Mar 202012
 

With thanks to John F. Robins, Secretary, Animal Concern Advice Line (ACAL).

 

Three Community Councils representing neighbourhoods close to Tullos Hill have issued a last minute appeal asking Aberdeen City Council to call off the deer cull planned for Tullos Hill.
In a strongly worded open letter the Community Councils, which represent over 25,000 Aberdonians, accuse the City Council of using underhand tactics to get backing to plant trees on Tullos Hill as part of their Tree for Every Citizen initiative.

They claim that,

“the public consultation was seriously flawed and made no mention of a deer cull. Community Councils and the general public were given incomplete information, allowing ACC’s intention to cull to remain unchallenged”. 

When the intention to kill the resident roe deer eventually became public knowledge there was an outcry with many Aberdonians telling the City Council that if the Tree for Every Citizen project meant killing the deer they did not want any trees planted for them. The Community Councils say the City Council dismissed local public opinion and have pleaded with the Council to change their mind at the eleventh hour and to,

“Listen to the voices of the people who elected you, cancel the cull and let the Tullos Hill deer live”.

For over a year Animal Concern Advice Line (ACAL) has been supporting local campaigners in the battle to save the Tullos Hill roe deer. John Robins of ACAL welcomed the intervention of the Community Councils. He states;

“This is a severe embarrassment to Aberdeen City Council.

“They can no longer claim that opposition to the deer cull is coming from outwith Aberdeen. Three Community Councils representing over 25,000 Aberdonians have made it perfectly clear that they want this cull stopped. On Sunday of this week the CEO of the National Trust for Scotland admitted on national television that they had made a mistake by undertaking a mass cull of deer on the Mar Lodge Estate. 

“The very same advisors who were behind that cull are the people advising Aberdeen City Council to kill the deer on Tullos Hill. There is still time for Aberdeen City Council to avoid making that same mistake. All they have to do is respect the wishes of the people who elected them and call off the cull.”

  •  The Open Letter signed by Nigg, Torry and, Kincorth & Leggart Community Councils can be viewed here.
Feb 292012
 

Shakhaf Barak wrote to a friend highlighting the history behind the current referendum that is dividing the city. He has kindly allowed Voice to use it, almost verbatim as the deadline approaches for voting.

Dear Friend,
Here in Aberdeen there is a bitter referendum taking place, and it could go either way. Over 70,000 people have voted thus far, in a city of barely 212,000 souls, and both sides have reported each other to the police. Central to this story is a 250-year old city centre park, Union Terrace Gardens, and the billionaire oil tycoon seeking to redevelop it.

Union Terrace Gardens are similar to Edinburgh’s Princes Street Gardens, lying in the natural amphitheatre of the Denburn valley, the Denburn being a stream which flows right through the city, underground where it borders the Gardens. Much of Aberdeen’s best architecture was clearly envisaged to overlook this area.

The Gardens are home to a cluster of 260-year old elms trees that once formed part of the Corbie Haugh, a historic wood which ran through the valley. This is among the largest concentration of healthy mature elm trees in Europe, and they are reputed to have escaped Dutch Elm Disease, not only due to their isolation, but also because the pollution of the city has afforded some sort of protection from it.

Both the park and its beautiful Victorian toilets are Grade A-listed, and all of the trees are under preservation orders. Up until as late as 2003, the Gardens formed the centrepiece of Aberdeen’s Britain In Bloom entry, and they were truly stunning, but since then expenditure has all but ceased, and the toilets have been closed for several years.

In 2008 a local arts organisation, Peacock Visual Arts (PVA) was granted planning permission for an award-winning and sympathetically-designed arts centre to be built into the hillside of the Gardens. This would have meant felling a small number of trees but none of the elms. The design was universally acclaimed and it was hoped that this scheme would help regenerate interest in the Gardens.

Enter Sir Ian Wood, one of Scotland’s richest men, and chief of Wood Group PSN. Sir Ian decided that he’d like to redevelop the Gardens by building a five-storey bunker in their place, whilst covering over the adjoining railway line and urban dual carriageway, with the entire roof of this construction forming a flat civic square at street level. It was not entirely clear what would be installed in the bunker, although speculation was rife to say the least.

He offered the council £50m towards the cost of this project, which was mooted to cost £140m. This was possibly an optimistic figure since Union Square, a similarly sized shopping mall with none of the technical difficulties or prior excavation work, cost £250m to build. The council felt this offer was too good to refuse, but the some members of the public were up in arms.

Sir Ian decided to put the proposal out to public consultation and promised to walk away should the public reject it.

The ‘consultation’ was commissioned by Aberdeen City and Shire Economic Future (ACSEF), a publicly-funded unelected QUANGO, and conducted by The BiG Partnership, Scotland’s largest PR company.

It many ways it resembled a marketing exercise. The bulk of participation was via a website, which asked several questions with a somewhat loaded feel to them. For technical reasons, the question on whether or not to proceed with the plan defaulted to a YES vote.

If, during completion of the questionnaire, any previously-given responses were subsequently amended, this again defaulted back to a YES vote. When the results were released, it became apparent from the comments sections that may people who had intended voting NO had instead been recorded as YES voters.

Over 10,000 people participated in the consultation, and In spite of it’s technical oversights, the public voted against the Civic Square proposal by 54%-46%, a healthy and significant majority. However the PR machine kicked in and somehow spun that the 202,000 people who had not participated possibly represented a silent majority in favour of this scheme.

