many thanks to those brave business people who have stuck out their necks in favour of saving our city’s only unique, free, green garden.

That’s you, J Milne. It is appreciated.

Feb 102012
 

Old Susannah wades in with her chainsaw rattling in the direction of Union Terrace Gardens, but the elms need not fear, she is only out to cut through the misinformation presented as ‘myth busting’ by the City Garden Project.

By Suzanne Kelly.

Old Susannah has been busy with Union Terrace Gardens this past week, like so many of us.  Another few short weeks, and the people will have voted one way or the other as to whether or not our environment, heritage and common good land are better served up with concrete ramps or not.

Then I can get back to the important work of singing the praises of our elected officials, unelected quangos and council officers, and local millionaires.

Before I get down to the Gardens situation, I thought I’d look back at all the wonderful artwork that the City’s children sent in for the Christmas time art competition and event in the gardens, organised and funded in large part by the Bothwell family.

Hundreds of children sent in their artwork, and at this chilly time of the year with Christmas past, they make a cheerful reminder of a great day, and what it’s like to be a child again.  And each and every one of the childrens’ artwork exceeds by miles the A3 takaway flyer sent by a group of anonymous business people telling you we must vote for the granite web.

Do have a look – you will be glad that you did.
http://oldsusannahsjournalchildrenschristmasartwork.yolasite.com/

On with some definitions then.

Propaganda:  (noun) Material, slogans, misinformation designed to advance a particular point of view often by discrediting or ignoring opposition.

My email inbox is bursting this week with details of employers who are sending their employees all of the leaflets, letters and testimonials which support the garden project.  Most of these are written in the names of associations or groups which have – but crucially do not declare in the literature in question – a member or members who are directly involved with promoting the scheme.  This is very clever indeed.

An employee wants to be told by their boss how they should think and want and vote.  It would therefore be most unfortunate if the employees were given some way to read the many arguments against going ahead with an undefined project with an undefined budget using an as-yet untested in the UK financial borrowing mechanism with a debt-ridden city council borrowing money.

Let us hope therefore that suitable precautions are taken to prevent employees reading the literature from different groups available at the following:-
http://oldsusannahsjournal.yolasite.com/

Myth:  (noun) work of fiction, often including gods, goddesses and challenges and tasks.

Not since the rainbow bridge of Asgard joined heaven and earth, not since the legend of Hercules and his impossible labours has there been a tale as far-fetched as that of the granite web that launched 6,500 jobs and paved the streets annually with £122,000,000.  Sure, it may look more like one of the circles of Hades or the Minotaur’s maze, but the web is already passing into myth.

Those clever people who bring us this gift from the gods are worried we mortals can’t undertand the benefits, and are misunderstanding (or mythunderstanding) their benevolent intentions.  They’ve written a handy guide (something called a ‘blog’) The City Garden Project – The Myths, dispelled’ which can be found at:-
http://www.voteforcitygarden.co.uk/blog/17-the-city-garden-project-the-myths-dispelled

And to its words in bold italics, are my little responses.

The City Garden Project – The Myths, dispelled.

  • We want you to make your decision based on truth, not incorrect claims, speculation and downright nonsense!

Fine – we are all in agreement.

  • Myths have been at the heart of the campaign against the City Garden Project and if some of them were true then the opposition could be justified.

Which myths and what are they?  Where did you get them from?  I remember the initial consultation:  we were shown a beautiful, expensive colour brochure (which the taxpayer had funded) – the cover of which had a flat concrete giant square with some plants in planters.  Later on we were told the project was not going to look like the picture.  Maybe we could have saved some taxpayer money and time by waiting for a consultation and poll until such time we knew what the proponents had up their collective sleeve.  But it is not for us to question the gods.

  • But, whether by mischief-making or simply misinterpretation, the rumours have been rife.

So here we have an implication of mischief-making.  Was it the god Loki at work?  Or of the opposition being too thick to be able to ‘interpret’ what is proposed.  I have not personally heard ANY RUMOURS.  I have read serious questions about the project’s economic, ecological, sociological and regeneration benefits.

