Mar 152012
 

Voice’s Old Susannah considers the upcoming council elections, the UTG referendum result, the happenings on Tullos Hill, International Womens Day, blogging beasties and generosity. By Suzanne Kelly 

Tally Ho!  The May elections are coming, and not a second too soon.  Some of our tireless (or is that tiresome?) councillors are packing up and preparing to move on.  Let’s hope they bring all of their talents to their new areas.

I hear that there is now a shortage of packing crates at the Fortress of Doom (aka The  Townhouse) as heroic councillors get ready to head into the sunset.  I hope they don’t let the doors hit them on their way out.

As to the UTG Referendum?  Well, I guess that’s it – it has been a totally above-board, fair-and-square contest.

The grapevine would have it that some of the rich and powerful secret members of the Vote for the City Gardens Project are less than pleased it’s cost so very much money to have such a small margin of victory, but they still got the result they wanted, if not the landslide they’d prayed for (or is that ‘paid for’).

In the next few days I’ll write about the dozen or so wee problems that some people have with the referendum and how it was run.

Did you know that over 300 votes arrived just a wee bit too late to be counted?  Did you know it would be totally illegal for any of the campaigning organisations to see the register as to how the votes went?  No, neither did I until recently.  I also have it on very good authority who some of the VFTCGP backers are.  Old Susannah is toying with the idea of naming them.

They would be free to deny the association – but why should they want to be secret in the first place, after all, they were the heroes behind the scenes helping us poor souls know how to vote.  Who could turn down their promise of 6,500 new permanent jobs or their £122,000,000 flowing into the city each year?  Think of all the parties and portraits that would buy!  Wow!

(You might be interested to know that PriceWaterhouse Coopers were asked by me if they had intended their projections about money and jobs to be used as the VFTCGP did in its propaganda.   PwC might have been expected to say they were delighted, and that they stand behind their projections 100%.  However, they said that as the projections were made for a ‘private client’ they can make no comment on them to me.  Of course the bills I’ve seen for PwC look like you and I paid for this great work out of our taxes, but there you go).

And other great news from Tullos  Hill.  HoMalone is having her way, backed up by impartial ‘expert’ C Piper (perhaps related to the CJ Piper firm which was already paid £42,000 for the bang-up job delivered on tree planting to date?).  Yes, the gorse is gone, and with it all those annoying butterflies, bees, moths, and insects.

The birds that would have eaten these critters and the small and larger mammals which lived in the gorse are homeless.  If only I had an environmental degree, then I could say we’ve interrupted the food chain and interfered with existing biodiversity on Tullos.  As it is, I’m not allowed to make any such observation, however obvious.

Any small mammals or deer rendered homeless should apply at Marischal College reception to declare their homeless status.  Of course these creatures are likely now to wind up as road kill.  Surely not even HoMalone or Ranger Bigboy will dare to claim any roadkill we see now will be due to overpopulation?  Well, we’ll see.

  Women around the world lack rights and comforts we all take for granted

Some of those animal-loving, meadow-loving radicals will be handing flyers out and collecting signatures on petitions this Saturday at 12:30 in front of Marks & Spencer Union Street.  The petitions apparently are to protest the use of school children to plant the 89,000 trees on Tullos.

Ms Malone indicates this will be an educational experience for the little mites, and I’m sure it will.

Having seen the state of the hill, they will learn about cuts, tetanus boosters, chemical pollution, industrial waste, and dead deer.  Thank you, Aileen.  I do hope she will make it to the hill to plant a few trees herself.  That would seem only fair to me.

For the paper petition, further info, and a PDF of the new flyer, visit:  http://oldsusannahsjournal.yolasite.com/

Finally, Old Susannah attended two events in the last week which celebrated International Women’s Day, a great Oxfam fundraiser held by Bead Crazy on St Andrew Street.  A dozen or so guests were treated to cocktails (thanks for the Black Russians), brownies and beads.  Everyone made pieces from recycled materials which was right up my street.

I’ve turned an old domino into a necklace that says ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’, and a bottle cap into a brooch with an Oxfam fact.  Women around the world lack rights and comforts we all take for granted.  Thanks to Alex and everyone at Bead Crazy for the event.

Then at the Belmont last Saturday I ran into a collection of women celebrating Women’s day a bit differently.  They were all dressed as fairy godmothers, and were collecting wishes from the public as to what people would like to wish for our young girls’ futures.  My wishes didn’t include any granite webs or deer culls.  Thank you Merlyn and all the other women.

As well as a definition or two, this week I am pleased to announce that Aberdeen Voice has negotiated two new Celebrity Bloggers!  They will be featured in this column for the next several weeks.

And now – the first ever Millie & Cattie joint Blog!

“Hi I’m Millie, the Caterpillar!”

“And I’m Cattie the Millipede!  We’ve had a horrible, tragic few days:  our meadow home was destroyed and many of our friends with it.”