  Critics described it as a cross between Tellytubby Land and a skate park

Sir Ian decided not to walk away, and the project went to a council vote. The council voted in favour of taking the plan forward at the expense of PVA who by that time had 80% of their £20m funding in place. It has subsequently been alleged that some of the PVA funding was diverted into the new project.

The BiG Partnership now re-launched the plans under a new name, The City Garden Project (CGP). It was claimed that the outcome of the public consultation was that the public were broadly in favour of a garden as opposed to a civic square. Any implication that they were actually in favour of preserving the existing gardens was ignored.

The interested parties now felt that the best option was to redevelop the Gardens by building a five-storey bunker in their place whilst covering over the adjoining railway line and urban dual carriageway, with the entire roof of this construction forming a new garden at street level.

The whole thing had an air of déjà vu.

This time it was decided to hold an international design contest, paid for with public money. Six designs were shortlisted from hundreds of entrants. One, The Granite Web, bore a striking resemblance to Civic Square concept, albeit with less concrete and more greenery. Critics described it as a cross between Tellytubby Land and a skate park.

The local press heavily promoted the Granite Web design from the outset of the contest, leading with it on their front page and providing it with more photo coverage than the other designs. It was almost as though it had been ordained.

The public voted, and spoiled ballots aside, all indications were that The Winter Garden design proved the most popular. An independent poll confirmed this and put The Monolith in second place.

Tellingly both of these designs retained much of the topology of the existing Gardens. Word on the street was that The Granite Web was not a popular choice, but we’ll never know for sure, because a decision was taken not to release the results of the so-called public vote to the public.

It was then announced that the winner of the private-public vote would be put forward to the selection panel, along with another design. The self-appointed selection panel consisted of Sir Ian, some other influential people from the oil industry, an architectural consultant on the project payroll, and a councillor who backed the project.

The two designs discussed were the acknowledged public favourite, The Winter Garden, and you’ve guessed it, the joker in the pack, The Granite Web. When the panel announced the result, it should have come as no surprise to anyone that they had chosen The Granite Web, yet there was a shocked silence, and even those had come out in favour of the redevelopment initially appeared bemused if not downright confused.

The original Civic Square was mooted to cost £140m, with £50m coming from Sir Ian, £20m from the private sector, and the rest to be borrowed through a Tax Incremental Funding (TIF) scheme. Any over-run would be covered by the council (read local taxpayer) .

Only £5m of the private sector contribution has materialised thus far, but there has been an announcement that The Granite Web would be significantly less expensive to build than the previously-envisaged, but somewhat less complex, civic square. Sir Ian has offered to personally fund up to £35M of any cost over runs, should they occur.

The TIF proposal cheerfully bends all the guidelines of TIF funding. TIF is intended to be used to redevelop brownfield sites, with the loan being repaid over a 25 year period through increased rates recouped from any businesses setting up in the redeveloped area. The city council had already approved planning permission for two new industrial estates on the outskirts of town, under the business case for the TIF funding, these new estates become part of the TIF zone, so in The Granite Web’s case, sections of the TIF zone are located several miles away from the actual redeveloped area.

The predictions are for 6,500 jobs and £122m annual revenue to the local economy, all based on the new industrial estates, which have no obvious linkage to The Granite Web, operating at full capacity. Even if one were to accept that any new jobs could be somehow attributed to The Granite Web, the figure of 6,500 seems unlikely given that the London Olympics is only projected to create 3,500 jobs.

Either way, the setup feels a bit shaky; the truth is that these jobs and their associated revenue will accrue with or without The Granite Web.

By this time, councillors seemed to be getting edgy and unwilling to green-light the project, so they decided to hold a public referendum. Any group wishing to campaign was required to adhere to an £8,000 spending limit, and for this they were provided with 300 words of text in the voting pack.

The packs went out, but unfortunately some of the Retain lobby’s statements were mangled due to a ‘computer error’. The voting packs were closely followed by a big money public relations mail bombing campaign by The BiG Partnership promoting The Granite Web. Publicity materials went through every letter box, pro Granite Web articles dominated the press, and adverts were played around the clock on the local radio stations.

Apparently this expenditure was permitted by virtue of being funded by an ‘unregistered’, and as yet anonymous, campaign group – whatever that means! I guess it’s a bit like not having to pay tax because your parents never applied for a birth certificate, who knows? By this point, things were becoming surreal to say the least.

The referendum closes on 1 March and it’s a bitter fight that has divided the city. For example, an oil company boss has made a complaint to the police alleging mail hacking and cyber bullying. The police claim they are taking this allegation seriously. There have also been two arrests possibly related to claims of vote-rigging, but ultimately no one was charged.

The town has gone berserk and it’s civil war all over Facebook. It’s as if we’re all experiencing a really, really bad shared dream. I just dread to think what we’ll all be waking up to on Saturday morning.

Feb 282012
 

A person might think that a chamber of commerce exists to promote local businesses.  Here in Aberdeen this is true as well.  But as Aberdeen Voice’s Suzanne Kelly learns – the taxpayer is funding at least some of the PR work  for the City Gardens  Project – and the Chamber of Commerce and ACSEF seem to be leading the City Council by the nose.

The proposed City Gardens Project/Granite Web is a contentious idea which would see a mix of public and private interests building huge, granite ramps over Union Terrace Gardens.
While this idea may not even get off the ground, it has been a gold mine for some fortunate businesses via the Aberdeen & Grampian Chamber of Commerce – at the taxpayer’s expense.

This article will primarily deal with money that the City Council was invoiced by the Chamber of Commerce for PR-related work.  Before doing so, a little recap of other financial facts will add perspective.

