Apr 222016
LONDON, ENGLAND - JUNE 08: The Brutalist Playground is the latest work by Turner Prize nominees Assemble with artist Simon Terrill at the RIBA on June 8, 2015 in London, England. The installation is open free to the public from 10 June to 16 August at the Architecture Gallery, RIBA, London. (Photo by Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for The Royal Institue Of British Architects (RIBA))

The Brutalist Playground is the latest work by Turner Prize nominees Assemble with artist Simon Terrill (Photo by Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for The Royal Institue Of British Architects)

With thanks to John Morrison.

Peacock Visual Arts is delighted to host The Brutalist Playground by recent Turner Prize winners Assemble, and artist Simon Terrill, exploring post-war design for play, as part of Look Again Visual Art & Design Festival.

Brutalism was an architectural movement of the 1950s-70s, which aligned with a new socialist agenda.

Buildings were fortress-like in form, often of grand monolithic scale and designed to bring function to the flow of people populating them.

As such, Brutalism was predominately found in municipal buildings, educational institutions, shopping centres and high-rise housing. It is from the high-rise housing schemes and their surrounding social spaces and playgrounds that The Brutalist Playground takes its inspiration.

By recreating the post-war playground structures in soft pastel coloured foam The Brutalist Playground is an immersive and climbable installation – fun for all ages!

The installation was originally commissioned in 2015 by the Royal Institute of British Architects’ (RIBA) and is accompanied by a film made by Simon Terrill using archival images from the RIBA’s archive

The Brutalist Playground is the centrepiece of Aberdeen’s Look Again Festival 2016, which celebrates bringing the very best in visual art and design to the city.

Assemble is a collective based in London which works across the fields of art, architecture and design. Its 18 members began working together in 2010. Assemble seeks to address the typical disconnection between public and the process by which public places are made championing a working practice that is interdependent and collaborative, seeking to involve the public as both participant and collaborator in the on-going realisation of the work.

Simon Terrill is an Australian artist living in London who works with photography, performance, sculpture, and installation as well as large-scale public works involving many hundreds of participants. He began working with Splinters Theatre in Canberra and went on to co-found Snuff Puppets Inc, a travelling performance troupe.

Following a BA in Sculpture and MA in Fine Art at the Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne, he lectured in Critical and Historical Studies (2005-08) and at the Centre for Ideas (2003-08), both at the VCA. In 2008, Terrill was awarded the Samstag International Visual Arts Scholarship that enabled him to spend a year at the Slade in London. Recent exhibitions include Tilt, Sutton Gallery Melbourne, The Piranesi Effect, Ian Potter Museum of Art, Balfron Project II, 2 Willow Road, National Trust Ernő Goldfinger Museum.

Upcoming is the Creative Connections commission at the National Portrait Gallery that will feature the ninth iteration of his on-going Crowd Theory project, a series of photographic performance works which have previously featured sites including Balfron Tower (2010), the Port of Melbourne (2008), and Adelaide’s Victoria Square /Tarntanyangga (2013).

He is represented by Sutton Gallery, Melbourne and The Fine Art Society Contemporary, London, and currently lectures in photography theory at London South Bank University. In 2012, the publisher M.33 produced a monograph of his work titled Proscenium.

The Brutalist Playground:

Date: 28 April – 29 May 2016
Location: Peacock Visual Arts, Aberdeen.

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Jan 212016

By Duncan Harley.

Book_Cover_Douglas_Harper_Rivers Railways, Ravines

River, Railway, Ravine by Douglas Harper. A well researched and engaging publication.

At 164pp and profusely illustrated with both period and contemporary images Douglas Harper’s new book examines both the provenance and the history of the patented, made in Aberdeen, Harper and Co rigid suspension bridge.

Until now little documented, the Harper bridges were among the first suspension bridge designs – not to be confused with the ‘Shakkin’ Briggies’ well known in the NE – to employ steel wire rope in order to form a relatively rigid and therefore highly functional bridge.

Harpers manufactured over sixty such bridges for export throughout the British Empire between 1870 and 1910.

Douglas, a direct descendant of the original bridge engineers, has spent over a decade researching the company’s innovative designs and seeking out surviving examples.

The mid 19th century was a period of rapid industrial growth both in the north east of Scotland and throughout the British Empire. The boom times of railway expansion had opened up new markets and stimulated engineering innovation on a scale rarely seen before.

From humble beginnings supplying the likes of the Great North of Scotland Railway’s seemingly insatiable demand for cast iron fence posts and level-crossing gates, Harpers’ were soon exporting caste-iron pre-fabricated pedestrian suspension bridges right across the globe.

Engineered and manufactured in kit form at their Aberdeen foundry and using innovative techniques gleaned from long experience in the designing of fences, Harper’s products required little local engineering expertise to either assemble or construct, making them popular choices in developing countries. These instantly recognisable and iconic bridges – with spans of up to 91m – provided many decades of service in places as diverse as Nepal, South Africa and even the Falkland Islands.

In his book Douglas details over 60 of Harper’s bridges including those erected in the UK, throughout the Empire and also in Estonia. Several are, he writes, still in use including one on the River Muick at Birkhall and another on the River Feugh at Banchory.

This is a well researched and engaging publication and quite literally a riveting read!

Sources include records held by Aberdeen Maritime Museum, the Harper Archive at Aberdeen Museum and Robert Gordon University. Written with the general reader in mind, Gordon’s book will also appeal to engineering enthusiasts and many historians.

River, Railway and Ravine is published in hardback by The History Press at £20

ISBN 978-0-7509-6213-1

First Published in the November edition of Leopard Magazine

Oct 312014

Voice’s Old Susannah takes a look over the past week’s events in the ‘Deen and beyond. By Suzanne Kelly.

DictionaryTally Ho! And Happy Christmas and Season’s greetings while I’m at it. Halloween costumes sit next to Christmas cards in all the stores; hope you’ve finished writing  your cards and wrapping your presents.

Despite this being the season of peace on earth, good will to men, etc, etc. there seem to be a few bad-tempered people patrolling Aberdeen’s vibrant streets these days; quite a departure from the peaceful scenes we’re used to.

One man seems to have been provoked past endurance of late at the Bridge of Don area.

I’m sure the disagreement he had with a lady must have been over a spectacularly important issue, as he concluded his best course of action was to use his car to pin her to another car.

To be fair, he did threaten her with his staffie first (I’m sure that dog must have a great existence), so she should have backed down. When he gets his eventual day in court all will become clear.

Elsewhere a man jumped a street sweeper on the green (or Merchant Quarter if you prefer). I’m certain the cleaner must have started it. Believe it or not, drink may have been involved. All was caught on camera by a nearby restaurant mogul who stepped in to stop the beating. Never step into a violent fight; you may risk getting hurt. Do call the police ASAP – and ensure you film all either for a court case or better yet, for youtube.

And for all those people who violently oppose restrictions on air rifles and bb guns, a champion arises. Thirty something (age, not IQ) Aleksandrs Kolosovs apparently said he might shoot a judge after bringing an air gun to an Aberdeen pub.

Our gunslinger was in court charged with threatening to shoot a judge and having an offensive weapon – a BB air gun – in his possession at the East Neuk Bar in Aberdeen. Good tempered Kolosovs is also accused of assaulting a man earlier this year who was shot twice in the head.

