Feb 232012
 

What a week it’s been for Old Susannah. The pizza party that never was,  PR wars and public accusaltion of criminal activity.  Where to start? And where is it all going? By Suzanne Kelly.

According to the Press & Journal of 21 February, Tom Smith of ACSEF claims to be the victim of internet ‘bullying… harassment… intimidation’ and so on.  The nature of the claims are not spelled out, but allegations are made of an ‘objectionable’ image (no, not one of the ‘concept’ drawings of the Granite Web), e-mail hacking and receipt of abusive emails.

Smith has called in the police.  It seems those he accuses of this broad spectrum collection of attacks are the broader spectrum of people opposed to building in Union Terrace Gardens.

Hacking is illegal.  Threatening is illegal.  When it comes to posting threatening remarks on internet sites, the law still applies.   But we are in a democracy which prides itself on centuries of press freedoms. 

The British Isles may truly be called the birthplace of political satire, a recognised and legitimate weapon of the press, often the only means of attacking people of wealth and power who might otherwise escape scrutiny.

The press has been filled with accounts of the nefarious activities in days not long past at News International.  Police have been bribed; phones of murder victims have been hacked, private correspondence has been intercepted.   The offenses are both shocking and illegal.   Elsewhere online,  threats are issued back and forth; the cloak of anonymity is often mis-used for the benefit of the coward or the manipulative.   As unpleasant as some online banter may be, not all of it is illegal by a wide margin:  the P&J know this extremely well.

If Mr Tom Smith and/or his family have had any bona fide threats (whether electronic or not), or if Mr Smith has been illegally hacked, then I will be the first to defend his rights and demand an enquiry.  (Note:  did you know that council officials can get court orders to snoop on residents for a variety of reasons?  If not, you know now).

However, there are several issues arising from this Press & Journal story which need to be dissected.

From the P&J, the blur between the allegedly illegal and the legal is as blurry as the specific details of the City Garden Project itself.

The timing of this claim comes close to the end of the referendum voting period – Mr Smith seems in the article in question to be making a blanket-bombing attack on all those who oppose the plans to build over Union Terrace Gardens.  I can assure Mr Smith that there was never a looser or more informal federation of people opposed to the City Gardens Project.

Why do he and the P&J feel the need to group political parties, grass-roots movements, students, OAPS, rich and poor into a single entity that is apparently illegally attacking him?

I am keen to hear the specifics of the accusation.  Perhaps Mr Smith is accustomed in his very many roles (1. ACSEF Chairman, 2. City Gardens Project Management Board, 3. City Gardens  Implementation Team Chair,  4. City Gardens Project Advisory Group, and  5. Director of Aberdeen City Gardens Trust) to only being treated with deference.  In social network sites; on newspaper comment pages, there is no automatic right to be treated politely.

Not everyone uses genteel language; one person’s foul language is another’s common vernacular.  What is the specific nature of the abuse(s) being claimed?  From the P&J, the blur between the allegedly illegal and the legal is as blurry as the specific details of the City Garden Project itself.

It is refreshing as well as amusing in the extreme to see the Press & Journal showing such concern to those ‘bullied and/or intimidated’ via internet:  readers of its online comments will be familiar with the abusive, bullying, personal, crude tactics of two of its most prolific, rarely censored anonymous posters, Jock W and the even more notorious Sasha M.

Months ago Sasha M made comments about me which were libellous in my (and my legal advisor’s opinion).  I complained and considered whether or not to sue; the editor of the P&J called me and agreed to take the posts off.  As I reported at the time, the editor told me that since ‘you skate pretty close to the edge yourself, you have to be able to take it as well.’

I reminded him that I write a satirical column, and that if Sasha M writes something about me which appears on a site owned and controlled by the P&J, purporting to be a place for comments on news stories, Sasha’s postings  had better be true. (I suggested ridiculing my overly-large nose; that at least would have a grain of truth in it:  but Sasha had claimed two libels against me which were  published on the Press & Journal’s website as if they were factual.  They were not, and as such I considered them illegal).

But now it is time to look at the Press & Journal. Today’s article is a very odd creature.

I have been sent occasional searing, blistering  emails by those I have satirised.  My satirical subjects have been politicians who have voted to slash benefits, close schools, destroy greenbelt land, and who have been convicted of criminal acts.

I see my small satirical column as my only weapon against a public/private power structure  that, in my opinion, seems to wants to suck as much out of the taxpayer and give them as little in return as possible, while commissioning portraits of themselves, attending concerts and other events.

My writing is certainly not to everyone’s taste – but I am using the legal, accepted, platform called satire.  If I have successfully drawn attention to any injustice and/or incestuous public/private sector overlaps, then I’ve succeeded.  But in any event, I stay within the law, and will continue to write as long as I can find a reader.