I have read people asking where the ventilation will be for underground car parking.  That is one example of the sort of criticisms and questions that I’ve experienced.  ‘Dante’s Inferno’ has a version of heaven, hell and earth without any ventilation, so I guess these miracles can happen here as well.  

  • So, let’s dispel some of these myths! 

Fantastic!  Let’s go!

1. The “green lung” of our city will be lost – FALSE. 

The City Garden will double the amount of green space in our city centre. The new “green lung” will be more usable, more accessible and brought into the sun-light. New garden areas will be created, including a colourful, blossoming area, a forest, a Learning Garden, a quiet tree-lined Bosque area with street furniture and open green space for relaxing in or having a picnic.

Patches of grass do not clean the pollutants and particulates out of a city – established, large, leafy trees do.  As the goal posts keep moving on what trees are to be lost by the City Garden Project engineers, it is hard to imagine which trees are going.

I am still very disappointed we will not have a MONOLITH at which we can make sacrifices to the gods.  I guess we’ll just have to sacrifice the trees, animals, birds, and money to these new gods instead.  But are you going to be reassured that the existing mature trees are somehow going to be replaced overnight by trees with equal pollution / C02 management capabilities by people – sorry gods – who think they can plunk a pine forest in the midst of a city centre?

Most people question where the trees’ roots will be – nearly all trees have extremely large, spreading root systems which require soil.  By the way these roots and soil are what prevents flooding.  I have read points made by experts who say it is not viable to grow a pine forest in the middle of a city centre for a number of reasons.  I don’t know the science – but I look forward to the City Garden Project team showing me examples of such cities.

  I do enjoy looking at the photos of people sitting on the concrete wedge over the ‘stage’ area which is covered with a bit of sod.

There are examples of cities with great open plazas which flood as there is insufficient soil / tree roots to absorb  heavy rains.  At least rain isn’t much of a problem here in North East Scotland.  As to bringing everything into the sunshine, err, the sun shines in the valley as it is – with the added advantage of the valley providing a very valuable wind break.

At Tullos Hill the soil matrix is very poor – which in the words of the soil report prepared by the Forestry Commission leaves any trees planted subject to ‘wind throw’.  If the roots don’t have a good firm earthy soil to hold onto, then a strong wind – like the kind that will inevitably blow across any area brought to street level – may well bring trees toppling on top of the granite web – or people.

Just by elevating a hunk of potato-chip shaped concrete and putting a few inches of sod over it, you are not creating a natural green lung/habitat/area,  even if it is the prettiest thing you’ve ever seen.  As far as doubling the space of the gardens, I do enjoy looking at the photos of people sitting on the concrete wedge over the ‘stage’ area which is covered with a bit of sod.

There is a woman sitting in a chair – a very neat trick indeed for such a steep slope.  Maybe she has a specially-constructed chair with short legs at the back and longer ones in the front?  Perhaps she is a goddess and is floating?  But as many observers point out, the ‘concept’ drawings are inconsistent in this and other ways, such as changing scale.

No, if you are losing the mature, healthy trees that are there – which are home to animals such as EU protected bats and rooks – you are indeed losing a major part of what makes the park valuable to our health.  There is no doubt of this in my mind, so I’m glad we have such a great team of pro-garden project personnel ready willing and able to explain all.  They’ve just not got round to it yet.

2. The city can’t afford the City Garden Project – FALSE.  ( Seriously? )

We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get a £182m investment in our city at NO cost to the City Council or the citizens of Aberdeen.

One way or the other, the citizen is going to pay.  IF the scheme somehow goes perfectly to plan and we have a bunch of new shops (without hurting further the existing ones) the business rates will be used to repay a loan – a loan at an unknown rate of interest on an as-yet to be determined sum.

And if it doesn’t go well, and Aberdeen gets its very own Trams project fiasco to match Edinburgh’s – the City has to find a way to pay for the TIF.  As far as the donations from private sources are concerned, at last report Sir Ian had promised to put the £50 million he pledged into his will.  Well, if I were one of his children, I’d contest the will if it ever came to that:  an ageing parent throwing £50 million on concrete webs should convince any court that something is wrong upstairs, and a will might get thrown out.

  Some say taking a loan is borrowing money.  But seems we would just be ‘unlocking’ funds – so no problem there.