Remember, as we’re so often told, guns don’t kill people, people kill people.  Of course if  you make it easy for violent tempered people to get guns, it makes it that much easier for them to kill people. Remember, having a weapon that can maim or kill is within your reach and you’re allowed to have them.

Funny though that on hearsay, Dod Copeland had his flat trashed and was taken into custody because some unknown witnesses said he had a rifle inside his flat. These witnesses must have peered (with no reason) into the flat which is off the beaten track, seen a gun, decided it could not have been an air gun or BB gun, convinced the police to launch a massive raid, and thereby trashing Copeland’s home and health.

Let’s not forget that the police later wanted Copeland to say that his feather duster looked like an assault rifle; a mistake any serving police officer could have made when lauching a siege on an empty property. So let’s leave our excellent, clear-cut gun laws as they are, and let’s let the police escalate if they want.  What possible harm can come of it?

He’ll see first hand how transformational the hand of Donald Trump has been

Thankfully there are tales of great generosity to balance things out.

The largess of Scottish Enterprise with our tax money to some big companies is particularly heartwarming.

There may be a small conflict of interest given that a Scottish Enterprise executive had shares in some of these companies, but nothing for us to worry about (more on that later).

Alicia Bruce had a wonderful reception at Woodend barn where her new photographs following a residency there were adored by all visitors. A few Menie Estate residents were on hand; her portraits of these people which mirror well-known paintings have become world famous. The Moorings continues to bring excellent music legends our way; The Men They  Couldn’t Hang and the Anti Nowhere League being recent guests.

Easter Anguston Farm had some Halloween celebrations, and Old Susannah bought a wonderful pumpkin from their shop.

But the big news this week is all the leadership changes and challenges taking place. Exit Alex Salmond, who will now have more time to spend with his constituents.

His overdue visit to the Menie Estate residents will no doubt be scheduled soon. He’ll see first hand how transformational the hand of Donald Trump has been, and if he acts soon, he may get his hands on a discarded Trump hotel bedstead, complete with Trump family crest. Of course the actual origins of the Trump family may be open to some speculation, despite The Donald having a granny from the Western Islands.

And with that it’s time for some definitions.

Salmond: (Scottish proper noun) Former Scottish National Party Leader; MSP for Banff and Buchan.  Not to be confused with Alex Salmon, as Wikipedia advises.

I’m tempted to swallow the bait and do some fish jokes about Salmond and Sturgeon, but we’ve already done that, so I’ll clam up. Apparently some readers find bad puns give them a haddock, but I do like to throw some in now and then for the halibut.

Always reliable, Wikipedia will give you the gen on Mr Salmond. It’s been a remarkable career from independence campaign to unannounced visits during by elections to closure-threatened schools.  From dinners with the Donald to singing at Balmoral Castle. Now that he has more time to spend in his constituency, his visit to Menie will be well received indeed. It may be about a decade overdue, but he’ll be coming.

Salmond’s heir apparent (also know as Fiona to Salmond’s Shrek, as a colleague reminds me – though I can’t think why) Nicola Sturgeon is off to a flying start; she’s insisting that any referendum on EU membership continuing should be voted on by England, Wales Scotland and Ireland as individual countries, not by a UK wide vote as a whole.

Hats off to Nicola for bringing up a constitutional crisis her first fortnight on the job

Funny, when we had the independence referendum, also having impact on the future of the entire UK, she was happy for that to exclude the other 3 nations. Scotland has 5.3 million people; Wales 3 million; Ireland  4.5 million and England England 57 million .

It will be really easy to manage a vote split up by nation. Will residence outweigh place of birth? If you work in Scotland but live in England, where will you vote? No better to split everyone up, have separate votes taken, and then see if 3 of 4 countries agree and we leave – irrespective of the numbers of people involved. Hats off to Nicola for bringing up a constitutional crisis her first fortnight on the job. She’ll have her cake and eat it, too.

We really should stay in the EU; look at all the peace, stability and economic prosperity it’s brought us. Funny, the often used phrase ‘value for money’ never gets mentioned when polititicans talk about the EU.

What has the EU done for us anyway? We’ve given lots of money to countries to keep them stable, like Greece. We’ve had lots of nice farming subsidies, even if no one in Italy, Spain or Portugal can explain exactly where the money’s all gone over the years. In fact, the EU has yet to have a single one of its annual budgets successfully approved and signed off by an auditor. Whistle blowers get interesting transfers.

Carbuncle:  (English Noun)  An infection, boil or growth signaling illness; an unpleasant site (see also ‘Aberdeen’)

The Deen may somehow have lost the city of culture bid we were all so desperately praying for, but take heart! We are probably about to win something big after all. It seems no one does carbuncles quite like we do.

We are certainly ahead of the field in the Carbuncle Award list. A bit more help from our planners, title-proud officers, ACSEF  and the rest, and no one will be able to touch us. When it comes to thinking outside the box, we don’t. If it’s a glass box or a concrete box, it gets planning permission. If it’s a historic building like the Lord  Provost’s house, ignoring the importance of setting or agreeing to a few little nips and changes is fine.

If it’s a building like Westburn House, we’ll let it fall apart. If it’s an important historic site like Thomas Glover’s house, we’ll allow the trustees (including former Lord Provost Stephen) to flog the important contents, and still let the place go.  Result!

Urban Realm editor John Glenday said:

“Aberdeen has a rich granite heritage and in the Victorian era the city was built to last, sadly the same can’t be said of the flimsy, ill-considered buildings going up across the city today.

“Despite its riches Aberdeen has become the poor relation of the Scottish cities.”

Glenday is wrong; this is proved by all the city council reports that clearly state in black and white that we are forward-looking, vibrant, dynamic, etc. etc. That’s good enough for me.

See you this Christmas at the tree in Union Terrace Gardens, surrounded again no doubt by guards, festive people barricades and holiday anti-climb paint. Perhaps Rockefeller Centre could learn a lesson or two from us on the real Christmas spirit.

We’ll see what happens across from Marischal College in due course; perhaps it will make us yearn for the beauty, majesty and proportion of St Nicholas House after all.

Happy  Christmas and Happy New Year! Remember, tis the season for shopping.

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[Aberdeen Voice accepts and welcomes contributions from all sides/angles pertaining to any issue. Views and opinions expressed in any article are entirely those of the writer/contributor, and inclusion in our publication does not constitute support or endorsement of these by Aberdeen Voice as an organisation or any of its team members.]

Jun 272014

David Innes reviews Hidden Aberdeenshire: The Coast by Dr Fiona-Jane Brown.

Hidden AberdeenshireHard on the heels of her well-received 2013 volume Hidden Aberdeen, Dr Brown shifts her authorial focus beyond the city boundaries to the traditional county of Aberdeenshire.

More precisely, she visits its coasts abutting the North Sea and Moray Firth, along the way unearthing tales and anecdotes from the area’s fascinating history.

An immediate tip of the hat to her for recognising that Aberdeenshire is a geographical and cultural entity, not a post-1974 local governmental fiefdom, a welcome approach for those of us who rant as Andrea or Norman refer crazily to ‘Banff, Aberdeenshire’ or ‘Gourdon, Aberdeenshire’ on STV News.

