Jul 092010

By Pat Carlos

Although the Council meeting on 30th June looked like lasting all day – and eventually progressed well into the evening – it would seem to have proved to be productive for those Friends of Union Terrace Gardens and others against the destruction of the gardens due to the insight gained into the other large issues on the agenda and the wealth of contradiction contained within them.

The day commenced with a demonstration outside the building. If you have seen the local press on Thursday you will have a good idea of how it looked – placards with succinct statements held, an amiable, good natured assembly and carrying a PR triumph in the form of Spike who is now known affectionately as  “willy nilly” a Mascot of the protest. Perhaps a small statue in the gardens for him if and when/they are out of danger….?

Some of us went into the gallery to support Mike Shepherd of Friends of UTG and Steven Bothwell – local businessman and owner of Café 52.

The first major item on the agenda was the planning application for a huge office building on the Oakbank site. It was rejected after the human beings living in the area versus “economic advantage – Aberdeen is open for business” school of thought debate was conducted to a conclusion. There was also the question of safeguarding the architectural and environmental heritage of the area. This item was significant to those of us opposing the Ian Wood plan/City Gardens Project (CGP) because it was to be a TIF related project.

Tax Increment Finance forms the cornerstone of funding for CGP development; it is a sort of build -now- and increase-the- business -rate -when- itʼs -all -profitable sort of scheme. There are a number of future projects based on TIF which are supposed to fund the gap between Ian Wood’s purported generous gift and funds from an anonymous donor.

A following item seemed to be an attempt to renege on a contractual agreement to pay normal increments to council staff. It was a painful debate resulting in the issue being shunted on for further discussion at a later date.

The argument was once more about morality and money. The elderly and rather apt joke about “others standing on the edge of a precipice but we took a step forward” relieved the mood for a few seconds. Apparently there might be legal implications to address. It was a taste of what would be happening all over the country. The emphasis was focused on the lack of money and how that could only get worse in the current UK financial climate. Hardly a perfect economic climate for the non essential CSP/ CGP project.By this time the council meeting had progressed well into the afternoon.

In the maelstrom of angst, hand-wringing and political sniping it became clear that the economic situation was playing more heavily on the nerves of some of the pro – project councillors. The way forward became loaded with more and more provisos and caveats in an attempt to control the “juggernaut”. The Executive position included many uncertainties – there are gaps in the procedure for instance over who decides on even the short list of possible designs. A Project Management Board might be the way forward. The cost of maintaining the structure ( described by Councillor Allan as “almighty” ) would have to be built into a business case. There had been no discussion that UTG would leave public ownership. It was discussed that there might be a trust of some kind in future. The council would try to avoid liabilities, and so on.

In the middle of all this came the contributions of Mike Shepherd and Steven Bothwell.

Mike Shepherd went through the economic anomalies contained in the proposals including the lack of consideration given to insurance, VAT, landscaping, council assets possibly needed as collateral, overrun (he referred Edinburgh City Council having to borrow against the overrun for the tram system), the TIF gap which is now widening with the fall of the Oakbank project, and so on. Asked about who he represented he told the Council that The Friends of UTG has a daily increasing number of supporters – a loose network including people with technical, financial and legal expertise, and that the aim is to restore the Gardens and to encourage more public use. The Gardens are already used and are much loved. Mike Shepherd is a professional geologist with extensive expertise in oil recovery analysis.

Steven Bothwellʼs representation was concentrated on the need for a visionary approach to the restoration and public use of UTG. He had in the past put forward a suggestion for integrating a brasserie , finding ways to refocus public attention on the gardens. He made the point, as did one of the Councillors, that there needed to be some permanent toilet facilities located in UTG. Aberdeen is an important hub in oil development and has done much to nurture that development. Oil and gas industries didn’t include the CSP/CGP as a reason for being here. The architecture is fantastic, the gardens have in the past been described by the Council as a “gem”. The proposed scheme has not met with the approval of citizens. A proposed SPV (Special Purpose Vehicle) to further the CSP/ CGP/ Wood scheme has fewer obligations in the event of financial crisis. Who would pick up the tab in that event? The Council and the public would be hung out to dry.

After much, at times highly charged discussion, a vote was taken on two amendments – one to stop the whole thing right now before more time is wasted and more money spent. This one was defeated by 25 – 15 votes. The second amendment was an attempt to find out a great deal more about the proposals before moving ahead. This was set against the proposal that the project development should go ahead but with safeguards and accountability set in. This was the final stage in the business and resulted in 7 votes for the amendment, 22 for the go-ahead and 11 nonvoting.

Letʼs see what happens next. There appears to be increasingly frayed nerves as the prospect of cuts begin to bite.