But now it is time to look at the Press & Journal. Today’s article is a very odd creature.  It voices Mr Smith’s complaints – but it mixes illegal activity such as hacking and threats with totally legal (if undesired) activity such as online posts.  It stops short of accusing anyone of libel, but it hints at it.  What is the P&J actually trying to say is the subject of the police investigation?  Are the police roping together all internet items which offend Mr Smith – legal and illegal?  The P&J certainly seems to be doing so.

For quite some time P&J editorial staff have been aware of the over-the-top, racist, nationalistic, insulting behaviour (in the opinion of many) of some of its posters.  Mike Shepherd is only one target of Jock, Sasha and their vitriolic crew.  Mike and the others have not gone to the police as far as I know, but by Mr Smith’s standards they certainly would be within their rights to do so.  In reviewing randomly the writing of Jock and Sasha, I’ve come across highly offensive, possibly illegal posts including:-

*  references to ‘incomers’ in less than flattering contexts, which certainly sound nationalistic and insular and to some degree threatening to me

*  references to specific politicians such as Lewis MacDonald which are extremely insulting

* stereotyping of anyone suspected of left-leaning politics

*  a remark from Sasha:  ‘let’s kill off these protestors once and for all…’  not kill off the protest – but the actual people – the protestors.

*  Jock W invokes the Nazis in an insult directed towards Mike Shepherd  – Jock references ‘Goebbels’ and alludes to ‘Chemical Ali’ by way of typing ‘Comical Ali’.

Nazi related insults?  Threats to kill protestors?  What has been allowed on the Press & Journal online editions for all these past months? 

They are surely responsible for posts put on their website.  A feeble addition of links whereby readers can ask for a quote to be ‘reported’ is by no means a substitute for the responsibility the P&J have as the owners of this website.  I have had scores of people tell me they used these links to complain, all to no avail.

Clearly the P&J need to look at their own house.

The real point here though is that the Press & Journal knowingly allows this type of comment to go on, refuses to police its own comments pages, and yet has the gall to support Mr Smith in his complaints that people are being intimidating and bullying to him online, mixing illegal and legal activity in what seems like a very crude attempt to smear anyone who stands up against the City Gardens Project or those who support it.

A kind word to Aberdeen Journals:  things are changing.  Your circulation and profit margin are apparently not what they once were.  People are saying openly that you seem blatantly biased towards any hype the pro CGP teams throw at you.  Have you gone too far this time?  Just a thought.

I welcome any police investigation into any illegal activities – threatening people, hacking and so on.  Our police will be well aware of guidelines protecting free expression, satire and online comments.

One recent complaint I had threatened me with legal action and the Scottish Football Association (!)

If any attempt is made to curb, censor or halt normal rights of the individual, then this small writer through to the NUJ and all responsible news agencies will be there to safeguard our journalistic rights and day-to-day free expression.

In point of fact I am trying to make up my mind:  should I stand up to Sasha M and launch a suit against him and/or the Press & Journal now after all (don’t worry – I still have screen shots of Sasha’s remarks about me – in an item about the Lord Provost giving away expensive gifts which I neither commented on nor had any involvement with whatsoever)?

This could stop any further written threats to ‘kill protestors’ or nationalistic rhetoric about ‘incomers’.  For that matter – I thought the garden ramps project was to encourage newcomers to the area?  With Sasha’s rants against newcomers, this will indeed be hard work.

Back to my legal, online writing.  For every piece of fact I have written about, I can assure my detractors that I will have a source, and that source will be doubly – if not triply – backed up.  I have in the main while writing received many letters of support (for which I am sincerely grateful).

One recent complaint I had threatened me with legal action and the Scottish Football Association (!) if I did not print a retraction of my article.  Instead my source material was reviewed, not only fully vindicating my assertions, but also paving the way to printing further details the complainant may not have wanted publicised.

Finally, here is a nice way to illustrate these points, which I will call The Casablanca Gambit.

Classic Film readers will remember dialogue from the iconic (the word is well used in this case) film, ‘Casablanca’.  The Chief of Police in Casablanca, Captain Renault, has been ordered by Nazis to close Rick’s Cafe by any means.  This is what transpires:

Rick: How can you close me up? On what grounds?
Captain Renault: I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!
[a croupier hands Renault a pile of money]
Croupier: Your winnings, sir.
Captain Renault: [sotto voce] Oh, thank you very much.
Captain Renault: [aloud] Everybody out at once!