“Yes, sadly that’s true, Cattie.  Bulldozers showed up without warning to our Tullos Hill home, and ruined our wildflower and gorse home.  We had our rescue quite by chance.”

“That’s right Millie.  We were chewing on a Foxglove plant and suddenly it was ripped up and hurled into the air.  Sometime later the plant was found by a kindly passerby, and we were all taken to a safe house where we all now live.”

“We were both reluctant to launch this blog, but Old Susannah showed us the coverage Aberdeen was giving to a talking cactus, Morris the Monkey, and Jake the Ghost.  So we thought, ‘Why not try it?’   We know Spike the Cactus is very popular, and if people are willing to take voting advice from a monkey and a ghost (no offence), then people should know our story, too.”

“Yes Millie – we have a responsibility to let people know our beautiful home is gone, and an entire generation of moths, butterflies, bees have been wiped out.  What will become of some of our larger friends like the birds, small mammals and especially the kindly roe deer is our huge worry now.”

“Agreed Cattie.  We are grateful we were saved – we only hope our friends who haven’t been destroyed yet will be spared.  Got any lettuce?”

Cattie and Millie will give us an update next week and for the foreseeable future.

Charity:  (adjective) state of being generous, donating time or money to those  less fortunate.

While our very own local billionaire works selflessly to ensure his lasting granite memorial will bring his family continued and visible dominance over a certain city, a less savvy multi-millionaire has displayed a woeful lack of commonsense.

When it looked as if there would be some public outcry against his web, he calmly threatened to take his ball and go home.

J K Rowling, creator of the Harry Potter saga read the world over, has donated over £100 million to charity in the past year and a bit.  Now I don’t know about you, but I’ve heard hardly anything about her donations.  Where were the press cuttings, the headlines, the photos?  What did she get in return to show for it?

Ms Rowling has a lot to learn I fear.  Not only has she given enough away to nearly pay for the granite web we all long for, she’s dropped way down on the UK’s wealthiest list.

We will remember for quite some time how Sir Ian made his gracious £50 million donation to Aberdeen.  As long as we did what he wanted with it, and let unelected entities ‘manage’ our common good land, it was a great gift indeed.  When it looked as if there would be some public outcry against his web, he calmly threatened to take his ball and go home. Charity begins at home, and we’re going to take his charity, whatever form it takes, and like it.

Sure, Rowling may have made children all over the world discover the joy of reading,  and her books got people to read together in families and groups.   Her money may have helped countless people the world over across a wide variety of problems and concerns.  She may have made important points about the value of love, courage, kindness and friendship –  

But where’s the statue?  Alas, if there’s no granite monument and not a ton of press coverage bragging about the money, then the donations might as well never have happened.  Shame.  Perhaps a great PR firm could help…

One of the more radical points I picked up from these ‘children’s books of Ms Rowling’s ran along the lines of this (I deliberately paraphrase)  “One thing the tyrants of this world fear is that one day, one of the people they have oppressed will rise up against them.”  Can’t for the life of me think why that particular idea should spring to mind, but there it is.

New Acronyms!

Hooray!  We’ve more acronyms in this town than we know what to do with.  First it was the ‘Tree for Every Citizen’ scheme or “T’FEC!’ as it is affectionately known in Torry.  The tree scheme’s supporters (all 3 of them) are so pleased with their recent successes that they have more plans up their sleeves, or so I hear.

‘Forget Allowing Citizens Anything for Free’  is a brainchild for the coming budget cuts which are  in the pipeline, reflecting the service cuts and support staff cuts.  It will be called ‘FAC AFF!’ for short.

If this proves successful, phase 2 may be launched.  Its working title is Forget Every Citizen Utterly – or ‘FEC U’ for short.

If you want to see these schemes enacted, then don’t rock the boat at the elections, and we will continue on our happy course.  See you down at the Granite Web or Monorail station soon!

Next week? – At this rate what our Council will dream up is anyone’s guess…

Mar 092012
 

The black calendar of Aberdeen’s civic history has a new entry: 2nd March 2012, the day that its citizens, evident sufferers of apathy and myopia, handed both its natural heritage and its economic future to a cabal of businessmen.  Arthur Taylor writes.

The fight to retain and improve Union Terrace Gardens hit the buffers on that day when the public – or rather 27.5% of them – voted to support the plans to destroy this unique piece of the city’s heritage and replace it with a concrete monstrosity – presumably confused by the smoke and mirrors of the PR campaign which branded it “The Granite Web”.

Whether the battle turns into a war, protracting the debate, and driving further wedges between parties already badly divided, remains to be seen, but it is hard to see a rapid healing of the wounds that this process has created.

It is also difficult to stop the passion that fuelled the Retain campaign from dissipating, before all avenues of challenge are exhausted against a process labelled as democratic – but which in reality has been anything but that.