Publishing in the same pocket-friendly format as Hidden Aberdeen, and maintaining its economical but fact-packed 450-word/two-page feature format, it is, like its predecessor, extremely readable and informative. Organised in discrete geographical areas, it will be easy for readers to visit most of the places in each section in a long half day, or even less.

The excellent bibliography is a welcome additional resource for those who wish to dig a bit more deeply beyond the details in the book’s chapters.

It has been said of Hardy’s Return Of The Native that Egdon Heath, the windswept wilderness on which the action takes place, is the dominating and defining character. Whilst the sea, its shore and fertile hinterland provide the canvas, Hidden Aberdeenshire celebrates the people who have enriched history and folklore of these lands over the centuries.

Fascinating insights are given to the lives of flint miners, smugglers, heroes of shipwrecks, a war artist who chronicled the foreign exploits of TE Lawrence, Peterheid loon and unlikely Prussian hero Field Marshal James Keith and the proprietor of an ironically-named Blue Toon whorehouse.

You will warm to the outcry raised by St Fergus’s villagers when a well-meaning restorer removed the extra minute from the village clock, smile at the account of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle being given a keeker in a boxing bout aboard a Peterhead whaling boat and be reminded of how impressive a modern cultural icon is the Pennan phone box.

Just about all human life is within this extremely-readable compact volume’s pages, another triumph for the author. More please.

Hidden Aberdeenshire: The Coast
Dr Fiona-Jane Brown
Black & White Publishing
ISBN 978 1 84502 757 5
96 pp

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Jan 312014

Old Susannah aka Suzanne Kelly gets to grips with current news in the City of Culture.


The rains are lashing us, the sun never seems to shine, and I know we’re all thinking the same thing – wouldn’t it be great if we could hang around together in a civic square to celebrate.

Until such time a Toto are booked to play an outdoor show on the Sir Ian Wood Public Civic Square and Car Park, I’ll have to make do with some excellent acoustic music at BrewDog on Tuesday evenings (and the prototype beer Intersteller is rather fine, too). Congrats to BrewDog and all its 237 staff for creating some real jobs, real revenue, and of course real craft brews.

I did have a few beers to console myself – Led Zeppelin won Rock Album of the Year at the Grammys; I’d been rooting for Justin Beiber all the way. Maybe next time.

There is quite a bit of news this week, but when it comes to happenings in the Deen, I’m a bit stumped. I’ve been trying to get hold of a local newspaper all week, but when I go to the shops, I can only find architectural journals.

It seems that the most innovative thing since granite web ramps may be heading our way – we may get a glass-covered walkway and a second train station. Apparently the whole city favours these developments; how wonderful is that? The broken heart may yet be mended.

The air quality in Aberdeen may be cumulatively the worst in Scotland, according to those left wing Friends of the Earth people, but just think though – if we cover part of Union Street with a glass canopy, then we won’t have to worry about the outdoor air quality any more. I can practically hear you say ‘connectivity’ out loud, too.

I’d no idea there were so many architectural experts writing for the P&J, and yet only one architectural firm, Halliday Fraser Munro, is of sufficient merit to be worth writing about. Perhaps there are dozens of other firms employing draftsmen and designers to work for free making grand drawings and sending them to ACSEF and Aberdeen Journals hoping for cover stories.

If so, I guess they’re just not as good as the glass ceiling and the glass pyramid near the former Union Terrace Gardens, which looks set to be a concrete slab where we can all get together.

there is a scandalous move to install the Golden Eagle as the national bird of Scotland

Precisely what we’ll all be getting together to do other than shop or park, and when the window of opportunity will come weather-wise, are questions that Halliday Fraser Munro have yet to answer. Keep reading the architectural digest formerly known as The Press & Journal, no doubt all will be revealed.

While it’s not like me to be critical or ask questions, this all somehow seems just too beautiful, creative and wonderful to be true.

In a nutshell, our beating heart needs new life and a facelift to be forward facing, but we can get rid of the green lungs UTG provides, and just ignore the air quality. Perhaps it’s time for some face-related definitions.

But first, there is a serious issue which the Conservative Party’s Jackson Carlaw (no, I haven’t heard of him before now, either) brought up at Holyrood: there is a scandalous move to install the Golden Eagle as the national bird of Scotland. I’m sure you’re as surprised as I am, but no – they haven’t all been poisoned yet. Of course you’ll be as outraged by this affront as I am – obviously the Golden Eagle of Scotland is synonymous with the Nazis of the 1940s.

According to the Herald Scotland, Carlaw wants us to have the Robin instead (which also is a species in decline).  Carlaw said :

“The golden eagle is the symbol of an empire that once invaded large parts of Scotland, and more recently of another empire that tried to”

It is not clear in the above sentence whether he was referring to the Nazis, the Romans (who never did anything for us), or the Conservatives.

When I contacted a Jewish friend of mine for an indignant quote about the scandalous suggestion to associate Scotland’s Golden Eagles with Scotland, they said:

“Are you sure you have this right Suzanne?”

I wonder if this association with bad birds was behind the Stewart Milne desire to ‘discourage’ our only city centre pair of Peregrine Falcons from their former Triple Kirks home. He applied for and got permission (big surprise there) to get the birds ‘discouraged’ – i.e. moved on from their roost over UTG when Milne owned Triple Kirks.

Lucky for Aberdeen Milne did so – we could have been associated with Falcons, the Maltese Falcon and the Millennium Falcon if we hadn’t got rid of the birds.

I for one will go to sleep tonight safe in the knowledge that the Conservative Party, having already done so much for Scotland and the UK still has such tireless energy that it can solve our economic problems, support our struggling bankers, care for our environment, and make sure we’re not associated with the Romans or the Nazis because of our Golden Eagles.


If you’re forward looking, you’re cool, happening, modern and with it

With Aberdeen set to demonstrate its love of seagulls with glass covered streets so we can see the birds, and of course experience the beautiful quality of their droppings, I think we should give Carlaw’s brave stance the respect it is due.

Time for some definitions.

Forward Looking: (old-fashioned Aberdonian public sector phrase) –  a phrase used to convince the public the city is not backwards looking.

It’s no wonder we are building such amazing glass structures and getting rid of our old, boring granite buildings; we’re forward looking after all. Previous councils said so, so it must be true.  Here is an example of the phrase in a sentence from council documents:

“The delivery of the Council New Build Programme is a key objective of the Council’s Vibrant, Dynamic and Forward Looking policy;” from ACC_Contract_Award_comm_report_phase_1_Byron_Parkfinal

 (The above phrase comes from documents which they tried to withhold. This was to stop us from knowing how much  money one of our illustrious, if follicley-challenged, builders was making from us at the same time as he was buying property from the city for a fraction of its value. A free ticket to an Aberdeen Football Club match goes to the first reader who successfully guesses who I’m referring to).

If you’re forward looking, you’re cool, happening, modern and with it. You also probably want to build cubes with glass curtain walls.

The phrase appears in numerous council documents, although strangely not in any from the time the city was creating Marischal College, St Nicholas Kirk or the Citadel. Rest assured, we’re looking forward. We may be going backward in terms of aesthetics, environment and creativity, but we’re looking forward anyway.