But who is our mystery £5 million pound donor?  If this is a public project (debatable – the Aberdeen City  Gardens Trust is a private limited company with two people in it), then the public should know where all of the money is coming from.  If someone pledges money, what guarantee is there it will come in?  Some of our current millionaires are feeling the economic pinch, sad but true.

And if are they using this £5 million promise as a lever to tip the balance of public opinion towards the scheme  – then if they stand to gain personally, then we should be told.

I hear varying reports that other private people are pledging something like £20 million.  Now that’s a myth I’d like more info on.

Once in a lifetime?  How on earth is that conclusion reached?  That claims sounds  very much like the scaremongering the pro garden project have been accusing others of.  There are six trial TIF schemes at present.  There may well be more.  But if this were a once in a lifetime chance, then all the more reason to take our time and make a cohesive, desirable bid, perhaps even one based on something less nebulous than a scheme that has a forest one week, an ice rink the next – and so other many unknowns to it.

TIF is only in the pilot stage in Scotland – so let’s get in there first!  Test case Aberdeen!  Some say taking a loan is borrowing money.  But seems we would just be ‘unlocking’ funds – so no problem there.

A minor detail, as we’ll all be rolling in dosh in no time, but do we know the interest rates on the £182 -192 million pounds Aberdeen City Council is going to borrow?  I’ve not been told.  Over to you, City Garden Project.

Again I will say that mere mortals choose to live in an area that is clean, safe and has excellent schools and hospitals.  I must have missed the part when someone proposed to the City Council that it should cut services and schools, and replace green space and our environmental heritage for concrete.

I don’t remember agreeing to continuously expand the City’s footprint into its green space while there are so many empty buildings in the city centre.  I guess I wasn’t paying attention that day – probably got distracted by reading about a cute baby competition in the news or something.

  • 40% of the cost of the City Garden has already been secured. The Scottish Government have pledged that, if the development is supported by the public, a TIF will be used to fund the rest of the costs for the City Garden Project. 

Fine.  Let’s see the legal papers showing exactly how much has been pledged and how ironclad or otherwise these pledges are.  Forty percent?  What is the figure?  We still do not have any genuine, concrete, specific project (no timescale, no costings done, and no precise scope – these are what you learn in ‘Projects 101’ are the building blocks).  You cannot  possibly say you have 40% of the money you need for something which you don’t even have defined or costed.  Not without godlike wisdom anyway.

  • TIF is a bit like a mortgage. The cost of the “property” is £182m. The “property” is the City Centre Regeneration Scheme (Aberdeen Art Gallery, St Nicholas and North Denburn redevelopments, the new public realm and the City Garden Project). The £55m of philanthropic donations already secured for the City Garden, along with the £15m to follow from the private sector, is the deposit.   

First, please define ‘the new public realm’ for me – just so that we are all talking about one specific defined term, thanks.  I’ll bet TIF is a bit like a mortgage:  if you don’t pay up, you lose your property.  Again Aberdeen City Council are going to borrow the money via TIF.  Not Ian Wood.  Nor the private limited ‘Aberdeen City Gardens Trust Company’.

Just as well we’re told it will bring in over a hundred million a year – we’ll be needing it.

Back to the mathematics.  OK – let’s assume the £55 million is £50m of Ian Wood’s, plus the mystery philanthropist.

We should also be told who the £15 million is coming from, but leaving that aside, that’s apparently £70 million pounds.

Some people would question what kind of tax breaks if any will be given to the donors, and whether or not the tax that does not get into the treasury (because it’s being put in a hole in the ground) would be of benefit to our ever-dwindling services instead.

Right – 70 million is forty percent of 175 million.  We have just been told that the ‘cost of the property is 182 million’.  Sorry – I would have thought that the 182 million is the value of the assets, but there it is.  Just for the record: forty percent of 182 million is 72.8 million.  And just so you know, Scottish Enterprise had by May of this year spent over £420,000 on this project on consultations and PR and the like, and the City Council have just agreed to spend up to £300,000 of our money on the legal costs.