What is clear is that events from 2008 to now should be reviewed and recorded for posterity, so that future generations when looking back can seek to understand a number of things:

  • why we allowed our heritage to be given away to a clique of egoists and nepotists, who deluded the public and maybe even themselves into believing that they were altruists and philanthropists
  • why the local authority whose primary function is to act in the citizenry’s best interest handed control to an unelected quango, immune from public scrutiny
  • and why we allowed the city’s future to be mortgaged on the most questionable of business cases, flagged up as high risk by Audit Scotland in the final days of the campaign – when most votes were already cast.

Not that this was a revelation: Friends of Union Terrace Gardens had identified the risk months before, but their claims were played down in the media.

The last two months have seen a referendum conducted by a returning officer who sought to have the campaigns run to a fair set of rules.

The dominance of the local print media in forming and steering public opinion, and its incestuous relationship with local business, is deeply concerning.

While it appears that the retain groups stayed within their £8000 budgets, the pro groups – aided and abetted by the collaborators in the local media – spent an estimated £1,000,000 to buy the votes of the people of Aberdeen. Their cynical campaign saw radio adverts dressed as public information broadcasts, and a drip-fed daily editorial in the local press, with each day’s evening paper offering more extravagant promises than the last, as part of a fawning hysterical clamour.

That the retain groups, variously composed primarily of grey-haired men, beardies, tree-huggers and an enthusiastic schoolboy, ran the referendum right to the wire, losing by such a slender margin, is testament to their energy, enthusiasm and resourcefulness. That they did this against a campaign co-ordinated by the BIG Partnership, Scotland’s largest PR agency, is little short of a miracle.

The dominance of the local print media in forming and steering public opinion, and its incestuous relationship with local business, is deeply concerning.

The public need a source of true facts rather than propaganda dressed as objective reporting.

That said, there have been two positives to emerge from the press coverage of the campaign: the amusement derived from watching the Evening Express contorting itself like an India-rubber prostitute in a bid to champion the development, while not entirely abandoning its habitual council-baiting; and the emergence of the STV Local site as a place where all parties can present their voice without editorial bias.

It is hard not to see the future of local journalism as lying in hyper-local online spaces, as counterpoint to the shrinking of print to the point of complete insignificance.

the dead-eyed, gape-mouthed novelty-seekers who lurch zombie-like through the malls

Returning to the proposed development itself, it should be remembered that Union Terrace Gardens is the only part of the city where one can see the original topography of the land on which the city is built.

Sadly the local authority in the last century has allowed almost all traces of the city’s history to be erased like some embarrassing legacy instead of retaining and celebrating its character. Compare this with Edinburgh’s old town or York’s centre.

We are now confronted by the effacement of the final part of our history in order to satisfy the dead-eyed, gape-mouthed novelty-seekers who lurch zombie-like through the malls that have brought about the systematic homogenisation of the city centre and obliterated all individuality and character.

If we do not continue to challenge this proposed act of civic vandalism, by:

  • opposing the planning application,
  • challenging the use of Common Good land,
  • exposing the business case as one which will leave the city bankrupt (as it was last in1817)  when the TIF scheme plays out as feared,

then we should at least ensure that we record for posterity the names of the businessmen who proposed this vanity project; note the politicians and faceless unelected quango-ists who eased its path to realisation; and ponder the many, many idiotic consumers who swallowed the hype, without challenge or analysis.

If we do nothing else, we should record those names on the black calendar’s page for 2nd March 2012.

Feb 242012
 

Peter Veritas makes the case for voting “Retain”.

1.  There is a very real danger that the City Garden Project will bankrupt Aberdeen.

The City Garden Project (CGP) is planned for a greenfield site which would require substantial excavation. It is a five acre, five storey, underground construction that would span both a main road and a railway track

It’s roof would be required to hold approximately ninety thousand tons of topsoil, the same weight as the worlds largest aircraft carrier.  It is projected to cost £140M.

Union Square, which is of a similar size, was built on a flat brownfield site with good access. The final cost was £250m.

Marischal College is a much smaller existing building that was recently renovated.  No major construction was performed.  The final cost came to £65M.

Given that context, how can we be expected the believe the estimate for The City Garden Project is realistic? Should the City Garden Project experience a similar scale of overspend to the Scottish Parliament Building or the Edinburgh trams, then the shortfall could conceivably be of the order of £360M.  The city, which is already £560M in debt, would be liable for this overspend.

It could not be rolled up into the existing loan, and would require immediate payment.  Failure to cover the overspend would result in us being left with a dirty hole in our city centre.  The only options open to the council would be to auction off it’s remaining assets, such as the other parks, to property developers, and to increase council tax  massively.  Public services which have already suffered severe cuts would be totally decimated.

2.  Aberdeen has suffered badly from previous developments.

St Nicholas House, the New Market, The Denburn dual carriageway, the Denburn Health Centre, The St Nicholas Centre, and Virginia Street are all universally acknowledged as failures that now blight our urban landscape.  Aberdeen lost many beautiful buildings to clear the way for those developments.

The people who campaigned against those architectural and planning atrocities are also campaigning against The City Garden Project.  They’ve been proven right time and time again. Perhaps it’s time we listened to them?