PriceWaterhouse Coopers have come up with some grandiose projections including the creation of some 6,500 permanent jobs and £122 million flowing into Aberdeen every year until c. 2023:  all because of the granite web.  PriceWaterhouse Coopers were first paid £41,000 and change for TIF-related work in March 2010.  Other invoices followed, and so far I have been shown by Scottish Enterprise £71,000 worth of PwC invoices.

These invoices are made out to Scottish Enterprise, and Scottish Enterprise is funded by the taxpayer.  Unfortunately, these projections have been seized upon  by the press and turned into ‘facts’  (The Press & Journal published these and other items in a box entitled ‘facts and figures’ on 19 January next to an article about the PwC projections and the garden’s many projected benefits).

The unelected and free-spending and secretive ‘Vote for the City Gardens Project Group’ have likewise promoted these figures in their literature as being reliable facts as well.  They are projections, and arguably very optimistic ones at that.  Whether or not these glowing projections (that we will have more permanent jobs from our web than London expects from its 2012 Olympics) are based on the fact that PwC is being paid by the side that wants to build the web is something the referendum voters may wish to ponder.

A Freedom of Information request I lodged with Scottish Enterprise some time ago revealed (details of which I have previously published) included:-

Item Description Date Amount
1 Technical Feasibility Study to undertake an engineering, cost and design appraisal of the development options for UTG, each incorporating an arts centre. Jun 2009 £162k
2 Architect, Design & Project management fees for a Contemporary Arts Centre project Feb 09/May 10 £226k
3 Consultation Report – City Square Project.. Mar 2010 £113,915
4 Union Terrace Gardens (TIF)-Tax Increment Financing Mar 10
Oct 10
Nov 10
£71,959.65
5 Scottish Enterprise holds 22 copies of invoices relating to ACSEF approved spend for activities relating to stakeholder engagement, events management, and communcations. [sic] 2009-10
2010-11
£51,766.60
£22,712.72

(source – Scottish Enterprise email exchange with Suzanne Kelly May 2011)

While this £648,000 was being spent, Aberdeen City Council was battling with potential job and service cuts in order to balance its books.  It seems that these costs have largely been paid by the taxpayer via Scottish Enterprise and other vehicles, and I can find nothing to show that the Wood Family Trust, which has offered £50,000,000 to further the project, has paid towards any of these costs.  The PR and promotional invoices referred to at Item 5 have been paid by the Aberdeen City taxpayer.

Before moving on to Item 5, which is the subject of this article, some of these other items are worth a further glance.

At Item 2 you will notice we are now talking about some kind of ‘Contemporary Arts Centre project’ – is Peacock already being edged out of the picture at this point?

Item 4 would seem to correspond to PriceWaterhouse Coopers invoices which I referred to.  How much more money has been spent on PWC since this May 2011 exchange is unknown.

From what I have been subsequently sent by Scottish Enterprise, the bulk of the invoices at Item 5 were from the Aberdeen & Grampian Chamber of Commerce to the City Council.  In the words of Scottish Enterprise:-

  • 9 invoices relate to financial year 2009/10 – these total £51,766.60
  • 16 invoices relate to financial year 2010/11 – these total £36,692.95. This total is higher than the original figure stated due to the invoices received after the date of that response
  • There has been no spend on the City Garden Project from the ACSEF budget during the current financial year  (SK notes – it is only February – there is time)

(source – Scottish Enterprise email to Suzanne Kelly February 2012)

Arguably a mere £88,459 is small change as Aberdeen City contemplates borrowing £92,000,000 (minimum) if the project goes ahead. However, this is money which the City paid from its own budgets – it is taxpayer money.  Should a financially-pressured city use pubic money for propaganda purposes – PR, events and photos designed to promote the City Garden Project?  Is the Wood Family Trust contributing any money towards these expenses yet?  I simply do not know.

A spreadsheet of the expenses comprising Item 5 can be found online at http://oldsusannahsjournal.yolasite.com/  I would recommend looking at these 50 or so items.

If you look at the wording in the table above, ACSEF is apparently approving this expenditure.  ACSEF is a public-private quango, and at the time of writing, Stewart Milne is on its board.  He owns the Triple Kirks land adjacent to Union Terrace Gardens, and he wants to turn this landmark into an office complex which will likely enrich him if it goes ahead in my opinion.

Despite several emails, no one in a position of power has the slightest qualm with Mr Milne potentially having a conflict of interest.    Why precisely ACSEF is allowed to commission and recommend for payment invoices to the City Council is a matter I personally find worrying.

Virtually none of the invoices from the Chamber to the City specify who / what company actually performed the services in question.  What company got all the PR work?  Who took the photos?  I do note that Zoe Corsi of the BIG Partnership is on the Chamber’s Board of Directors – as are other key players such as Tom Smith, one of the two directors of the private entity, Aberdeen City Gardens Trust.  This company seems to be in the thick of the decision-making processes; it is apparently the company which is holding onto the results of the design finalist public vote – which it refuses to release at present.

The taxpayer apparently paid for that exhibition and the public vote – and yet a private company seems to be withholding the results.  The argument has been put forth that it is no longer relevant.  Many people took the opportunity to write on the voting papers that they were against all the schemes and wanted the gardens retained and improved.

The public should have had this ‘no’ option at the final selection vote, but it seems councillors who asked for a ‘no’ option were outmoded by the Project Management Board (note – see the website listed previously for details of how all these companies and entities have interesting personnel overlaps).

It may be of interest to accountants that the party which actually performed the work not specified on these invoices, and with only a rare exception is VAT ever charged.  It would be interesting to know whether or not the Chamber of Commerce adds any fees or commission charges to the work it is invoicing the City for.

Highlights of the list of invoices include:-

  • £180 paid for a photograph showing ‘inaccessibility of Union Terrace Gardens’
  • over  £25,000 paid for ‘Stakeholder engagement’ events and so on since October 2009 to August 2010
  • £3500 paid to ‘Comedia’ for Charles Landry to attend event / speak
  • Redacted line items and handwritten notes adorn several of the invoices
  • One invoice – No. 42407 shows only one line relating to ‘coach hire’ – this is £246.  However, the total shown on this one page invoice is for £7444 – what has happened?
  • A January 2010 Advertising bill from Aberdeen Press & Journals for £ 2,820 ( See: http://fraserdenholm.blogspot)
  • £11,000 in February 2010 charged from the Chamber to the City for “Development of images, movie, powerpoint and exhibition material for City Square Project as per attached sheets”

As to the redacted text on the invoices, redacted text has started showing up in Project Monitoring  Board minutes and reports again, despite Councillor McCaig’s previous intervention to cease this practice.  One company which has had its name redacted from recent documentation is Brodies.

The value of three Brodies invoices which I received copies of is around £12,000.  One of these invoices from April 2011 is for:

“City Gardens Project – Development Constraints Report (Legal  [sic] To fee for professional services in connection with the preparation of a development constraints report relating to the title of Union Terrace Gardens, Aberdeen, and surrounding land.”

I suppose our City’s in-house legal department cannot be expected to know whether or not it has free title to Union Terrace Gardens.   Happily, experts have demonstrated the land is Common Good Land.  As such, whether any of these garden projects can or should be legitimately carried out will be a big question in the future.

Earlier we saw how ACSEF was allowed to recommend these expenditures; we have seen how the Chamber of Commerce invoices the City for ACSEF-approved costs.  If we were to put in some of the over-lapping names from ACSEF and the Chamber of Commerce into the equation, we would be able to see that:

ACSEF [including Stewart Milne, Jennifer Craw (of Wood Family Trust), Tom Smith (Director, Aberdeen City Gardens Trust), Colin Crosby (Director, Aberdeen City Gardens Trust), Callum McCaig (ACC) ]

approved invoices generated by the Aberdeen & Grampian Chamber of Commerce [Colin Crosby; Zoe Corsi (BIG Partnership) , former director Tom Smith]

for the City Council [Callum McCaig]

to approve to further the aims of the Garden Project (CGP entity members include John Michie, Colin Crosby, Jennifer Craw).

Given the above, I suggest that the time is right for an entire re-think of how this project has been allowed to develop, and a full investigation into the demise of the Peacock plan and an investigation into the genesis of the current state of affairs might not be a bad idea as well.

While this is going on, a local care home has announced it will no longer provide 24/7 on-site staff as there is not enough money.  Residents were told to drink less fluids at night time.

Feb 222012
 

With Thanks to Rt.Hon. George Maloney III ( CEO Open Spaces UnLtd. )

The following contains a reply to some feedback Open Spaces Unltd received through youtube. Open Spaces UnLtd were recently contacted by a person by the name of Knabzco. After watching our Option 7 Campaign video Knabzco offered his/her opinion on our campaign.

“Well, at 499 views, I’d say you’ve probably impressed enough people to swing the vote. Not. Fucking bellend. Grow up.” – Knabzco

Open Spaces Unltd values highly any customer feedback, so without hesitation we responded.

“Dear Knabzco, thank you very much for your feedback on our campaign. The board are considering your comments and will send through their reply in due course. We are proud of our proposal and feel honoured that you would take 2 minutes out of your very busy day to send us your insightful words. You are most welcome to arrange a meeting with one of our managers if you would like to talk further about our wonderful company.

Much love to you

Kisses xxx”

 Mr/Mrs/Ms Knabzco graciously continued the dialogue.

“I just find it incredibly arrogant of some people who are prepared to turn down an offer of 50 million pounds to bring their city centre back to life. There are towns and cities throughout the UK and Ireland which would bite your hand off for such an amazing offer. Sad. Really sad to see. I sincerely hope that common sense will prevail and the majority vote yes. If they’re retained, tell me, what will the Gardens look like in 10, 20 years time?”  – Knabzco

Our CEO, Rt.Hon George Maloney III provided Mr/Mrs.Knabzco with a personal response.

Dear Mr/Mrs/Ms Knabzco

Thank you for getting in touch again Mr. Knabzco. We at Open Spaces Unltd feel that we cannot speak for the citizens of Aberdeen as we are an unlimited company but I would, speaking as an individual of course, like to offer my thoughts on the issue.

Our feedback analysis actually found the “arrogant” ones to be those in our society who have no regard for democracy or decency. I suspect, again speaking as an individual, that this result pertains to the veil of secrecy that surrounds the project.

Aberdonians do not respond well to threats, especially when they are being threatened by those who completely ignored their feedback forms.

 I suspect that consumers in the city are unsatisfied with their choice of local quangos given that our foremost economic advisory body ACSEF, a board of millionaire businessmen with only 2 elected representatives, appears to have unrestrained influence over the economic direction in which our city is being driven. I also suspect that consumers are unsatisfied with the matter of public consultations.

In this particular case, consumers have been consulted twice and have, both times, called for the retention of the gardens.