Old Face Syndrome: (modern English phrase) –  a common facial trait whereby the corners of the mouth turn perpetually downward in a frown rather than smiling.

This phenomenon may be as old as Sir Ian, but it’s only recently been given a name. Apparently despite our current economic success, equality, fair system of justice and transparent, accountable governments, some people seem to frown. Shocking.

But perhaps there is a more apt local definition of ‘Same Old Face Syndrome?’ The Aberdonian definition is for ACSEF, Aberdeen Journals Ltd and the City to continue to rely on and listen to the Same Old Faces. Need a City of Culture Bid? Let Rita Stephen do it all. Need a quote about how the city’s retail is in trouble? Ask forward-facing Michie the Chemist to supply one (preferably standing in front of his avant-garde shop window).

Need someone to tell us the obvious truth that Donald Trump has brought millions of pounds and thousands of jobs to Aberdeenshire? Get hotelier Spence to tell us about his 93% increase in guests (in the 30 or so rooms in the hotel he’s selling). Need someone to tell us we need to keep building new identikit houses in the greenbelt? Ask impartial Stewart Milne.

Yes, it’s old face syndrome around here as far as I can tell. Still, as they say, ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ – so I guess we’ll keep listening to the same collection of successes.

About Face: (Eng Phrase) – to change direction or decision abruptly

Back when Stewart Milne wanted to get rid of all that boring, underused open space at Loirston Loch to put up a new stadium which all of the AFC fans wanted, one of the forces objecting was the Labour Party.

Labour’s Richard Baker put in an objection to the plan – yet when the official papers were published, only MSP Brian Adam’s objection was printed. Kate Dean sent me an email denying Baker sent anything in, but Richard proved successfully that his objection had been emailed in advance of the deadline.

It was all OK though, that the large public meeting didn’t get Baker’s objection, because Kate apologised after the fact. Calamity Kate (as the mainstream media were then calling her) ran a public consultation, acting as convener, despite her involvement with the local Cove Bay football team, which would have benefitted had the scheme gone ahead. Ah, those were the days.

Nowadays, we know that a huge number of birds of different species depend on Loirston Loch for water and habitat. We know that meadowland, an area which supports our threatened but very necessary bees, is the fastest-disappearing type of habitat. We know that Wellington Road, which turns into the dual carriageway at Loirston, is one of our most heavily polluted roads. We also know about urban sprawl and how important green space is to health and well-being.

Therefore it is something of an about face that there is widespread support cross party for developing Loirston as a housing estate. Was Baker acting on his own at the time of his objection? Do Labour care about the remaining environment more than profit?  Draw your own conclusions.  http://www.eveningexpress.co.uk/news/local/planners-back-1-067-new-homes-for-aberdeen-1.174468

Next week:  more reviews of the undoubted further http://www.eveningexpress.co.uk/news/local/planners-back-1-067-new-homes-for-aberdeen-1.174468exciting architectural news from our local papers.

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Oct 042013

By Bob Smith.

3kirkpic32Lamgamachies in the papers aboot vandalism in oor bonnie toon mair than afen dweels on the connachin o play parks, brakkin skweel windaes, settin fire tae delerict biggins, damage tae cars or graffiti clartit on wa’s  cairry’t oot bi fowk fa hiv nithing better tae dee or are jist doonricht coorse cyaards.

The “vandalism” a’m spikkin aboot tho’ is cairry’t oot bi the cooncil an their planners or bi developers an their erchitects.

Iss his bin gyaan on sin ivver a cam in fae the kwintra tae bide in the toon close on fifty ‘ear ago.

Gweed fowk compleened awa back ‘en. Nae buggar took muckle notice o them. Fowk compleen nooadays. Nae buggar taks muckle notice o them. So nithings chynged a hear ye say. O aye thingies are chyngin. There’s noo a growein nummer o fowk faa are fair scunner’t at fit’s bin gyaan on in Aiberdeen unner the guise o ‘progress’.

I like the followin quote bi the author C.S.Lewis faa said,

“We all want progress but if you are on the wrong road progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road. In that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive”.

So fit wi need in iss toon is somebody faa staans up an says, “aneuch is aneuch, we’re on the wrang roddie, time tae turn back an fin the richt roddie, syne gyaang forrit the gither”.

It winna be the developers cos their interest is jist profit. Foo biggins leuk in relation tae the neebourin eens disna cum intae their wye o thinkin.

It winna be the erchitects cos their interest is profit as weel an een o the wyes they mak profit is bi drawin up somethin tae please the fowk faa employ them.

Aat jist leaves the cooncil an their planners. Aat bein the case as Private Frazer in Dad’s Army wid hae said “we’re doomed, we’re doomed”. A base aat fact on fit his happen’t ower the past fyow decades.

the faither o them aa fin it comes tae ‘vandalism’, the biggin o St Nicholas Hoose

Cast yer myn back, if yer auld aneuch, tae the bonnie Northern Co-op arcade atween Loch Street an the Gallagate. Noo if ivver there wis a chunce tae turn aat arcade intae a mair modernmall’ sae lo’ed bi today’s shoppers, iss wis it. Fit happen’t?

The Northern Co-op biggit a new store nae a hunner yairds fae far the arcade wis an the auld biggin wis left empty tae nearly faa doon tull it wis ruggit doon in the ‘regeneration’ o the area. Aat included biggin the bliddy Bon-Accord Cinter fit effectively cut aff George Street fae the then bustlin Union Street. Progress? Na, na. Jist anither example o vandalism’ in Aiberdeen.

Jist a wee bittie afore iss, Marks an Sparks wintit tae expand their store in St Nicholas Street. Tae accommodate iss, Wallace Toor wid hae bin destroyed in anither act o vandalism if historian Dr Simpson hidna munt’t a campaign tae save the B-listed biggin. Marks an Sparks gied Aiberdeen cooncil siller tae help shift the toor tae far it is noo at Tillydrone.

Wid Aiberdeen Cooncil hae refused plannin permission withoot gettin fit some fowk aat the time ca’ed a ‘backhander’? We’ll nivver ken.

Noo we cum tae the faither o them aa fin it comes tae ‘vandalism’, the biggin o St Nicholas Hoose, fit ..
1) blotted oot the fine view o Provost Skene’s Hoose an connach’t the adjinin gairdens,
2) wis completely at odds wi it’s neebour Marischal College, an
3)wis doonricht ugly.

They’re stairtin tae rugg doon iss monstrosity an noo we can eence agin see the byowty o Provost Skene’s Hoose. Nae fer lang tho’ cos some Philistines wint tae hide it agin ahint mair bliddy steel an gless boxes.

There are mony ither examples o ‘vandalism’ in iss toon. ‘The Pint’ idea fer the Triple Kirks site bein een o them bit a wid rin oot o space if a wis tae list them aa.

We are telt o coorse that fooiver ugly squaar or rectangular steel an gless biggins are, iss is the wye forrit as they are chaiper tae pit up than the likes o granite.

So there ye hae it fowks—Oor eence bonnie toon wull hae tae leuk like a ‘dog’s brakfast’, cos onything else bit steel an gless canna be affordit. An here wis me thinkin we bade in ‘Ile Rich Aiberdeen’.

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Aug 152013

By Bob Smith.

We’re aa familiar wi the descripshuns o Aiberdeen as the Ile Capital o Europe or Ile Rich Aiberdeen. Noo we’ll jist hae tae tak the wird o aa the billies involved in oil aat oor toon IS the Ile Capital o Europe bit fin it cums tae Ile Rich Aiberdeen weel we can aa as citizens hae wir ain views on iss moniker.

There’s nae doot aat aa thae fowk faa are involved in ile an its “supportin cast” are verra weel aff bit in ma opeenion the toon itsel is nae. Nor fin it cums tae it are some o the fowk faa are nae involved wi the “black gold”.

Lits hae a leuk at a fyow facts regardin oor bonnie toon an foo ile his chynged thingies.

There are mair 4×4 vehicles in Aiberdeen than onywye else in the kwintra yet the toon canna it seems afford tae dee a gweed job o repairin the potholes in oor roads an streets caused bi 4×4’s an ither traffic.Div fowk need 4×4’s in the toon or is iss jist anither example o a status symbol in “ile rich Aiberdeen”?

Great rejoicin  fae the hoose developers an sellin agents aboot the recent news aat hoose prices in Aiberdeen are risin aboot £1000 a wikk.

Bad news fer young fowk faa are tryin tae get a fit or even a tae on the hoose buyin laidder. The likes o Stewartie Milne an his ilk mak a lot o noise aboot including affordable hooses in their various developments. Affordable tae faa? Certinly nae tae a lot o fowk faa are nae involved in ile.

Hiv ye tried eatin oot in sum o the so ca’ed funcy restaurants in Aiberdeen? Michty me leukin at sum o the prices on the menus ye’d hae tae tak oot a mortgage afore ye waakit throwe the door.

The gap between the weel aff an the nae sae weel aff in oor toon is widenin baith in the cost o livin an in the wage structure.

So since the discovery o ile sum fowk in the city hiv definitely got richer bit the toon itsel hisna. Iss shudna hae bin allood tae happen

 iss toon wull survive lang efter the ile rins oot

Myn ye altho’ in monetary terms the toon coffers seem tae be slowly emptyin dinna forgit iss toon is rich in lots o ither wyes.

We hiv a rich cultural heritage. The toon his a richness in its architecture despite some silly eejits o architects an developers buoyed by ile money tryin their best tae bugger things up.

Aiberdeen his a “richness” in its local population faa hiv seen the gweed an the bad o “Ile Rich Aiberdeen” but bide stoically  optimistic aboot the toon’s future. As lang as wi hae fowk faa are nae blinded bi the bling iss toon wull survive lang efter the ile rins oot. We micht nae langer be classed “Ile Rich Aiberdeen” bit we wull ayewis hae anither kine o “richness” fit the ile can nivver bring.

A wid far raither the toon wint back tae bein kent as the “Granite City” or the “Silver City By The Sea” as iss wid dee oor local tourist industry faar mair gweed that bein kent as the  “ile capital o Europe”.

I’ll leave the last wird tae American author, political an financial journalist Matt Taibbi faa said:

“To Wall Street, a firm like BP isn’t just a profitable company with lots of assets like oil rigs and pipelines and gas stations—it’s also a corporation that routinely borrows hundreds of millions of dollars to keep its business up and running”

Soonds like the cooncil o “Ile rich Aiberdeen”

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Jun 252013

Alex Mitchell makes a welcome return to Voice, his insights inspired by his walks around the city and his musing on contemporary affairs.

January 22. Looked out the window this morning and thought, ‘Snaa’s all gone’, then switched on the radio to find that the roads are very hazardous 15-plus miles in all directions out of Aberdeen but especially in the rural hinterland.

One begins to wonder whether it is actually a feasible proposition to live in these inland places.

Winter conditions are obviously much more extreme and also persist much longer – they set in earlier and end later – than on the coast.

Everything is so much more time and trouble, takes so much longer – basic survival becomes the overarching preoccupation, crowding out other interests and concerns.

Even the summers in these inland locations are oppressive – just too hot, no cooling sea breezes, no access to the coast and dead, still air.

This, of course, is why humanity has always tended to cluster around seaports, river estuaries and coastal locations, quite apart from the business and employment opportunities associated with ports, the rivers and the sea – trade, commerce, import/export, fishing, boat and shipbuilding and transportation.

February 10. A Sunday afternoon spent in Union Terrace Gardens, assembling birds’ nesting boxes from kits with a view to building up the resident wildlife.

Cold, rain and sleet, but we were in a sheltered spot under the arches which support Union Terrace itself. Back to the Gardens the following Friday to see the fifteen birds’ nesting boxes, now varnished, being located high up on the trees by skilled personnel with a cherry-picker.

A much milder, Spring-like day, bright and sunny and clumps of snowdrops in evidence.

This is the kind of small-scale incremental improvement, largely undertaken by volunteers, which can transform our civic amenities at modest expense.

February 17. To Holburn Junction and west end of Union Street. Bell’s Hotel is in a very run-down state, the bar still open for business but otherwise closed up, the frontage ill-maintained with much vegetation and a large tree growing out of upper storeys.

Plans for redevelopment, extending the building back to Justice Mill Lane, seem to have stalled.

Further along, in the old Watt & Grant building, one of a clutch of gents’ outfitters, G*Raw, is having a closing-down sale, advertising 70% off. Aberdeen City Council has reluctantly granted planning permission for change of use to a bar/restaurant.

The long-established Austin Reed premises are in poor condition and are advertised for rent, but it is difficult to find tenants for any premises westward of the Music Hall – too far from the main centres of retail activity in St Nicholas Street, Union Bridge and the Union Square mega-mall.

Along Bon Accord Street and Langstane Place to Justice Mill Lane: the Radisson Park Inn hotel looks as tacky and out-of-place as ever, its paintwork and finishes deteriorating already. Similarly, the Travelodge at the other end of the IQ office building. Across Justice Mill Lane, the former Budz Bar premises, closed for refurbishment in 2007 and never reopened, are a major eyesore.

We have become so indoctrinated into regarding property as a wonderful can’t-fail asset and investment that it is difficult to accept that property can, in fact, be effectively worthless or even a net liability, costing more to service and maintain than it can ever earn in rent or other income.

The familiar pattern in the city centre has usually been that ground-floor premises can be let out for use as shops, bars, restaurants and fast-food outlets, but that upper floors are left unlet and unused.

 it is difficult, if not impossible, to force landlords to maintain unwanted buildings to an acceptable standard

Upstairs premises used to accommodate professionals such as dentists, tailors, solicitors, architects and accountants, but less so nowadays, perhaps because of the lack of modern facilities, car parking or uncongenial surroundings. The question would obviously arise as to whether it is possible to operate conventional business activity in a street or locality largely given over to pubs and bars.

Much the same would apply to the residential accommodation which used to prevail on the uppermost floors of these old buildings, where the means of exit in the event of fire might be a concern.

The private-sector solution to buildings which are expensive to maintain but which can be neither sold nor let out would be to demolish.