3.  We already voted against this Project under a different name.

There is something sinister about the City Garden Project.  It was originally conceived as the City Square Project (CSP), and envisioned as a five acre flat concrete piazza.  That proposal only emerged after Peacock Visual Arts were given planning permission to embed an unobtrusive arts centre into the hillside of Union Terrace Gardens.  Sir Ian Wood pledged £50M to build The City Square, but promised to scrap the Project if the public rejected it.

That was then put out to a flawed public consultation, in which the public voted against by a substantial majority, despite the online survey mysteriously defaulting to a “yes” vote.  Sir Ian then reneged on his promise and continued to push the concept, the council ran roughshod over the electorate, and by the casting vote of the Lord Provost, consigned the Peacock plan to the dustbin.

Sir Ian has consistently stated that he will only contribute his £50M to this particular proposal and nothing else, and that if we reject his proposal then he will divert the money to Africa.  His behaviour is baffling.

4.  There has been an air of deception around The City Garden Project.

The City Square Project was rebranded as The City Garden Project.  During the Project’s second coming the public were presented with six designs and invited to vote on them. None Of The Above was not a option.

Aesthetically, the public appeared to favour the Winter Garden design.  From a conceptual perspective The Monolith design was arguably the most cohesive.
The appointed panel then refused to release the outcome of this public vote and instead selected The Granite Web, a design for which very few people acknowledge having voted, and which many people considered to have been among the weakest.

CGP propaganda has continually claimed that Union Terrace Gardens are a dangerous place, but Grampian Police crime figures reveal that they are actually among the safest places in the city centre. Neighbouring Belmont Street, which the plans propose to connect to the Granite Web, is statistically the worst area for street crime.

Under the rules of the referendum, registered campaign groups are limited to £8k spending to maintain a level playing field.  However a mysterious group of anonymous business people has allegedly ploughed £50K into sending pro-CGP propaganda to every home in Aberdeen City.  This is not within the spirit of the referendum and is arguably a breach of the rules.

It has been claimed numerous times that the 250 year old elm trees in Union Terrace Gardens are diseased, but a recent report by a tree surgeon has given them a completely clean bill of heath.  These elms are among the last surviving in Europe, and they flourish both due to their isolation from other elms, and because the pollution of the city prevents Dutch Elm disease from spreading to them.  These trees are all covered by a preservation order.

5.  Those arguing in favour of the City Garden Project are mostly connected to it in some way.

Scotland’s top public relations firm were engaged to promote the Project, which may be why the majority of stories that have appeared in the local press have been fawningly in favour of the CGP.

Those who have argued the merits of the Project, both in the press and on-line, are interconnected people with an as-yet unknown agenda.

In addition to the numerous PR professionals being paid thousands of pounds each day to present the case, there are several property developers, the owners of assorted the premises on Union Street, and various oil company executives.

No fewer than three city councillors, who backed the Project, recently announced that they intend to stand down, and have also revealed that they are planning to leave the city.  Virtually all of those involved are members of Acsef, Scottish Enterprise, the Institute of Directors, and The Chamber of Commerce.  The same dozen people feature time and time again in the groups which have come out publicly in favour of the Project.  The same people wearing different hats.

6.  The economics have no basis in fact.

Tax Incremental Funding (TIF) is intended to fund the redevelopment of brownfield sites.  Businesses which later setup in and around those sites pay increased business rates which repay the cost of the development in a similar manner to a mortgage.  The business case for this Project bends the rules since the increased rates will not be gathered for the site itself, but from two new industrial estates, located several miles away and for which planning permission has already been granted.

The 6,500 jobs and £122M of projected annual revenue are a product of these new industrial estates working at full capacity. This is almost  guaranteed to occur anyway without The Granite Web.

Furthermore, the paid author of the reports is PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC), which has recently been fined £1.4m for audit failure.  PWC rates the TIF case at Risk Level 3, where 4 is the highest risk.

7.  To save the architecture of the Denburn Valley

None of the Granite Web mockups, artists impressions, or video, have addressed the issue of the rear elevation of Belmont Street.

This is home to some of Aberdeen’s most spectacular architecture, descending right down to the level of Denburn Road.  Architecture which will be obliterated when the CGP connects to it, some five storeys further up.

Most of these buildings are either local businesses or publicly owned concerns, and several of them have picturesque balconies below the finished level of The Granite Web.

8.  To retain our sheltered park.

Union Terrace Gardens lie in the Denburn Valley which offers shelter from the wind and urban pollution.  Raising the area up to street level would turn it into a wind trap.

The wind would howl round the concrete walkways and other architectural features of the granite web, plants would struggle to survive, and people would avoid the area, preferring instead to travel along the relatively sheltered confines of nearby streets. It’s a fallacy to claim that this development would enhance connectivity.

9.  Union Terrace Gardens have been cynically starved of funding – in order to ‘pave the way’ for this redevelopment.

Union Terrace Gardens was the centre piece of Aberdeen’s famous successes in the Britain in Bloom contest.  Over the course of the past eight years the council has cut funding, with the result that the Gardens are no longer maintained at previous award-winning levels

The beautiful Grade A listed public toilets were closed, the famous giant draught boards were ripped out, the winter skating rink was no longer installed and concerts and other public events were discontinued

A modest investment would both regenerate the Gardens, and improve access to them.  There is no need to risk bankrupting the city for what amounts to no additional benefit

10.  The curse of Corbie Haugh.

Back in the seventeenth century, the area where the Gardens now stand was a wood called Corbie Haugh. The ancient Scots word for crow is corbie and the wood was named after the crows which gathered in the grassy valley and within the bank of elm trees. The elm trees in the Gardens date back over 250 years to that eighteenth century wood.

An ancient legend, The Curse of Corbie Haugh, holds that when the crows depart, the city will be ruined. If the elms are chopped down, the crows will indeed depart, and if they city ends up burdened by an additional £360m of debt, then it shall indeed be ruined!

SAVE OUR CITY FROM DISASTER BY VOTING TO RETAIN UNION TERRACE GARDENS.

 

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 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 032012
 

Mike Shepherd examines the potential for cost over-run on the City Garden Project and asks …

Where’s the money coming from? 

Money’s Too Tight To Mention is the title of a 1980’s Valentine Brothers pop song covered by Simply Red.

It is also thematic of the City Garden Project (CGP), the controversial proposal to develop Union Terrace Gardens.

The nominal costs for the project are £140m, of which it has been proposed that the private sector provides £70m and Aberdeen City Council borrows £70m through a tax scheme to fund the rest.

A commonly-asked question over the last three years has been, “Who pays for any cost over-run if the project runs out of money?” It is a question that has never been properly addressed and it now looks as if the answer is: “there is no obvious source of money should the costs exceed £140m”.

At a public meeting at Cults Academy in May 2010, it was stated that the Council would pay any excess costs. A month later, Sue Bruce, the then chief executive, decreed at a council meeting that the Council would most certainly not pay for any cost over-run and put the responsibility on to the private sector. This has been the understanding ever since.

At this stage, there are no identified funds should costs ramp up.

However, the private sector has managed to raise no more than £55m of promised funding for the CGP to date. Assurances have been made to the Council that £70m will be on the table and this sum’s availability is one of the conditions for the CGP progressing to the planning stage.

At last week’s council meeting, the question of potential cost over-run was put to Colin Crosbie of the Aberdeen City Garden Trust, the organisation created to take the CGP through to the construction phase. Colin mentioned that the project costs will be less than the nominal £145m and that this gives a built-in margin. The intention is also to put rigorous project and cost management in place.

There could be a problem in finding funds above the projected £70m private sector input. It appears that local businesses are concerned about public goodwill should they be seen to contribute money for the controversial project.

At this stage, there are no identified funds should costs ramp up. One obvious solution is that Sir Ian Wood could make a guarantee to handle this, but there is no sign of this happening as yet.

Could costs over-run on the City Garden Project?

One group of professionals have expressed severe misgivings about the potential for cost over-run on the City Garden Project. Architects.

Scottish architects met at a convention in 2010, and in a straw poll, almost unanimously rejecting the Aberdeen proposal, stated that:

“The costing is absurdly light, making this proposal both technically extremely difficult and financially potentially draining.”
– See:  http://www.urbanrealm.co.uk …_delegates_unanimously_reject City_Square_plans

Neil Baxter, secretary of the RIAS, the professional body for Scottish architects, has also said:

“A further significant concern is the much-publicised budget for this proposal. You will be well aware that the highest profile architectural competition in Scotland in recent years was that for the Scottish Parliament and the lengthy and difficult process which ensued from the risible budget initially set for that endeavour. Considering that, in recent years, buildings of comparable scale in Aberdeen and elsewhere in Scotland on straightforward urban sites have cost easily twice the quoted budget figure for this particularly problematic and challenging site we would be very concerned about launching a competition based upon such a questionable budget.”
– See: http://fraserdenholm.blogspot.com/2010_05_01_archive.html

I talked to one architect who had concerns about the allocated budget for the scheme. He told me that the project has “cost over-run written all over it”. There are two tricky areas:

  • The project involves a large amount of rock and soil extraction from the site, whilst shoring up both Union Terrace and Rosemount Viaduct.
  • It is not easy to build over an existing railway line.

The latter concern possibly derives from a previous situation in the south of England, where a tunnel built to support a new Tesco store above a railway line collapsed. This caused a five-year delay to the original project.
– See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gerrards_Cross_Tunnel

What would happen if costs massively over-run?

As mentioned, there are no obvious sources of funds identified to handle any cost over-run above £140m. Aberdeen City Council certainly can’t afford it and the private sector is cash-limited at present. Should it occur, the most likely situation is, to save costs, not everything would be built. Failing that, the project would come to a halt if there is no money left to proceed.

In this instance, there could be a half-built steel and concrete shell where Union Terrace Gardens used to be, clearly the worst case scenario. This would also have the unfortunate effect of causing the tax scheme, underpinning the council’s borrowing, to collapse. This is based on the CGP creating new businesses in the city to provide rates to pay off the £70m loan.

Without a completed project, the Council will be left to service a massive loan. This would be a disaster on a horrendous scale.

The ever-present potential for massive cost over-run on the CGP is a major concern and without a clear plan and identified funds to handle excessive costs, the project is far too risky to consider.

Aberdeen City Council could be sleep-walking to disaster if the scheme gets approved.

Jan 272012
 

The business case for TIF and the City Garden Project by Mike Shepherd

The Technical Feasibility Study for the City Square Project was published in 2009. A key problem area was identified early on:

“The difficulty in quantifying the economic gain is considerable. To describe the benefits in cultural and civic terms and to focus on the future raison d’être of the City of Aberdeen will become the means of explaining the benefits. However it is very difficult to make these benefits seem tangible. Yet this is precisely what will have to be done for a proposal to succeed.”

Three years later, and with the scheme rebranded as the City Garden Project, they are still struggling to give any clear explanation for the economic benefit.

The business case for Tax Incremental Financing (TIF) was presented to Council on Wednesday. TIF is a mechanism whereby a local authority borrows money from central government funds to finance a development project. Any new business rates created by the project are used to pay off the loan and interest. It is intended to act as a self-financing mechanism.

The City Garden Project has a nominal cost of £140m, of which the promised private sector contribution is £70m. Aberdeen City Council is being asked to underwrite a £70m loan through a TIF scheme. This is part of a larger plan to redevelop the city centre which includes knocking down St Nicholas House, the Denburn car park and health centre area.

The TIF business case presented to councillors is, however, seriously flawed.

http://committees.aberdeencity.gov.uk/mgConvert2PDF.aspx?ID=18350

An Attractive Aberdeen

The main justification for the City Garden Project is that it would apparently create a high quality city centre to make Aberdeen more attractive. This is supposed to act to retain and draw in energy and other professionals, together with an increased number of visitors.

Research shows that talented people choose place rather than job when making location decisions. As an Energy City, Aberdeen competes for skilled people with….areas like Abu Dhabi, Kuala Lumpur, Houston and Perth (Australia).”

Yet, a survey published two months ago makes this claim somewhat questionable.

ABERDEEN has been rated one of the world’s top cities to live in for the second year in a row, a survey published today reveals.  Quality of life in the Granite City is ranked above that of Hong Kong, Los Angeles, Houston and Dubai in the study, which is used by governments and multinational firms to help decide where to send staff.”

http://www.pressandjournal.co.uk/Article.aspx/2536835

Jobs Creation

Most controversial is the claim that regeneration of the city centre could create 6,500 jobs.

The report sets out how his figure was derived. A questionnaire was sent out by the Council to companies and a small number of interested parties in Aberdeen with the intention of assessing the economic impact of the city centre redevelopment. One of the target groups comprised key developers, land owners and agents. Of the 35 parties in this group, only one replied to the questionnaire. They then contacted all remaining 34 developers by phone. Even then, when directly approached, only six of the 34 were prepared to speak to them.

Unfortunately this question did not garner any responses

The developers were asked ‘to identify the extent to which the delivery of each of the five development schemes would result in uplift in development potential for housing, retail outlets, office space, business units, hotels, tourism and leisure in the City Centre’.

However:

“No respondents identified the project as having any impacts on the development potential for business/industrial units in the City Centre”.

Then:

The next question in the survey requested developers to provide an indication (in quantifiable terms such as the number of units, square footage etc) of the extent to which the identified benefits would impact upon their organisation’s investment plans and/or objectives. Unfortunately this question did not garner any responses as consultees felt it was too soon and/or complex to attribute impacts in these terms.”

That questionnaire wasn’t that much help then.

“Additionally it was apparent that individual developers and other respondents identified potential uplifts in activity and recognised that the timing of investments would be brought forward as a result of TIF. However, many of these developers still had expectations that, irrespective of future economic conditions or City Centre Regeneration Scheme (CCRS) , their specific sites will be taken forward. It was apparent that individual developers and other respondents identified potential uplifts in activity and recognised that the timing of investments would be brought forward as a result of TIF. However, many of these developers still had expectations that, irrespective of future economic conditions or CCRS, their specific sites will be taken forward.” (HA!)

SO WHAT DID THEY DO NEXT ?

“In balancing these different responses (i.e. CCRS will act as a stimulus to market uplift in general versus developers views that each individual site is likely to be taken forward anyway) the Council, ACGT Enterprises and their advisors have initially assumed a profile of development under the no CCRS scenario whereby:

“None of the cultural, leisure or retail elements of the CCRS projects will be taken forward;

“At least one major site totalling 0.720 million square feet will be taken forward in the anticipated timescales projected by developers regardless of CCRS; and,

“On the remaining sites identified, 1.369 million square feet will go forward without TIF over the 25 year period considered, but such developments will lag, on average, three years behind the profile assumed with CCRS.

“On the remaining sites identified, 2,029 million square feet of development (out of total development potential of 3.468 million square feet) will not go forward without the CCRS, over the proposed 25 year TIF period.”

THIS IS THE KEY BIT

“the Council, ACGT Enterprises and their advisors have initially assumed a profile of development “

AND THEN …

Took the 2,029 million square feet figure, multiplied it by ‘standard job density ratios,’ and came up with 6,500 jobs.

Assumptions?

So what happened next?

“In balancing these different responses (ie CCRS will act as a stimulus to market uplift in general versus developers views that each individual site is likely to be taken forward anyway) the Council, Aberdeen City Garden Trust Enterprises and their advisors have initially assumed a profile of development under the no CCRS scenario whereby:

…. 2,029 million square feet of development (out of total development potential of 3.468 million square feet) will not go forward without the CCRS, over the proposed 25 year TIF period.”

The footage was multiplied by standard figures which relate development area to the number of jobs likely to be created, hence 6,500 jobs.

The key word here is ‘assumed’. An exercise in speculation somehow translated into a press statement that the City Garden Project will create 6,500 jobs. This wild claim led to much scepticism. It was pointed out that the London Olympics are only predicted to create 3,000 new jobs.

The Risks

The discussion on project risks is somewhat lightweight. One concern is the possibility of massive cost over-run on the project. The report even tacitly recognises the possibility:

“It has demonstrated with the redevelopment of Marischal College that it can have a major project delivered on time and under budget. This is a rare accomplishment in such large projects.”

In June 2010, I gave a deputation to a Council meeting where I asked who would pay for any cost over-run on the City Garden Project. The then Chief Executive, Sue Bruce, decreed that the private sector would pay, not the Council. Since that meeting, there has clearly been little progress on the matter. The report mentions that:

“Before entering into any TIF arrangement, ACC will endeavour to structure an arrangement with its private sector contributors that minimises ACC’s risk exposure.”

The Council should walk away from the project unless it gets a legally-binding commitment from the private sector to cover all costs of any project over-run. The major financial problems caused in Edinburgh Council as a result of the projected £200m-plus overspend on the trams project should be foremost in councillors’ minds, one would hope.

TIF can be a risky way to borrow money. The risks are understood by the Council:

“For most TIF projects the most significant risk would be in relation to the business rates identified not materialising or being delayed. This would result in ACC having insufficient revenues available through the TIF mechanism to service and repay their borrowings.”

There is another risk. The loan will be in place for a period of 25 years, gradually being paid off, it is hoped, by new business rates. Like a mortgage, interest will accrue on the unpaid part of the loan. The business case assumes an interest rate of 5.2% over the 25 year period. Should interest rates rise by only 1%, then there will be a predicted shortfall of £20.7m left to pay after 25 years.

Careful reading of the TIF business case for the City Garden Project shows that it is based on unexplained assumptions, optimistic extrapolations and will involve financial risk for the Council. Yet the public are being told otherwise.

Tuesday’s ‘Press & Journal’ quoted a City Garden Trust director, who mentioned they had polled 50 people in Aberdeen. Those against the City Garden Project had said the city could not afford the project.

“When the funding was explained and the economic benefits outlined, ten of these people changed their minds. “

This is what I would have told them instead.

“Your house needs doing up, you are heavily in debt, you can barely find the cash for the essentials in life. Should you take out an enormous mortgage for a new patio and garden? No!”

Jan 062012
 

Old Susannah tries to get to grips with the newspapers, the actual news, and council-speak.  By Suzanne Kelly.

Tally Ho and Happy New Year! Old Susannah’s had a bit of a holiday break in London and New York, but is back in the Deen and looking for news in all the wrong places.
All major world cities have their problems – New York, London – even Aberdeen.  It’s how these problems are dealt with that show the intelligence, logic, and well class of a city’s government.
New York at Christmas has subtle holiday lights, but all the stores (particularly 5th Avenue ones) do their best to have creative, exciting, individualistic window displays.

This just makes things look non-uniform and that’s a bad thing of course.  If only there were some giant red balls and uniform lights overhead to herald the presence of the New York Government.  Better still if such lights would fall down now and then  for a bit of drama as well.

There is a policeman on every corner of 5th and people are well behaved as a result.  Our streets are of course ‘livelier.’  How sad.  No one is allowed to use the streets for fighting/throwing up/robbing/ rolling around drunk in while the police stand idly by.  Here in Aberdeen there is more freedom to indulge in these traditional holiday past times.

Iconic landmarks such as Manhattan’s statue of Atlas, Ice-skating rink and the Christmas Tree just demonstrate how stuck in boring tradition NYC really is; hardly anyone comes to see these things.  I’d like to see a few buildings levelled (maybe the Chrysler and Empire) and a gigantic concrete public square created – that’s clearly what’s needed to revitalise NY’s dull city centre.