Additionally, our Public Relations Department found that citizens did not care much for the marketing strategies of the pro-CGP teams. They felt that they had been delivered an ultimatum, a threat, if you will. Our research shows that Aberdonians do not respond well to threats, especially when they are being threatened by those who completely ignored their feedback forms.

I, again speaking as a citizen of the Granite City, feel that the public have been offered very little in the way of information about the funding mechanisms. The TIF scheme has a very blotted copy book and I wonder if the public aren’t beginning to get a little restless about the details.

Our team has, through vigorous investigation, shown that the consumers tend towards anti-austerity views. They felt that the Scottish Government were changing the rules of the game halfway through.

It was pointed out to me by one of our most esteemed clients that the original TIF pilot scheme only included funding for 6 schemes, but when the ACC scheme was not recommended by the Scottish Futures Trust (a body appointed by the government to scrutinize TIF applications and make recommendations on the sensibility of the business case to the government) to Holyrood, ministers decided that they might be able to find an extra £92 million to finance said initiative.

I suspect that the public, in these terrible times of austerity, simply feel that spending such money is not prudent, especially when one considers the number of budgets and services which are currently being liquidated and how that might affect the most vulnerable in our society.

Money does appear, at least to many people, to be buying opinion.

The final point I’d like make is that, according to our telephone survey, the public felt the referendum itself might be undemocratic. Many participants raised concerns about the funding of a group called the ‘Vote for the City Gardens Project’.

They felt that, as it had not registered as an official campaign organisation, it may be spending far more than the £8000 allowed to official campaign groups.

It was stated that the playing field was not very level. Especially when the Facebook page revealed that 50 anonymous business people (who have more money than the average campaigner) were behind the venture. Many of our participants had become disillusioned by and tired of the constant stream of Royal Mail-delivered pro-CGP propaganda dropping though their doors. The flyers, newspapers, radio adverts, videos and pro-CGP media were all identified as major concerns throughout the survey.

Money does appear, at least to many people, to be buying opinion. The pro-UTG groups simply do not have the funds that this unregistered group enjoy, and as a result the debate is not fair or balanced. I fear that such disregard for public opinion will lead to consumers simply withdrawing their savings from the confidence-in-business-elites­-and-ACC bank and will oblige them to look for other ways to run their society.

I hope my humble offering has helped to shed some light on those “arrogant” people who may not be fully supportive of your personal view.

Thanks again, and please do not hesitate to contact us if there is anything else we can do for you.

George Maloney III

Feb 222012
 

Aberdeen is a city on a downward slide. That makes for uncomfortable reading, doesn’t it? Our gut instinct, being the proud city we are, is to reject this notion out of hand, though deep down we all know it is true, says Graeme Campbell.

The cause of the rot is not easy to identify. Opinions will differ and any debate would most likely be fierce. It is perhaps best to say the gradual slip in the condition of our once grand and glorious city can be pigeon-holed to two vague categories – poor planning and the slow decline of the energy sector.
Or perhaps over-dependence on it? Two and a half pigeon holes then.

So, avoiding any unhelpful debate surrounding the way we arrived at this point, we must as a city look forward to the best possible route to a future of prosperity. We must look for a plan to return grandeur and pride to the Granite City. 

Our carefully-selected councillors, together with possibly our most successful loon, Sir Ian Wood and the private partnership Aberdeen City and Shire Economic Futures (ACSEF) think the solution to the gradual slip is a new garden. Not exclusively a garden you understand, but a garden with conferencing facilities and a café. To give all credit due, the plans certainly are impressive and whilst perhaps not so impressive in keeping with the architectural fabric of the city, we are, of course, a city not afraid of change.

In the most recent release posted through all city letterboxes, Aberdonians are directed by a host of interested parties to the key point, “You deserve it!” Well yes, most likely. But oddly, relegated to fifth, is what will be the key point for most Aberdonians. Once again we don’t want to admit this but we’re all thinking it, “We can afford it”.

Will Aberdeen City be pushed to the very brink of bankruptcy by this plan, as happened when the city took the bold decision, so long ago, to construct our now famous Union Street granite mile? Probably not. Of course, Sir Ian’s mammoth oil wealth will go some way to meeting the cost of development on the site – and only on this site, he has been quite clear on that point – the further estimated £100m will come from business rates, council tax – of course – and the heinously-complex Scottish Governmental TIF funding mechanism.

Now nobody wishes to be bored to tears by the inane workings of a TIF, so let’s not worry about that. Instead, let’s find out what other places are using TIF to create.

  • North Lanarkshire plans to spend £73m to transform the former Ravenscraig steel site, an area of quite unrivalled deprivation, to the benefit of the many people who live in the area.
  • Argyll and Bute is to extend the North Pier at Oban for £20m, further securing the town’s position as Gateway to the Islands, a major boon to the tourist industry no doubt.
  • Falkirk plans to use its TIF in a far less grand manner, by bringing about strategic road developments and improving the flood defences. Clearly a sound decision.

But the plans which should be of most interest to any outward-looking Aberdonian comfortably seated in Europe’s oil capital, come from Fife. The council there is to spend its modest £17m TIF improving vehicle and marine access to the already-thriving Energy Park Fife, where renewables are already being constructed. I know, that’s not oil, but it is very real, so let’s not sneer. Not content with this, Fife has also begun construction of the Levenmouth Low Carbon Investment Park which is set to become ‘Scotland’s foremost energy park’.

Whilst in Aberdeen we plan to spend £150m on a garden and café.

Is anyone else embarrassed? Our great city, the economic powerhouse of Scotland, is being distracted by plants and trees whilst other towns are going green in a wholly more financially-sound way. This city has the engineering and science skills, brought by the oil industry and our two modern and diverse universities, to become a world leader in the renewables field.

You don’t need to do the math to know a research and development centre, alongside a manufacturing park would be of significantly greater financial gain to the city than the redevelopment of a garden.

This brings us to the question – has the Council considered this? Understandably, Sir Ian may not be keen, but this is about so much more than the oil empires held by the few; this is about the continuing prosperity of the many.

So, as the ballot papers find their way to you, look around the city. Look for the signs of the rot brought about by poor management by those who, for too long, have only looked inwards – decision makers enjoying the security of the formerly-booming local oil industry.

Consider what the world, given the current environmental and economic climate, would look to Aberdeen for. Horticultural tips? A show in our new 5000-seat outdoor amphitheatre? Or will they look to Europe’s ENERGY Capital to lead the way to a bright new future of renewable energy? And then, as our city leads the world in technological advancement in the renewables field we will look forward to investment, to jobs and to success.

When the ballot paper lands on your doormat, consider what Aberdonians truly deserve and ensure your vote lets our council know just what you want for your future.

Feb 202012
 

Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire Green Party is to complain to Aberdeen City Council over mistakes in the mailing and online information for voters in the Union Terrace Gardens referendum. Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire Green Party is one of seven groups participating in the referendum process in support of retaining Union Terrace Gardens. With thanks to Martin Ford.

As a registered ‘campaigning organisation’, the Green Party was entitled to have a 300-word statement included in the information pack sent out to voters. However, in the information posted out to voters by the City Council, about half of the Green Party’s statement is missing. Only the first five paragraphs are there, while the last six paragraphs are omitted.

There is also a word missing from the half of the statement that is included. The contact information given for the Party is not the contact information provided to the City Council for use in the referendum mailing.

Voters in the referendum can vote online at:
www.votesecurely.com/aberdeen

The statements provided by the various registered campaigning organisations are also included in the online information. As with the printed information sent to voters by post, about half the Green Party’s statement is missing.

It is reported that some of the statement submitted by Aberdeen Against Austerity, another campaigning organisation in favour of retaining Union Terrace Gardens, is also missing from the online information for voters. Another two statements run into one another without a break, so could appear to be one statement.

Commenting, the vice-convenor of Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire Green Party, Rhonda Reekie, said:

“I find it quite incredible that multiple mistakes could have been made in the referendum mailing. Wasn’t the material proof read? Even the most cursory check would surely have revealed that six whole paragraphs were missing from our statement.

“This is not good enough. This referendum is important and must be fairly and competently conducted. What has happened is not fair.

“Errors on this scale amount to gross incompetence by the City Council. The Green Party will be complaining to the Council in the strongest terms.”

The Green Party’s full statement can be read by voters on the party’s own website:
http://aberdeen.scottishgreens.org.uk/    

Contacts:  

Rhonda Reekie 01224 714135;
Martin Ford 01224 790052.

Feb 192012
 

TIF – doesn’t this American innovation in borrowing just sound fantastic?  You get to ‘unlock’ money, re-develop an area, and money comes flooding in.  What could be wrong with that?  Karin Flavill looks across the pond to the home of the junk bond and bad mortgages, and doesn’t like what she sees.

While arguments rage over the future of Union Terrace Gardens, there’s consensus about one thing.  Tax Increment Funding is a somewhat difficult concept to get to grips with.  Not because the basic definition is complex.

TIF funds development by borrowing against future business tax gains arising as a consequence of that development.   New developments mean new business rates.  The local authority keeps a portion of those business rates (from businesses that wouldn’t have moved into the area but for the development) to repay the loan.

The complexity arises in assessing how this mechanism can be applied in a manner that avoids various potential pitfalls.  TIF is still very much in the experimental stages in the UK, so we lack a domestic reference point to understand how well the process is likely to work from start to finish.

When business is attracted from one area to another by a TIF funded development, it may be at the expense of another area.  This is known as “displacement”.   The area benefiting from TIF is pleased to lure business away with its spanking new TIF-funded development.  The region losing out wants some protection against financial detriment.

The TIF scheme provides that tax increment coming at the expense of another region can’t be retained by the local authority to make TIF repayments.  Like other NDRs, those increments must be sent to Central Government who will pool them with other funds then redistribute the funds equitably among regions.

Rather than being a tool to give cities a competitive edge and win City of Culture status for celebrated developments (the vision currently being promoted in CGP supporters’ referendum campaigns), TIF was first developed in the US as a means of helping regions to improve their most blighted areas.    Gradual shifts away from this philosophy, and increasingly creative ways of arguing blight, have led to many states in the US tightening up legislation to prevent TIF from being awarded except where genuine blight is demonstrated.

Chicago is often cited as example of the TIF scheme being misused to benefit the areas that least need it.  In August last year, a report was released outlining areas for improvement in the operation of TIF in that city.  The report highlighted problems regarding the monitoring of TIF expenditure.

Taxpayers had not been afforded easy access to information that would help them understand the TIF process or to evaluate the performance of the investment.   This reduced transparency of the process.

  although the initial cost proposed was $224.3 million, ultimately the park cost $482.4 million

The harder it is for the ordinary citizen to understand the TIF process and to evaluate the success of the development it funds, the greater the potential for corruption and abuse of the process by those who do understand it, and who can make it work to their own advantage.

That some will seek and gain an advantage through cronyism is an unfortunate element of life from which no city is immune.

In the 1990s, Chicago Mayor Daley (no relation to Arthur) developed a strong attachment to a project that would come to be known as Millennium Park.  A 16-acre landscape situated over an underground parking structure, it was built on top of Railroad tracks in an existing park called Grant Park.  The architect involved was Frank Gehry who had won international acclaim for the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.  The Chicago Tribune enthused that:

“The most celebrated architect in the world may soon have a chance to bring Chicago into the 21st Century”.

The park has certainly won many admirers worldwide and is, in many ways, an excellent model for what the City Garden supporters are hoping that project will become.   Properties in the immediate surrounds have become very fashionable and have increased significantly in value.

For others there has been a hefty price tag.  For example, although the initial cost proposed was $224.3 million, ultimately the park cost $482.4 million.  The park has come at a very high price to Chicago residents in terms of cuts to funding of public services and job cuts that were necessitated by the cost of the park.  Salt is rubbed into the wound, on occasion, when the park is closed to the public so that corporate functions may be held there.

During and after the building of the park, Mayor Daley was frequently criticised for alleged cronyism in the awarding of contracts.   Other areas of the city continued to deteriorate, while their inhabitants observed the increasing wealth and prosperity of those parts of the city that benefited from TIF funded schemes.
Areas that never suffered from true blight in the first place, but which were a focus of interest for developers, politicians, owners of business premises and others who could make the TIF scheme work for them.

In some ways it’s puzzling that we, supposedly a far more socialist nation than the US, are applying a model of TIF so similar to that model which states in the US have been increasingly trying to move away from by drafting legislation that aims to help TIF function in accordance with its original aims.

There has always been a tendency for conservatives to condemn the poor for their reliance on state sponsored welfare, but in recent years have people started questioning more vigorously the exploitation of taxpayer financed schemes by the some of the biggest players in business (players who have traditionally, but not always accurately, been lauded for their self-sufficiency).

TIF deserves close attention for its potential to increase this problem.  Failure to know, or care about, the original philosophy of TIF leaves us less alert to its potential for misuse that could worsen existing inequalities in our society.

The UK version of TIF springs from recommendations in a 2008 report by PWC and Core Group Cities for an alternative method of funding developments in core group cities (the 8 largest regional cities in England).   The report is here.  

It begins with commentary on the economic successes of the core group cities, and highlights continuing problems relating to unemployment and deprivation in some neighbourhoods.    It states an aim to “rejuvenate communities, provide new employment opportunities and stimulate further economic growth.”

  Promoters of the CGP dismiss the possibility of serious overspending as scaremongering

The report then discusses the increasing political emphasis on a devolved approach to economic  development .   A defining aspect of TIF is that it permits local authorities greater autonomy in the matter of funding developments once they have been granted the TIF loan.

For this to happen, they must submit a detailed business plan to the SFT who make recommendations to central government regarding feasibility.

PWC, having been involved in the UK version of TIF from its conception, is ideally positioned  to assist local authorities with the preparation and submission of their business plans.  Finance and Resources Committee meeting minutes from September 2010 discuss PWC’s remit in preparing a TIF business plan for approval by the SFT.  The minutes refer to several important city projects the Council would wish to progress, whether or not the City Garden project went ahead.
See: https://docs.google.com …committees.aberdeencity …pwc+tif+business+plan

“The terms of PWC’s assignment make it clear that they are required to produce a business case that ensures zero financial risk for the Council.”

The Council states that it will make no financial contribution to the City Garden Project.  The development must be funded wholly by private contributions and by the TIF loan and completed within the budget.

Promoters of the CGP dismiss the possibility of serious overspending as scaremongering.  Chicago’s Millennium Park experience demonstrates, however, how this can and does happen.   As a response to such concerns, Sir Ian Wood has pledged an extra £35 million.   It’s not clear what will happen if the cost exceeds this.

Despite ACC’s insistence that PWC present a business case involving zero risk to the Council, the draft business case completed in January of this year contains no such promise.  It focuses on minimising risk and balancing the risks involved in carrying out the project against the risks involved in doing nothing.

Outlining the need to attract investment and talented professionals to Aberdeen to assure future prosperity, the plan refers particularly to the energy industry.  Due to the oil and gas industry being regarded as the primary targets for investment in Aberdeen, and Aberdeen’s existing status as the main centre in Scotland for this industry, PWC anticipate displacement being low (10%).   A low anticipated displacement figure is essential for arguing the likely success of a business plan.

  PWC appears to anticipate investment by that industry increasing in Aberdeen, alongside the increasing depletion of oil and gas reserves

Work is expected to be completed over a 5 year period beginning this year, with TIF borrowing being carried out in stages (the first draw down taking place in 2014).  The proposed development is expected to create approximately 2 million square feet of commercial space and to speed up the development of a further 1.4 million square feet of commercial space.

The CCRS (City Centre Regeneration Scheme) predicts 6,500 new jobs resulting from the development.  It should be noted, though, that that figure is a “by 2039” prediction.

The business plan states:

“Oil and gas reserves will run out over time, perhaps 30 years, and Aberdeen is looking ahead. It knows it needs to adapt its industrial base and re-examine how it creates wealth and prosperity.   Aberdeen is confident it can do so.”

This project is to be completed in 2017, and its success relies significantly on a very low displacement figure of 10%.  In presenting this figure PWC relies on the oil and gas industry, already present in Aberdeen (and therefore not being taken from other areas) being the main sources of increased investment in Aberdeen.   Confusingly, PWC appears to anticipate investment by that industry increasing in Aberdeen, alongside the increasing depletion of oil and gas reserves in the North Sea.

