Dec 252010

By Mike Shepherd.

Here’s a game for your Xmas party – spot the odd one out in this list:
Smersh, Spectre, the Black Hand, the Priory of Sion, Acsef.

The correct answer is of course Acsef. The others are sinister, shadowy organisations bent on world domination, while Acsef is Aberdeen city and shire economic future, the unelected body charged with  promoting  business development in the Aberdeen region.

Acsef‘s greatest moment has been the long-running saga of Sir Ian Wood’s city square project. The show has been on the go for over two years and looks set to run and run and run. Although whisper this quietly: just like the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, it doesn’t seem to have gone anywhere yet.

Acsef helped with the consultation for the scheme and we were all assured “This public consultation aims to find out if you would like to go ahead with the proposal to redevelop Union Terrace Gardens and the Denburn Valley to create a new civic space and gardens.” Ha!

We were also told that we could get a modern city square that looked like the ones in Melbourne, Chicago and Houston. “Acsef believes the city needs a centre that will reflect that aspiration and attract future talent and businesses. This is about jobs for today’s secondary pupils and undergraduates – our children and grandchildren.” You could call this the Nora Batty argument: The Grand old lady of Aberdeen needs a brand new mini-skirt to exert her charms on potential suitors.

The consultation went ahead and it looked as if Acsef could not lose. Even the header for the poll questionnaire gave you a prompt if you didn’t know how to vote “Have Your Say: We believe Aberdeen needs a large, vibrant, cultural and civic space and gardens in the heart of the city for today and for future generations.”

The results of the consultation were reported on the 13th April 2010; a majority of 1,270 said no to the city square project. Oops.

Local businessmen were not happy with the result of the consultation and wrote a letter to the Council urging them to go ahead

An analysis of the vote was published by Acsef. “The consultation results show that the public were nearly evenly divided over the City Square Project as proposed, although overall more were against the project than for it.” Don’t you just crack up at that “nearly evenly-divided” bit when a majority of 1,270 said no.

More of that wacky humour was to follow. Acsef provided a break-down of the comments made by people online during the consultation.

“I value having in the heart of the City this secluded amphitheatre with its mature trees and think it would be an act of vandalism to sweep it away.” Recorded as voting yes to the city square.

“We don’t want Aberdeen to turn into a concrete jungle” Recorded as voting yes to the city square.

“The prospect of a huge square in place of the gardens is a terrible prospect and I have yet to understand the contention that this is necessary for the future well economic welfare of the city…. do not support the project.” Recorded as voting yes to the city square.

There are over 200 responses like this in the report.

Local businessmen were not happy with the result of the consultation and wrote a letter to the Council urging them to go ahead with the city square project and ignore the no vote, ‘due to misunderstanding of the project among the public’ and an ‘inability’ to appreciate its impact. Cheeky, cheeky!

Acsef now had the tricky matter of keeping the city square project going despite the public vote against it.

This was because as Ascef minutes record, “There is a mandate from the business community to proceed to the next stage”.  There was also the unfortunate position of the Labour party who had come out against the plan. They had to be dealt with. The minutes of the Acsef meeting on the 13th April mention that:

“Following discussion amongst private sector members of the ACSEF Board after the Special meeting on 22 March a letter had been drafted to senior members of the Labour Party expressing disappointment at the Party’s stance in relation to the project. Private sector Board members approved this for issue.”

The Labour party were very upset at these comments, given that this was a publically funded organisation taking a political stance on a highly-controversial issue (both Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire councils fund Acsef with £230,000 a year each). Nevertheless, they were puzzled as to why no letter had ever arrived and further curious as to why Acsef had stated that it had received no reply from any of the Labour politicians it had been addressed to. It later transpired that due to a mix-up within Acsef, no letter had actually been posted. Labour MSP Richard Baker wrote in a scathing letter to the Press and Journal:   “When Acsef is confused about how this letter was sent, and when it certainly has not been seen by its intended recipients, how on earth can they comment on a lack of a response? This typifies the shambolic way this organisation has handled this crucial issue for the future of Aberdeen.”

The time had come for creative thinking if the project was not to be lost. The original report on the consultation had stated “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.” This was not good enough though. The board met on the 22nd of March and hatched a cunning plan “If views are roughly split there is an opportunity to say that although the public has spoken this is only in relatively small numbers.

Shangri-La would be rebuilt in the centre of Aberdeen and people would come for miles to see the giant concrete slab

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.” Brilliant! As the great polemicists would say, it’s not the logic of your position that matters, it’s how you frame the argument that is all important. Or putting it another way:

“When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master— that’s all.”

This perspective was the key to moving forward, especially in view of Sir Ian Wood’s position expressed at the same meeting:

“A negative outcome from the consultation would be accepted graciously as the voice of the people having spoken.  If the outcome is split, one of the key conditions would be Aberdeen City Council support and resource to take the project forward to the next stage. “

The Council decided to pre-empt the consultation and vote on the issue. This they duly did on May 19th, 2010 and they agreed to progress the city square project (or the city garden project as they now wanted it to be called).

Acsef clearly like a challenge and they had a whopper. The scheme was not only highly unpopular but given the grandiose scale of the city square (it would be just slightly smaller than Red Square in Moscow), the costs were likely to be vast, reasonably £200 Million or more. Sir Ian Wood had promised £50 Million towards the cost of the project.

Where was all the extra money coming from?

Aberdeen Council had the utterly bonkers idea that they would borrow up to £200 Million from central government funds largely to pay for the square and then wait for the money to be paid back by revenue from extra business rates.  Shangri-La would be rebuilt in the centre of Aberdeen and people would come for miles to see the giant concrete slab (earlier this year Acsef had ran an advert in the Press and Journal describing the city square as “a unique opportunity to put the city on the must visit list”).

City-centre traders would be making so much extra money that the rateable value for their businesses would go through the roof.  An extra twist to the saga came from the September Council Finance Committee. Consultants were to be asked “to make it clear that they are required to produce a business case that ensures zero financial risk to the Council.” So the Council borrows up to £200 Million with no risk at all. Hilarious! Aberdeen Council could potentially put the makers of Xmas cracker jokes out of business. In fact, ‘crackers’ just about sums it all up.

Yet the Council would have everybody think that the city square is a done deal; it is anything but. It is at least 18 months away from planning submission, everything is running at least 4 – 6 months late and very little of the project plan has actually happened yet.  There is much that could go wrong with the scheme before long and it probably will.

In the midst of the word he was trying to say,

In the midst of his laughter and glee,
He had softly and suddenly vanished away—
For the Snark *was* a Boojum, you see.

I wish you a Merry Xmas and I reckon that a happy new year for everyone will see the back of the city square folly. Join Friends of Union Terrace Gardens through our website and help send it out of the way: