May 152012

All good stories have an unexpected and dramatic twist to the tale and the thriller / horror / war story of Union Terrace Gardens is no exception. Mike Shepherd writes.

We left the saga with a public referendum having been held and a narrow majority gained for the City Garden Project.

The final count at the start of March saw glumness on both sides with nary a cheer heard; one side having lost the vote, bitter at the sledge-hammer tactics of their opponents; the other side staring at a pyrrhic victory whereby hundreds of thousands of pounds of advertising money had resulted in a narrow majority vote.

One campaigner described the result as like a football match where one side had fielded twenty players and still only won one-nil!

There was still two months to go until the council elections on May 3rd. The SNP had been privately hoping to see a  majority of councillors elected so that they could form an administration without any need to seek coalition partners. The political pundits thought this unlikely but still predicted the SNP to end up as the largest group in the council. It was conjectured that the public referendum would have some influence on the vote.

The SNP had been linked to the City Garden Project not the least through Alex Salmond’s comments in support of the project during the referendum campaign. The Labour party opposed the City Garden project and pledged to scrap it if they got the chance. The other main party, the Lib Dems, were split on the issue with three councillors, Martin Greig, Jennifer Stewart and Ian Yuill having opposed Sir Ian Wood’s scheme.

Kenny Watt had provided a website giving information detailing where the candidates standing for election stood with respect to the UTG issue. He had tried contacting as many of the candidates as possible. Some who I suspected to be pro City garden project were non-committal when asked.

In spite of the referendum result, candidate endorsement for the City Garden Project was somewhat subdued in the lead up to the election. Kenny’s website was widely distributed and intended as a voting guide only.

The Council vote was a surprise to many, not least the Labour party. They found themselves with the largest number of new councillors at seventeen, ahead of the SNP. This was not quite enough to form a majority (which is 22 in a council with 43 members). They did manage to secure the agreement of the Conservatives and Independents to form a coalition.

  Sir Ian Wood’s scheme is looking much less likely than it had been two months earlier

What happened? There is no doubt that local issues played a part; the proposed third Don crossing in Tillydrone and the new football stadium in Cove and Kincorth.
However, I believe the UTG controversy had a significant influence.

The Labour party saw their number of councillors increase substantially and all three Lib Dems supporting UTG were returned in spite of their party’s poor showing elsewhere.

I’ve had numerous comments from people who admit to having changed their normal voting pattern because they were so upset about what they saw as a very cynical campaign strategy by the City Garden supporters in the referendum. It looks as if the referendum result had an unexpected sting in its tail.

The Labour party, now leading the new council administration, are still committed to abandoning the City Garden Project. I make it a very slight majority of pro-UTG councillors in the new batch. Nevertheless, the political practicality is that Sir Ian Wood’s scheme is looking much less likely than it had been two months earlier.

There are several hurdles for the City Garden Project to get through before it happens, each one of which is a show-stopper if it doesn’t get the vote. The new administration has discussed organising what would essentially be a knock-out vote for the scheme. If it survives that, then there is the business case to be approved for TIF funding, the approval of a land lease and finally the planning submission itself; each separate votes.

On top of that, there will be an intent by the new administration to get on with other business and I suspect they will not want to be distracted by such a divisive issue as the City Garden Project. There will be other priorities to consider.

That’s not to say that the beast is finally dead: By no means. The rich and powerful of the land are not giving up easily.

Sir Ian Wood intends to carry on regardless and will lobby councillors individually to pursue his project. The publicly funded ACSEF have rather unwisely criticised the Labour party position and the Chamber of Commerce are joining in.

Much will be made of the public referendum result, even though the result was marginal and the campaigning by one side was totally over the top.  Labour have the moral edge in that they never approved of the referendum in the first place, voting against it on the grounds that the ballot that counted was the one on May 3rd.

There will be more twists and turns to come in this saga no doubt. But at the moment, the prognosis for the City Garden Project is poor.  It is of note that the Labour party are already discussing what happens following the demise of the City Garden Project.  This includes the establishment of the Castlegate as a cultural centre and the possibility of instigating schemes similar to the contemporary arts centre proposed by Peacock Visual Arts over five years ago.

Local author Diane Morgan is busy writing a new book on the history of Union Terrace Gardens and hopes to finish it this summer. She has a problem. The final chapter hasn’t happened just yet.

  5 Responses to “Garden Wars: The Endgame Begins”

  1. the referendum showed support for the design – no councillor in their right mind want to commit to the £92m loan, regardless of the result!

  2. The “referendum” only ever took place because a previous opinion poll (hopelessly biased as it was in favour of SIW’s “project”) didn’t deliver the right result. The result (52% against, 47% in favour with 1% undecided) was written off as being the result of a “vocal minority” campaigning against it. You can be quite sure that would not have been the verdict had it been the other way round. Still, not to be put off by democratic expression or any such niceties, the Council/SIW/the P&J try again (and this time make sure they get the result they want). The whole thing is a monumental waste of public money and it is a scandal that such an iconic piece of Aberdeen’s heritage could be filled in with concrete merely for some oil tycoon’s personal vanity project – because that’s what it is! If the sunken gardens are such a noose around the city’s neck, I suggest he goes down to Princes Street in Edinburgh and see if they corroborate his view!

  3. Didn’t labour get less first choice votes than the snp? Hardly a glowing recommendation for keeping the gardens? I’m pro cgp but probably more pro regeneration of the city centre I read a post from a pro union terrace garden supporter who proposed keeping the gardens but covering the road/railway line and adding cafes,shops,art galleries, whatever. I think he could be onto a winner there and I think most pro cgp supporters would agree. The frustrating thing is how long it takes to do anything up here!! I.e bypass!!!!!!

  4. You are absolutely correct when you say that Ian Wood and his associates will not lie down over this. It did strike me that the numbers of active voters in the recent council elections threw up one enormous question mark over the number of participants in the garden referendum.

    For anyone with an iota of taste and sensibility to Aberdeen’s heritage the crass proposal to concrete over the sunken gardens is seen as sheer vandalism.

    We can look at those who support the Wood plan and the councillors who suck up to him and decide for ourselves their motives. Sense and good taste doesn’t come into it.

    The situation the SNP in Aberdeen has found itself in since the election is almost certainly a direct result of their unqualified support for this appalling project. The way they have behaved, their unwavering conformity to speak with one voice is nothing short of Stalinist and must send out warnings to prospective voters for future elections and referenda.

  5. (evil masterplan)If they start demolishing UTG, I`m having those gates! I`ll stash them in Findon, they wont be seen for another 100 years, should be worth a bob or two by then.(/evil masterplan)
    We all know this will go roughly 2x overbudget tho` ay?

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