I leave it to you to decide who in this current Aberdeen drama are the Nazis, who is Rick, and who is Renault.  (I wonder if the P&J may wish to reconsider its position, or if it will continue to collect its winnings while it can).

Oct 132011
 

Old Susannah looks back at the week that was and wonders who’s up to what and why. By Suzanne Kelly.

Old Susannah is having trouble sleeping at the moment for several reasons. Firstly, there is the sheer excitement over the UTG design competition – which design will I fall in love with?  What will be built that will make the world beat a path to Aberdeen for coffee, baguettes and monorail rides? Will Paris, New York and Rome empty as people come to Union Square and the new UTG?
Secondly, I am worried about Ms Aileen ‘Homalone’ who has dropped out of the public eye, and refuses (to date) to answer questions about the finances needed for the phase 2 attempt to plant trees on Tullos, and the money to shoot those extremely hungry deer.  It looks as if there isn’t any money, but no one’s talking to the public just now.

I did email to say ‘C’mon Aileen’ – and she replied that ‘an officer (if not a gentleman) would get back to me’.

I gently reminded Homalone that she had at least a little responsibility for the scheme to rid Tullos of vermin deer and plant 89,000 trees where trees had failed before, as she’d taken a wee bit of the public relations credit for this great scheme to begin with.  I expect as soon as she turns her razor-sharp mind to the task of analysing all the facts and figures regarding the tree planting, deer and slaughter, she’ll revert to me asap.

I don’t think I’ll hold my breath though.

You may recall the deer are under the death sentence because we must be cheap when using ‘the public purse,’ and Aileen being a good Lib Dem can’t stand any waste of public money.  Quite right.

No such restrictions apply to buying crucial carriage clocks and expensive pens from the Common Good Fund.  

If you are in Inverness, you have to apply to use the common good fund there, and a committee decides if your charity should get a bit of the fund. They seem to have helped quite a number of deserving causes, and the application procedure is the same for the rich and the poor, believe it or not.  It is not quite as easy to get a handle on who has their fingers on Aberdeen’s CGF sporran strings. But I digress – again.

Thirdly, I can’t sleep now that I know it’s OK to shoot small mammals and birds on Tullos Hill whenever you want – you just need a permit and the right kind of gun. I am amazed that no one’s been shot there yet. I am also amazed that people still like to hunt living things, but I guess I need to acknowledge that the law allows this.

So do keep walking on Tullos, but keep in mind bullets can travel long distances, and wear your bright clothes and your bulletproof vest.  And for goodness sake, don’t wear any of those novelty deer antler headbands.

Vermin:

(noun) 1. insects such as lice, ticks or fleas (or the more fashionable bedbugs plaguing New York at present) which can lead to infestations. 2. birds and mammals that eat other animals / game. 3. animals which are after the same food as people or domestic animals (How dare they!).

The police sent me some detailed answers about the gunman spotted on Tullos Hill in early September after I did one of my little FOI requests.  The hunter would not legally have been after the roe deer – but the police made it clear that such ‘sportspeople’ are allowed to shoot ‘vermin’. The police definition of what constitutes vermin seems to include deer. So the next time you and a roe deer are trying to nibble the same 2,000 trees, just kill it – as long as you have a permit and are using the right kind of bullets and rifle.  Result!

But if the deer aren’t after the same quarter-pounder you want, and the squirrels (red, black, grey – I don’t discriminate) aren’t after your chocolate shake – then are they really vermin? The vermin label put on these wild animals justifies the gamekeeper poisoning the birds of prey, the snare-setter (snares are still legal for some reason) who kills indiscriminately, and the council targeting the Tullos Hill deer.

Speaking of the council (well some of them anyway), I’d best move to another definition before someone comes gunning for me.  And for some reason, a related word comes to mind now that I’ve mentioned our City Council.

Parasite:

(noun – English ) an insect or other creature which feeds off of a host animal to the host’s detriment. 

Let’s consider bloodsuckers, worms, leeches and ticks. These are some of the parasitic vermin infesting your city council. You do have the right ammo to despatch them – or at least you will come May elections with your vote. The parasites in question feed of resources such as The Common Good Fund, Council Taxes and all-expense paid hospitality.

Like a swarm of locusts, they descend on areas such as the AECC and the Beach Ballroom if so much as a free sandwich can be had.  Parasites such as these are notoriously thirsty, and can empty cases of drink in nanoseconds.

Do not get too close to such creatures – they may well carry disease.  Do instead hide your money (offshore if possible), and guard any green spaces, which these parasites can easily destroy if not kept in check.

“Cultural” spaces:

(noun, English Modern) a wholly new concept of “space” where “Cultural” “events” can take place.  Not to be confused with existing businesses or arenas and spaces they have for cultural events.

If it’s not hard enough for me to get any sleep with everything else going on, the Evening Express told us on 8 October that there is a ‘plan’ to attract ‘top performers (!)’ to Aberdeen.  This brand-new idea, never before attempted, would see the ‘proposed new park over (?!!) Union Terrace Gardens’ filled with “cultural” spaces.  (By the way, the quotes around the word “cultural” appear in the Evening Express piece on this subject, so I’d better leave them in).

“Culture” of course is something that we people not in ACC, ACSEF, or SEG can’t really appreciate or understand.  ( Remember – Stewart  Spence, stalwart of the Marcliffe wrote to the P&J last week to call people opposed to these great new plans ‘NIMBYS and luddites’.  Who can argue with him?).

The AECC – long propped up by the taxpayer – and the Lemon Tree (likewise on a taxpayer sub) have never attempted to bring Top Performers here before.  Likewise none of the independently-owned  bars and clubs (not supported by taxpayers by the way) have tried this either.  Some years ago I got my hopes very high about Top Performers coming here, but in the end, Geri Haliwell had to pull out of doing the AECC.

Now in another guise, Scottish Enterprise might not really be permitted to shell out large amounts of taxpayer cash to create “cultural” spaces if these new inventions borne of taxpayer money would compete with already-existing public funded and/or private spaces. 

But the story with UTG is different somehow – kind of like when Scottish Enterprise took the money the Arts Council had earmarked for Peacock (who had wanted to , er, create a “cultural” space in UTG first).  Hmm – I must remember to soon define ‘intellectual property’, ‘copyright’, ‘lawsuit’ and ‘moral rights’.

I for one am happy to subsidise the AECC directly and indirectly (the City Council somehow needs to rent large amounts of office space at the AECC despite its large roster of properties) as well as subsidise the other city-owned venues AND find some 140 million towards yet another “cultural” space under/in/over  Union Terrace Gardens.  And if the private sector of the music/entertainment industry in Aberdeen can’t compete, then that’s just showbusiness.

We are in a democracy after all – the richest amongst us get to either be on boards or appoint boards to do what they want done with public spaces – all in the name of “culture”. 

If we don’t ‘get it’, then we are indeed the NIMBYS and luddites Spency thinks we all are.  I shall remember his words when I next book a dinner or a hotel.

Those who oppose the UTG project (not that it is defined yet – not even Old Susannah could do that if the city can’t) will be laughing out of the other side of their faces when I’m having a large latte before Toto opens up for Geri Haliwell near the monorail at the Wood memorial car park “cultural” space centre.  So there.  Gives those luddites something to think about doesn’t it?

I have to digress again – it is because some of us can’t understand how wonderful the whole project is that we oppose it.  It is all crystal clear, but here is a little helpful guide as to who’s doing what about our “culture” space / UTG project.  Here is my little luddites guide to the simple way things work

1.  Locum Consultants – apparently a part of the Collier Group – have been hired to ‘find uses’ for ‘some kind of performance and exhibition space’ created by the UTG project.  Appointed (by whom I don’t know).

(By the way I can find a ‘Locum Consultants’ in Surrey and a ‘Collier International’ in Manchester.  Unless there are companies with those names in Scotland, I guess no one here was up to the job of filling the “cultural” space.  I could be wrong, I could be right).

2.  The Aberdeen City Gardens Trust (ACGT) – works on ‘how to use “cultural” spaces inside (?!!) the proposed new park over Union Terrace  Gardens’.  Unelected.  (This seems to be a “Private, Limited by guarantee, no share capital, use of  ‘Limited’ exemption” kind of an affair – which makes sense as the Taxpayer is paying for it at least in part, and it will be involved in the future of a public asset.  Result!)  Or in words a child could understand – taken from the website:  http://thecitygardenproject.com/news

“Aberdeen City Gardens Trust has been set up, under the auspices of the City Garden Project management board, as a special purpose vehicle to channel funding for the project and deliver key activities within the project plan. The Trust will operate using best practice procurement procedures and will be accountable for the delivery of activities to project management board.

“The Trust will also receive £375,000 of Scottish Enterprise funding from its available funds for major infrastructure projects.

“Cllr John Stewart, chairman of the City Garden Project management board, said: “The fact that Aberdeen City Council is making no revenue contribution to the project means it is necessary to be imaginative in the way in which non-council finance levered into the project is managed. The creation of the Trust presents us with an ideal solution. Equally, it will allow for contracting of the required services involved in the next steps and for the project to progress to the design competition stage and complete the business case for the TIF application. Through the TIF we will be to access funding not otherwise available to invest in the art gallery and the St Nicholas House site, enhancing and reinvigorating our city centre.”