Just as well we’re told it will bring in over a hundred million a year – we’ll be needing it.  Hands up anyone who suspects this project will have many little extras here and there.  Do you think at the end of the day the estimates we are getting now (nebulous as they are) will:  a.  stay exactly the same, b.  decrease and cost less than we think, or c.  cost more?

  • The City Council takes out a loan to pay for the remainder. This loan is paid back over 25 years using the income from the new business rates raised. The City is therefore being given both the deposit and the income to pay back the loan – clever eh? That’s why TIFs are so widely used in the States and promoted in Scotland by the Government. But remember a TIF can only be used for this – not for anything else and if we don’t use our TIF, other cities will!

Well, it is indeed time for some myth- busting, because depending on who you listen to, this either is or is not a commercial venture.  TIF is supposed to be for commercial ventures – and it is unclear how anything but a commercial venture can make the millions in loan repayments we would need to make.

In fact, I seem to recall seeing a video of one of the ‘philanthropists’  saying this is ‘Not a commercial venture’.  ‘Clever eh?’  – I am not exactly convinced.  I do think risky, untested, potentially fiscally disastrous.

And overall, unnecessary to my way of thinking.  Nothing is wrong with the gardens.  We could regenerate the city’s shops by lowering our extremely high business rates.  Making more shopping spaces, eating places and entertainment venues creates more competition for the venues we have.

Did you know we as taxpayers are subsidising the AECC and the Lemon Tree – and now they want us to borrow money to build competition for these venues we’re already paying for?  It would be to my way of thinking like betting on several horses in a race.  You might win on one of them, but you will lose money.

3. The City Garden is a commercial development – FALSE

This is about creating a new civic space and gardens that will be brought back into daily use… 

(note – see definition above of ‘propaganda’)

…and become part of the daily life of the people of Aberdeen. The space will include exciting new venues for everyone to use and enjoy including a cultural and arts centre, a 500-seat black box theatre and 5,000 seat amphitheatre and stage.  

See my quotes above about these theatre/stage options.  We don’t need them.  We’re already paying for such venues.  The writer of this paper has first set out to ‘bust myths’.  However, they are lapsing into emotive, subjective prose when they say how wonderful this will all be.  We don’t know that – we don’t know anything of the kind.

But now we get to the ‘venues for everyone to use and enjoy’.  Right.  At present, we can come and go as we please when the gardens are open.  No one can prevent us from enjoying the space as we see fit – no one can charge us any fee to use the gardens.  Why?  Because they belong to each and every one of us as Common Good Land.  Are these ‘non-commercial’ theatres going  to be free of any admission charge?  If yes, then fine – they are not commercial.  If no – then they can’t make money and pay off the TIF loan.

And if they charge you money to be on your common good land, then whoever holds the deeds to the land, it is no longer common good land in reality.  Are we going to borrow millions to make a theatre that is free to go to?  If so, why don’t we just close the AECC and Lemon Tree and be done with them?

Who is responsible for joining up all these fuzzy, competing concepts – and why aren’t they actually doing it?

  • The land and all the facilities will remain in the ownership of the City of Aberdeen and its citizens.  

Oh yes, we’ll still own it – but better, wiser, richer people will control it.  You might own it – but try going to a concert for free or getting one of the 25-30 car parking spaces free.  There is every possibility that one private entity or another (why does the two-person Aberdeen City Gardens Trust spring to my mind?) will get a very long lease at a very low rate.  In terms of ownership, ‘possession is 9/10 of the law’.

4. Union Terrace Gardens will be turned into a giant car park – FALSE.

I don’t know where our friends picked up this ‘myth’  - I’ve not heard it.  But there you go.

Parking is at a premium in the city and while many people would indeed wish to see more car-parking in the centre, it will not be in the City Garden. There will be between 25 and 30 underground parking spaces to service the new development.  Old Susannah is no mathematical genius like the ones who work out our city’s budgets; but if we are putting in a 5,000 seat venue and a smaller venue in a city centre already pressured for car parking spaces, then I predict some car parking and car congestion problems.  Wild conclusion I know.

However, if there are 30 underground spaces, they will still need ventilation.  Nothing like that is shown on the plans I’ve seen yet.  But back to the maths.  If we have 5,000 people going to see a Robbie Williams tribute act in the brand new space and 30 parking spaces available at the venue, there just might be a little bit of an issue.