Perhaps in anticipation of confusion about this assertion, much is made of the possibilities relating to renewable energy – an industry Aberdeen must embrace and develop expertise in, regardless of Donald Trump’s views.  The question is whether developments in other areas area will not only compensate for the steadily diminishing presence of the oil industry, but expand to the point where the business plan can work as anticipated.

Regarding the City Garden proposed as a replacement for UTG, the report comments…

“While there is no direct benefit the fact that the City Gardens Project becomes a reality and underpins the CCRS will benefit Aberdeen’s wider population and business community.”

During a recent BBC Scotland debate, campaigner Mike Shepherd (a geologist with years of experience in, and expert knowledge of, the energy sector) was shouted down and jeered at by pro CGP hecklers.  The latter have tended to define opponents of the City Garden Project as tree-huggers and luddites who will be crushed by the wheels of change.   UTG has also been described, throughout the debate, as a dangerous area…despite police reports indicating far lower crime levels in UTG than in surrounding street level areas.

The debate has often been an acrimonious one, featuring conflicts of various kinds.  Already the TIF pilot scheme in the UK form originally advocated by PWC has brought deep divisions to Aberdeen.  It seems set to be promoting a cheerfully unapologetic attitude, amongst some in our community, with regard to social exclusion.

A popularly cited reason for getting rid of UTG is that this will also rid the city centre of people with drug and alcohol related problems.   Presumably, relegating them to more blighted areas that would, were TIF being applied in a manner consistent with its original aims, be the areas actually benefiting from this scheme.

 

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 172012
 

Voice has learned that Aberdeen’s allotment holders may well be close to resolving their long- running dispute with Aberdeen City Council. The swingeing increases imposed in the Council’s 2008 and 2009 budgets have added 152% to bills in a 12 month period for some gardeners. With thanks to Frank Taylor.

Readers may recall that Finance Minister John Swinney confirmed to local MSP Dr Nanette Milne that a local authority would not be entitled to collect rent under regulations which had not been formally confirmed by Scottish Ministers in terms of the Allotment (Scotland) Act 1892.
Regulations made under this provision have no legal effect without ministerial confirmation.

Aberdeen City Council maintained that legally it can to choose whether or not to make regulations for its allotments. Allotment holders do not dispute this, but when the Council claims it has chosen not to make regulations, allotment holders do dispute this.

The allotment holders feel that irrespective of what the Council says it has chosen to do, it has in fact made regulations, but by choosing not to have them confirmed by ministers, the Council has no legal right to enforce these.

The dispute is now at the Sheriff Court as the Council has raised proceedings against Frank Taylor, secretary of Bucksburn Allotments Association. Mr Taylor eventually lost patience with the Council, withheld the rent for his allotments and challenged the Council to raise proceedings against him for recovery of rent and possession to allow the Court to clarify the issues.

Mr taylor told Voice that he did not encourage the Council to raise proceedings against him ‘without a great deal of thought and soul-searching’. There are extremely serious consequences for him should the Court find against him. He may have to surrender possession of his allotments and be found liable for the Council’s costs as well as his own.

He is, however, extremely confident in the merits of his arguments.

The term ‘regulations’ is not defined in the allotments legislation and it is a well-established legal principle in such circumstances, that an undefined word shall be interpreted according to its normal and ordinary meaning.

‘Regulation’ is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘a rule or directive made and maintained by an authority’. Aberdeen City Council is a local authority.  So, has ACC made any rules for the management of its allotments?

Before being granted tenancy, Aberdeen allotment holders are required to indicate their acceptance of a list of conditions in the Council’s ‘Conditions of Let’ letter. Mr Taylor has provided us with a copy and points out that ‘rule’ is a synonym of ‘Condition’ in the Oxford Thesaurus of English.

That seems to put the issue beyond doubt, especially since the Council in its own Condition 9, refers to that condition as ‘a rule’.
To reinforce his views, Mr Taylor says it is evident that the conditions imposed upon him are used to

  1. Set the rent payable in terms of the contract and the date on which the initial rent is payable
  2. Make a direction as to when the rent shall be reviewed and the dates on which future rents shall be payable
  3. Govern the circumstances under which the landlord is entitled to resume possession
  4. Direct who shall be entitled to assess compensation to a tenant on outgo and restrict the right of any other person to input into that process
  5. Direct how the tenancy may be terminated by a tenant
  6. Restrict the entitlement of a tenant to transfer the tenancy
  7. Limit the use to which a tenant may put an allotment and restrict him/her from keeping livestock
  8. Regulate the dimensions and type of hut that a tenant may seek to erect and control where it may be situated
  9. Direct that a tenant may be removed if he does not achieve the required standard of husbandry.

The terms used – ‘manage’, ‘administer’, ‘set’, ‘govern’, ‘restrict’, ‘limit’, ‘direct’ and ‘control’ – are all synonyms of ‘regulate’. There is no doubt that every condition in the Conditions of Let letters regulates, or has the effect of regulating, matters pertaining to the management and administration of allotments owned and let by a local authority.

So has Aberdeen City Council made regulations for its allotments? Has the Council made a regulation by setting a rent? Will a Court disagree with Mr Taylor? He is confident of winning the case..

The Council’s Court Action has been founded on Conditions or an alleged breach thereof.  If the Court decides that these Conditions are Regulations, then the local authority’s Court Action will automatically fail.

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.