“The founding directors of the Trust are Tom Smith and Colin Crosby who will be joined by Directors from Aberdeen City Council and others involved in the project in due course”.

3.  The City Gardens Monitoring Group – exists to hide its doings and to  decide that the public should not vote on the option of leaving the gardens as they are in the current design competition for the 6 finalists (chosen by an unelected group and guaranteed loads of dosh for getting this far).  The Group redacted its minutes to the point you had no idea who was in it (unless you cut and pasted the redacted text and found none other than Aileen Malone was involved).  Unelected.

But for those of you still not clear, here is an excerpt of who’s who and who’s doing what where from our City’s very own website:  http://www.aberdeencity.gov.uk/

“The membership of the Project Monitoring Group comprises Councillors Malone (Chair), Boulton, McDonald, Kirsty West, Wisely, Young and Yuill.

“For reference, the membership of the City Garden Project Management Board comprises Councillor John Stewart (Chair), Councillor Callum McCaig and Valerie Watts, ACC; Tom Smith and Colin Crosby, ACSEF; Jennifer Craw, the Wood Family Trust; Bob Collier, Aberdeen and Grampian Chamber of Commerce; John Michie, Aberdeen City Centre Association; Lavina Massie, the Aberdeen City Alliance, Maggie McGinlay, Scottish Enterprise and Paul Harris, Gray’s School of Art.

“The membership of the Project Implementation Team comprises Tom Smith (Chair), Colin Crosby and John Michie, ACSEF; Gerry Brough, Hugh Murdoch and Patricia Cassidy, ACC; Jennifer Craw, the Wood Family Trust; Maggie McGinlay, Scottish Enterprise; Derick Murray, Nestrans; Audrey Laidlaw, Network Rail and Iain Munro, Creative Scotland”.

This diverse membership of people with no vested interests in the project going ahead or not will reassure us all.  But somehow, I still can’t get any sleep.

4.  Malcolm Reading – a design consultancy which shortlisted the winning entries in the design competiton, an amazing feat, as there was and is no design brief in existence approved by ACC.  What Malcolm Reading will earn is unknown; how exactly it was appointed is also a mystery to me.

5.  The BIG Partnership – a PR consultancy which tells us how great it all is going to be.  I don’t know how they were appointed or what they will earn. (not to be confused with ‘The Big Sleep’.)  STOP PRESS:  The BIG Partnership has recently announced a new client:  The Wood Family Trust.

6.  ACSEF – A board of business people and city officials who, well, do what they like.  Includes one impartial Mr S Milne.  Known for issuing warning as to dire consequences for Aberdeen if we don’t build on the garden.  ACSEF is an invention of ACC, and funded at least in part by the public purse which we are all so keen to use sparingly.

7.  Genus Loci – a document produced supporting ideas for the Garden’s future as long as these don’t include a garden for the future.  Famous for proposing the monorail idea.

8.  Scottish Enterprise – a quango, unelected, on a mere £750 million or so per year which holds meetings, and supplies members to sit on the board of ACSEF, and who gave the world Jennifer Craw, now on the Wood Family Trust.  Which of course has a seat or seats on the secretive City Gardens Monitoring Group – or was it the Aberdeen City Gardens Trust.  Unelected and expensive.

9.  Wood Family Trust – er, apparently the wood family and/or friends who want to get rid of the wood in the gardens apparently, for “cultural” spaces.  Apparently not elected.  This Trust has possibly one or two overlapping areas with some of these other groups,  maybe.

10.  Project Implementation Team – are on hand to implement the project whether or not the public want them to.

Now that you see how simple it all is, I trust that there will be no more whining about the expense of paying all these companies off, signing a lease for a few thousand years for the gardens, or whinging about issues of ‘transparency’.

As that little Meerkat person on TV would say, ‘Simples’.

I was going to define ‘Impartiality’ this week as well, and how it relates to TIF, BID, and so on.  However, I now have a headache for some reason, and there is a knock on my door which may be the sherrif coming for my furniture.  ‘Impartiality’ it is for next week then.  And ‘Old Boys’ Network’, ‘Nepotism’ and ‘Greed’.

Good night all.

Sep 302011
 

By Mike Shepherd. 

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

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

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

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

The same article also states:

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

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

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

So exactly whose vision is it then, Sir Ian?

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

Excuse me, I don’t think so.

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

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

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

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

“21st century contemporary garden”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aug 182011
 

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

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

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

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

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

Two months later, the June minutes stated:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of the questions was:

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

The Chief Executive replied to this as follows:

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

The following request was also made:

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

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

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