That nice Mr Milne (owner of Triple Kirks – soon to be developed, Chair of ACSEF, one of the anonymity-seeking businesspeople behind the beautiful Vote for the City Gardens Project…) seems to need some car parking space for his beautiful glass box offices which will be adjacent to this great ‘non-commercial’ granite web.  I guess the 30 spaces will take care of that nicely.  Either that, or there will be more than 30 spaces.  A lot more.

As I posted on Facebook this week, it comes down to these points (leaving out the environmental carnage and the Common Good Status, that is):

  • 1. Is TIF a tried and tested financial model in the UK? Not yet.
  • 2. Do we know exactly what this project will cost? No – because the scope is unknown and ever-changing. That is one of the main flaws with Edinburgh’s trams scheme – it kept changing – and now we are looking at nearly one billion cost for it.
  • 3. Is the design fully fleshed out enough for anyone who supports it to fully explain the engineering (vents, how will trees – esp. pines grow, how will ramps be made safe, etc)? No.
  • 4. As the taxpayer is already propping up entertainment venues with tax money, venues that cannot survive without financial aid, does it make any financial sense to create venues to compete with them? No.

So – if you’re not sure about any of these points  – and who is? – then maybe we should not rush into anything.

Dec 012011
 

By Bob Smith.

Here comes the Retail Festival
Cooched in glossy Christmas cheer
Spen spen spen the shops cry oot
Their merchandisin moves up a gear

Maun we owerspen at Christmas
On presents aat leave us skint?
Mony fowk are left in debt
So aat shops can mak a mint

Christmas time itsel a fear
His lost it’s freenly glow
Fowk tryin to see faa can hae
The dearest presents on show

A sma present ti faimly members
There is nae hairm in iss
Bit keepin up wi the Joneses
Is some fowks idea o bliss

Hunners o poonds they are spent
On presents fer aa yer freens
Kids yammerin fer the latest
Toy or game shown on TV screens

Hotels an restaurants filled ti the brim
Yet their prices are ower the tap
Faan wull aa iss madness eyn
An prices wull stairt ti drap

Faimly Christmases used ti be
A time ti visit an hae a blether
Yet ti sit aroon the table
Nooadays fowk they dinna bither

The festivities noo a fear
Hiv naething ti dee wi the 25th
It’s aa ti dee wi consumerism
Spenin dosh on expeensive gifts

In case ye think a’m a scrooge
Tak time ti stop an think
Fit’s the purpose o aa iss spenin
Ither than bringin ye ti debt’s brink

It’s time fer a revolution
A time ti say stuff yer stuff
Resist the aa empowerin persuasion
Pit the retailers in a huff

Celebrate Christmas? Of coorse we shud
Yet think fit shud be deen
Raither than buy a material gift
Jist present yersel as a freen

©Bob Smith “The Poetry Mannie”
Image Credit: © Sergey Sundikov | Dreamstime.com

Oct 282011
 

 By Bob Smith.


If ye gyang doon near the seashore
An hae a look aa ower the land
Ye’ll see a fyow fowk’s erses
Cos their heids are beerit in sand

Noo tryin ti hae conversation
Wi a backside is nae quite right
As fit cums oot o erses
Is usually a heap o’ shite

They beery their heids fer a reason
So they dinna the truth hae ti hear
If they canna listen ti fit ithers say
They think they’ve nithin ti fear

The next fyow verses’ll tell ye
Aa aboot fowk faa beery their heids
They think the warld owes them a livin
They’re nae responsible fer their deeds

“Nae use my car sae often?
Gweedness me!! An snakes alive
If aa hiv ti git a carton o milk
I need ti be able ti drive”

“Dinna use planes sae afen yer sayin?
Iss surely jist canna be
Use trains an buses fin ye can?
Na! Na! I really maun flee”

“Dinna spend if ye dinna hae till?
Its ma siller, I’ll dee fit I wint !!
In fact I’ll use aa ma credit cards
Until a’m bliddy weel skint”

“Noo hud on ma mannie” they shout
“I’m away back doon ti the sand”
So fin ye see their erses stickin up
Jist gie them skelp wi yer hand

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