‘Listing’ and Conservation Area status operate to prevent such action, but it is difficult, if not impossible, to force landlords to maintain unwanted buildings to an acceptable standard; many proprietors simply cannot afford to do so, in the absence of any income stream.

Some may resort to deliberate fire-raising to remove a building regarded as a financial liability and money-pit. Derelict and empty buildings are quite likely to be set on fire anyway, by vandals, tramps and rough sleepers.

This is pretty much the position we had reached in relation to MarischalCollege some years ago. The building was impossibly expensive for its owners, the University of Aberdeen, to maintain to any acceptable standard, given that they had little use for it.

There was no serious prospect of sale or of finding a suitable tenant. The private-sector response would have been to demolish, but that was unacceptable to public opinion.

In the meantime, like much of Union Street and the city centre, Marischal College was deteriorating and quite likely to be set on fire and burn down. The only available solution was, in effect, to take the building into public ownership on the basis of a 175-year lease to Aberdeen City Council, since when it has been renovated and put to productive use.

The Council should be able to buy the buildings at modest expense – the landlords want out, after all

This seems to me to be the only workable solution to other such instances of ‘market failure’, where no private-sector solution is forthcoming or acceptable, such as the former Watt & Grant buildings on Union Street and the Victoria Buildings at the foot of Bridge Street, facing down Guild Street.

The Council should be able to buy the buildings at modest expense – the landlords want out, after all – and purchase and renovation costs might form the basis of a future TIF application, given the improving effect on the whole surrounding area which we have already seen happen to spectacular effect with Marischal College and Broad Street.

March 7. The Criterion Bar, Guild Street: a proposal to convert to a Sainsbury’s supermarket.

This used to be an iconic Aberdeen pub, occupying a prominent corner site opposite the railway and bus stations, and was an obvious port of call for many a thirsty traveller or football fan. It had an attractive Edwardian-style interior, featuring much carved wood and etched glass, apparently now largely destroyed.

The pub had been closed these last two years pending another proposal to convert to a Rice & Spice food store.

Whether or not a Sainsbury’s will be of greater utility or amenity than the long-established Criterion Bar remains to be seen.   There are two other bars nearby, Aitchie’s Lounge and the Lorne Bar in Trinity Lane, behind the Tivoli Theatre, and of course the Carmelite Hotel.

April 30. Sunny, but cold and windy. Parked the car at the Union Square mega-mall and walked up to M&S via the Green and Correction Wynd, Xmas gift voucher in pocket.

This is one of the first fine, sunny days for weeks, but the Green is completely empty at 2.30 on this weekday afternoon, with nobody going into or coming out of the various premises. Much the same absence of pedestrian footfall evident in Hadden Street.

The longer-term problem with the decline of M&S is that they have always been a mainstay and linchpin of the nation’s High Streets

Through the tunnel under Union Street and up Correction Wynd – an agreeable medieval ambience in the vicinity of the Mither Kirk, but again not a soul – not even a ghostly soul from the Ghaist-raw – to be seen. Along St Nicholas Lane, past the Prince of Wales, to M&S, which is advertising a sale, up to 70% off.

There is a glaring disconnect between M&S’s TV advertising and in-store displays, invariably featuring slender, snake-hipped young people, and the reality of the small numbers of mostly elderly customers trailing wearily around their overheated menswear department looking for a pair of trousers that might conceivably fit the larger person.

I settle for a pair of shoes I don’t really need or want – got to offload the gift voucher somehow.

The problem with having only elderly customers, especially elderly customers who don’t buy much, is that we oldies must sooner or later fall off the perch, and where will M&S, not to mention the Conservative and Unionist Party, or Aberdeen Journals, be left then?

The longer-term problem with the decline of M&S is that they have always been a mainstay and linchpin of the nation’s High Streets – a destination store, in fact – and if there is less and less reason to go back there, then the High Street and our town centres are even deader than we thought.

Walked back to the mega-mall via Correction Wynd and Carmelite Street. The rowan trees planted in enclosures alongside the Aberdeen Market in Hadden Street and in Carmelite Street and Rennie’s Wynd seem to be taking hold and coming on now, but the surrounding shrubs are being overwhelmed by faster-growing weeds.

Container gardening is a very labour-intensive business, as I am sure we all know, and ACC may not have the manpower to do it properly.

May 15. Mary Portas, self-styled Queen of Shops, is back on TV, now trying to work her dubious magic on the nation’s High Streets. She is in the Kentish seaside resort of Margate, being whiny and self-pitying when local traders refuse to let her into their public meeting on the not-unreasonable grounds that she had slandered the town on an earlier visit.

One might as well try to persuade people to take their holidays in Albania

Ms Portas had no real idea what to do about Margate and neither would I, Margate being the equivalent of a Lanarkshire mining town where the coal ran out decades ago.

At one stage Mary P is back in London, trying to persuade the throngs of mostly young people descending on Camden Market to spend their Saturday in Margate instead.

The point unintentionally made here is that people come to Camden because it offers something they want – the antiques and vintage fashion market, the surrounding specialist shops, the pubs, cafés and bars, the whole scene and ambience. People travel from Margate to Camden to experience this.

Nobody travels from Camden to Margate. One might as well try to persuade people to take their holidays in Albania.

The issue is partly one of scale.

A large community can support all kinds of special-interest activities because even just 1% of the population of London, or even of Bristol or Edinburgh, is still a lot of people, with considerable combined spending-power; but 1% of the population of, say, Banchory is only about fifty people, and 1% of the population of a village might be about five people.

Minority or special-interest activities which may well be viable business opportunities in a city or large town are unlikely to be so in a small town or village. A city will normally be able to support a university, possibly two universities, which are large employers in their own right and give rise to many spin-off activities.

Villages, on the other hand, are all too often unable to support as much as a primary school, a pub, a fish and chip shop or an Indian takeaway.

This lack of business opportunities, jobs or choice of employer means that small village communities are of little interest or use to anyone who has to earn a living, and even middle-class retirees tend to shun depressed and run-down places like Margate.

Salesmanship seems to be a fast-shrinking area of employment

Last year I wasted a day in Ecclefechan, Dumfriesshire, which really did seem like the Village Of The Damned, even on a sunny weekday. If a community is to remain viable it simply has to have an economic base of investment, enterprise and employment.

One of the most significant trends of our time is the gradual disappearance of secure and decently-remunerated jobs, such as allow people to lead an independent, adult existence, leave the parental home, get a place of their own and, in due course, finance the purchase of a house in a neighbourhood fit to raise a family in.

One might think of the hierarchy of staff who would be employed in a High Street bank back in the days of Dad’s Army, as compared with the skeleton staff of a modern bank, of which there are in any case far fewer than there used to be. Similarly, insurance offices and travel agents.

Salesmanship seems to be a fast-shrinking area of employment. When do we interact with a salesman/woman nowadays, except perhaps when buying a car?

The internet means that things we used to pay people to do we can now do for ourselves. This reduces the cost of living and makes poverty more bearable, but it also means fewer job opportunities and lower wages in many of such jobs as remain, for example, in journalism.

The recent council elections in England revealed a high degree of discontent in rural communities such as Boston, King’s Lynn and Wisbech to the effect that there are simply no decent jobs, or jobs that pay a living wage. The jobs there used to be on the land, in farming, have largely been mechanised out of existence.

The point was made that locally, the average wage has converged on the National Minimum Wage of about £6-7 per hour, whilst quite a few employers in practice contrive to pay even less than the Minimum Wage.

  I was a bit concerned, since it is not normally a good sign when whales and dolphins come up-river

Employee benefits such as pensions have been cut back and working conditions are deteriorating. People are caught by the twin pincers of falling wages and rising house prices. The average wage no longer finances the purchase of the average house, or indeed any house.

Such council housing as existed was sold off in the 1980s and the tied cottages occupied by farm workers are long gone.

Local discontent tends to target East European immigrants, but their impact is mixed.

They compete for certain kinds of work and housing, possibly driving wages down and rents up, but some industries – fruit-picking, fruit and veg processing and hotels – would not survive without immigrant labour, and their children sustain enrolment in local schools, many of which would otherwise close.

Immigration from Eastern Europe is probably one of the few dynamising elements of the Fenland economy, if the truth be told, and the same may also be true of much of Scotland.

June 4. The BBC’s Springwatch has highlighted the activities of the dolphins which congregate around the entrance to Aberdeen harbour. The first time I saw these creatures I was a bit concerned, since it is not normally a good sign when whales and dolphins come up-river, usually suggesting that they are lost and confused.

Dolphins and whales would normally avoid a noisy, heavily-trafficked locale such as the harbour entrance. The attraction for the Aberdeen dolphin pod is the confluence of fresh water coming down the River Dee and the salt water of the North Sea.

Salmon, returning up-river to breed, can only access the river of their birth via the narrow harbour entrance, and are thus easy pickings for the waiting dolphins. The Aberdeen dolphins were described as ‘large, fat, talkative, loud and they repeat themselves’.

They have evolved as larger animals to cope with the cold North Sea, acquiring an extra layer of blubber in the process.  They chatter a lot between themselves, loudly and repetitively, so as to be able to work as a team to trap the incoming salmon.

In effect, the dolphins are having to shout to make themselves heard against the background of submarine noise generated by ships moving in and out of the harbour. They have become a significant visitor attraction viewed from the Nigg car park and elsewhere.

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Jan 112013

There’s a 1940’s sang made famous by aat gran jazz trumpeter an singer, the late Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong ca’d “When Your Smiling” faar ae line suggests “the hail warld smiles wi you”. Bob Smith writes for ‘Voice.

Noo ye maybe canna aye ging aboot wi a smile on yer face aa the time, cos mannies in fite coats drivin a yalla vannie micht come by an cairt ye awa tae the nearest mental hospital, bit gyaan bi a nummer o soor faces a see in ma traivels ye’d think een or twa puir craiturs hid lost the winnin lottery ticket.

There are days masel fin a’ve bin doon in the moo bit there’s aye somethin gyaan on fit pits a smile back on ma fizzog.

Openin the curtins in the mornin an seein the sun shinin an hearin the birdies singin are jist twa examples.

A nummer o fowk spik aboot their busy lives pittin them unner pressure an they fun it difficult tae smile. Slowin thingies doon a bittie fowks micht help. As ma grunnie used tae say,

Smile, cos yer a lang time deid”

Some billies get fair vexed fin the growth rate o the Gross National Product o wir kwintra draps doon. Iss gyangs richt ower ma heid as a’m nae an economist, an a’m sure tryin tae wark it oot wid hae ye losin the will tae smile.

As a’m nae fashed aboot the GNP or the FTSE a can affoord tae smile a bittie mair afen, alang wi the gweed fowk o Bhutan faa’s heid yins cam up wi the idea o GNH ( Gross National Happiness ), fit meesured fowk’s quality o life, foo muckle leesure time they hiv, fit’s happenin in their community an foo weel integrated they are wi their culture an the environmint.

Much mair ceevilised wyes o deein thingies in iss wee remote Himalayan kingdom than here a’m thinkin. Cwid iss idea wark in oor kwintra?

We shud bi happy nivvertheless tae bide in sic a placie steepit in history an tradishun

Weel we’d hae tae radically chynge oor ideas aboot meesurin happiness throwe foo muckle spendulicks wi hiv in the bunk or foo wir shares are deein an git awa fae the materialism culture faar spendin siller on lots o thingies wi dinna really need is supposed tae gie us a gweed buzz. GNH is worth a fling if it helps fowk intae a mair smiley mood.

If ye git the idea a think aabody in Aiberdeen are meesrable sods, iss is nae the case. The fowk faa hope the City Gairdens Project is deid in the watter are smilin richt noo fae chik tae chik, and there are a lot o mannies an wifies faa are nae jist smilin, bit are splittin their sides laachin aboot the mair an mair daft haverins cumin fae a certain Donald J Trump aboot the winfairms an Michael Forbes winnin “ Tap Scot” award.

Trumpie is a chiel faa winna be smilin jist noo. Tae use his ain words “Faa Cares?”.

In spite o wir main street in the toon lookin run doon cos o aa the empty shoppies, there are a nummer o gran biggins in Union Street an aa aroon Aiberdeen fit shud hae us smilin wi pride.

We maan cry oot fer the fowk faa ain the biggins tae spruce them up a bittie tho. A’m aa fer a bit o naitur bit young saplins, girss an weeds sprootin oot o gutters an lums is nae eese ava.

We shud bi happy nivvertheless tae bide in sic a placie steepit in history an tradishun in spite o a nummer o silly buggers ower the ‘ears tryin their best tae connach the history, tradishun an culture o oor toon, aa in the name o sae ca’d progress. So next time ye tak a toddle aroon Aiberdeen dinna ging aboot wi yer face lookin doon at the grun. Lift up yer een an see the gran architecture in oor city.

If aat disna mak ye smile an gie ye an uplift then a suggest a whiffie o laachin gas or maybe, in the case o quines, buyin a firmer bra micht dee the trick .

See? A kent ye cwid smile!

Apr 062012

If you are of the opinion that the City Garden Project controversy was all about what flavour of city centre park Aberdeen should have – think again. There seems to have been a much bigger picture involved here, and the politics are murky.  Mike Shepherd writes.

The power of the print media in shaping opinion

The public referendum has been held, and the City Garden Project won by the smallest of margins: 52-48%. Feelings are still poisonous in the city, as it is clear that a marginal result was swung by dubious means.

On the City Garden Project side, unregistered groups spent a disproportionately large sum of money on campaign material, whereas the officially registered groups were restricted to spending about £8,000 only.

Some of the claims made by supporters of the City Garden Project were outrageous and substantially misleading. One newspaper advert is now being investigated by the Advertising Standards Authority.

Even Aberdeen Council were responsible for punting a justification for the City Garden Project with the questionable claim that a new park could create 6,500 new jobs in the city.

The local papers showed a bias in favour of Sir Ian Wood’s project and framed their reports to show one side in a much better light than the other (“Yes, vote for change” or “No, don’t vote for change”). Ludicrous claims were accepted uncritically – such as oil companies leaving Aberdeen if the scheme did not go ahead.

I had been advised by an expert that:

 “Newspapers are very powerful at shaping public opinion”


 “You will need the support of a PR company during the campaign.”

It was very good advice, but in practice not something that a campaign group of limited influence and funds could realistically put in place. Yet, it was clear from canvassing in the street that the combined effort of relentless advertising, the glossy brochures and the press bias was having an effect.
Whereas many would stop and give me a considered analysis of how they would vote, a large minority were reflecting City Garden propaganda back at me, phrases recognizable from glossy brochures or Evening Express headlines.

Our society today is witnessing a battle between democracy and political lobbyists / PR companies. Out of this, democracy is not doing that well. It’s a shock to see this writ large in Aberdeen, but at least the Gardens Referendum result has made this crystal clear to any thinking person in the city.

Local politics

After two years of campaigning to keep the Gardens, I have been able to observe how local politics works. It is clear that the current council administration is very business friendly and they will tend to make decisions that primarily favour business interests. At just about every council meeting you will hear the phrase “Aberdeen is open for business.”

Local democracy commonly involves a conflict between what business wants and what is in the interests of the general public. For example, if Aberdeen Airport is allowed to land flights at night, Dyce residents will get woken up by the noise. The conflict between business and public interests came to the fore after the consultation on Sir Ian Wood’s scheme two years ago. Over 50 local businessmen wrote to the council asking for the result to be ignored:

‘due to misunderstanding of the project among the public’

and an ‘inability’ to appreciate its impact. The council – to their shame – did this. The current Council administration (an SNP / Lib Dem coalition) appears to favour business almost every time.

There are a number of reasons why business gets its own way with the council. Many councillors are instinctively business friendly and will tend to support projects that are favoured by local commercial interests. This is certainly true of the Conservatives on the council and of many councillors from the other parties too.

There is also a powerful business lobby. Businessmen make up two thirds of the Aberdeen City and Shire Economic Forum (ACSEF), a “public-private partnership that drives economic development in the region”. Funded by both Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire Councils, ACSEF is a non-elected body that have been given a significant degree of control over local economic policy. There is no doubt that ACSEF exerts power and influence over the activities of both councils.

  advanced societies work by a system of checks and balances between moneyed interests and the public regard

ACSEF were involved with the City Garden Project in the early days and described it as one of their flagship projects. Two of the board members, including the Chairman Tom Smith, are directors of the Aberdeen City Garden Trust, the group that organised the architectural competition and who hope to take the project forward to completion.

Extensive networking appears to go on amongst the “great and the good”. Politicians, local businessmen, council officials and senior figures in local organisations turn up and meet at parties, functions, charity events and business meetings. One Freedom of Information request gives an indication of how much hospitality is provided to council officials for instance:

To the worldly wise, this will not come as a surprise. However, advanced societies work by a system of checks and balances between moneyed interests and the public regard. This does not appear to be working too well in Aberdeen.

The SNP and the City Garden Project

The SNP have been intimately involved with the City Garden Project since its inception. Alex Salmond was present at the project launch  in 2008.

But only recently have both Alex Salmond and Callum McCaig, the SNP leader in the council, explicitly endorsed the City Garden Project.

Yet, the majority of SNP councillors have supported it throughout (the notable exception being Clr. Muriel Jaffray). This is clear from the voting records every time the project has come up for debate in the Council. The SNP support has been instrumental for the progress of the City Garden Project through successive council votes.

  Major businessmen such as David Murray, Brian Souter, Jim McColl and Martin Gilbert have now endorsed the SNP.

The SNP have a reputation for populist politics and it may seem surprising that they have embraced such a controversial project for the city. I believe that there is a much bigger picture here, and one that takes precedent over local politics. The SNP are essentially a single-issue party; they want independence for Scotland. The realpolitik of the SNP is that much of what they do is focussed towards this end.

A key aim for the SNP has been to secure the support of major business figures in Scotland. This is partly financial; the party has no natural source of funds apart from membership fees, but they are also trying to secure influence leading up to and beyond any independence date. Major businessmen such as David Murray, Brian Souter, Jim McColl and Martin Gilbert have now endorsed the SNP.

Sir Brian Souter, founder of the bus company Stagecoach, caused controversy when he donated £500,000 to the SNP in 2007. Shortly afterwards, the SNP dropped an election commitment to bus re-regulation, although they denied that there was any connection to Sir Brian Souter’s donation.

Sir Ian Wood has not given open support to the SNP, yet the SNP continue to court the billionaire’s favour. Not only has Alex Salmond given his own backing to the City Garden Project, the machinery of Government has also been used to bankroll the scheme.

Scottish Enterprise funded the public consultation two years ago and also allowed grant money to be used for the technical feasibility study. Although the public rejected Sir Ian Wood’s project in the consultation, it didn’t stop Scottish Enterprise from giving Aberdeen City Garden Trust £375,000 of public money from its available funds for major infrastructure projects.

Another niggly problem has been the concerns of Audit Scotland

The Scottish Government are keen to provide investment money for the project through TIF funding. Yet it has been established that the initial proposal did not rank very highly by comparison to other investment and infrastructure projects elsewhere in Scotland.

The Scottish Futures Trust, who carried out the ranking, has refused to make their calculations public in spite of Freedom of Information requests to do so. Another niggly problem has been the concerns of Audit Scotland, who have questioned the long term capability of the indebted Aberdeen Council to pay back a risky loan for the project.

The proposed use of valuable investment and infrastructure funds for something as trivial as building a new park is shocking. The business case is dubious and the council can’t afford the risk. Political considerations seem to have taken precedence to a strict business evaluation on the Aberdeen TIF case.

Sir Ian Wood discussed independence recently and gave an indication of what he wants from the Scottish Government:

“The Wood Group will not endorse a Yes or No vote on independence. But Sir Ian added: “What’s key is the extent to which our clients, and to some extent ourselves, anticipate that a Scottish Government would continue with a similar oil and gas policy to the UK.

“The suggestion right now, from the discussions I’ve heard, is that there’s a lot of overlap between the present Scottish Government’s thinking on the development of the oil and gas industry and the UK government’s thinking.”

He went on:

 “What’s important – and I think the First Minister realises this – is that they must provide as much clarity as possible over the next two years towards the vote in 2014, so that we minimise the uncertainty.”

I have no doubt that this will happen.

The SNP are hoping to secure a majority at the council elections on May 3rd. This is possible, but as a one-issue party they tend to do better in national elections than local elections. They are also heavily identified with the Union Terrace Gardens issue and this appeared to have cost them votes in the Scottish elections last year.

If they do not get a majority, this raises the intriguing possibility of an administration run by a Labour-SNP coalition. The Lib-Dems are likely to see their vote collapse outside the West End of the city. The Labour group are vehemently opposed to the City Garden Project and it could be that a condition for agreeing to form a coalition is that the scheme is dropped.

The “Union” in Union Terrace Gardens refers to the union of the United Kingdom and Ireland in 1800. Perhaps it is ironic that the park has ostensibly become a pawn in the big game of Scottish independence. It would be immensely sad if this was the case. Aberdeen’s heritage could end up sacrificed for the sake of political wheeling and dealing.

This would not bode well for a future Scotland. As Paul Scofield, playing Thomas More, said in A Man For All Seasons:

“I think that when statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties, they lead their country by a short route to chaos.”