London’s  Soho was absolutely packed with people, music venues, and restaurants.  Believe it or not, the local shops don’t all close at 6pm; some even close when they feel like it.  Trash collections are regular, and I found myself missing my overflowing Torry communal wheelie bin with its broken lid and binbags torn open by hungry birds.   There weren’t even any sofas dumped on the streets to sit on.

In a not very vibrant or dynamic tradition, the Geoffrey Museum had  its annual  display showing how households used to look in times past for Christmas.  This tedious attraction could have done so much better if a monolith had been built on its historic front lawn.

You’ll never believe me, but in London’s massive Richmond Park (again just wasted space filled with lots of grass and trees) there is actually a deer park.

I suppose the biggest disappointment in New York and London as compared to Aberdeen  is the scale of waste.  New York has its (comparatively) massive Central Park and there are long stretches of coastal lands on nearby Long Island.  No one’s proposed any football stadiums, giant forests on the dunes, or turning the place into a giant golf course resort.

London has more parks than you could count that are filled with little more than grass – which so bothers Councillor Stewart.  These parks  do allow food kiosks and restaurants, something our City is far too cool to allow in Union Terrace Gardens (well, at least not until we build something over it first).

New York has great sports teams, but it’s not following our lead.  The Rangers continue to play in the outdated Madison Square Gardens rather than building something new outside of Manhattan.  Mr Milne could teach them a thing or two.  It’s almost as if people were fond of their historic sports venue and wanted to keep using it.  I think they’re in denial – the thing doesn’t even glow in the dark.

Finally an old building has been sensitively restored for re-use as a Native American heritage museum.  Doubt that made much money for any new-build businesses.  Shame.

You’ll never believe me, but in London’s massive Richmond Park (again just wasted space filled with lots of grass and trees) there is actually a deer park.

  No, the deer are not there for people to have their dogs chase.  The deer I have to admit are sometimes culled – when absolutely necessary – after living a lifespan where they can eat, roam free, and live.
Note: They are not culled for reasons other than animal welfare.

No one is proposing to shoot them in order to turn their turf into a lumber-producing forest.  Some eccentrics actually go out of their way to come and see the deer, or ‘vermin’ as Neil Fletcher and others would call them.

London and New York should really take a page from Aberdeen’s book and do much much more building in their empty green spaces.  The funny thing is that people actually choose to live near such places and pay more money for the privilege.

My one regret is that I missed the Christmas event in Union Terrace Gardens which by all accounts was a perfect afternoon.  The children loved seeing their artwork displayed; they loved the vermin – sorry – deer which had been brought in as a special treat.  The music was spectacular and everyone had a vibrant and dynamic time.  So my compliments to the organisers –  the Bothwell family and their friends, and to those who supplied prizes – Lush and The Artist’s Pad on Castlegate in particular.

I was happy to have been one of the judges for the art competition which was a real pleasure if not a nearly impossible task.  Watch Aberdeen Voice for an upcoming display of the childrens’ artwork and the entries for the Aberdeen Voice Union Terrace Gardens art competition – as soon as I can scan the 300+ items that were entered, that is.

But at this rate there won’t be room for definitions, so here we go.

Blindspot: (compound noun; English) An area which cannot be perceived whether due to physical limitations or psychological ones.

Old Susannah begins to wonder if any of our local press realise that by 23 January the City must relinquish details to me of what land was sold to Stewart Milne companies and for how much money? If they are aware, they certainly don’t find this revelation worthy of any space in their pages.

When I was travelling I kept up with local news via the internet – there were fascinating pieces on weather, a bit of vandalism, some bits of petty crime, another local store closed, and football games were won and lost.  But no word on Aberdeen Council being criticised by Scotland’s Information Commissioner or on the looming disclosure of what property ACC sold to Stew at what price. Guess this just isn’t as interesting as all the other stuff.

  seems northern Scotland can get windy in winter.  Who’d have guessed?

Still, by 23 January the City is meant to supply me with the info on Milne I requested a year and a month ago.

Let’s see who publishes the next development besides Aberdeen Voice.

I also read Private Eye when I was away (although I usually find it far too critical of our elected officials and millionaires), and a small item reminded me that the National Union of Journalists was ‘de-recognised’ by the Press and Journal and its sister, the Evening Express.

A cynical person might think the owners of these papers want to keep a tight rein on any reporter who goes ‘off message’ and writes anything too critical of their largest advertising revenue sources.  I just think the P&J management don’t want their staff to have to have the hassle of Union membership when they are so perfectly well remunerated.

Is there really any bias towards the powerful forces in the  City?  Just as  a matter of interest, a colour advertisement in the Evening Express supporting the ‘phase 2 tree for every citizen’ scheme cost the city c. £145.  A similar sized colour ad by those opposed to the tree planting and related deer cull cost over £700 (with 2 reprints in the Citizen).  Just thought you might like to know.

Festive Decorations: (noun) holiday-themed lights, banners, etc.

Well, the City’s outdone itself this year.   From 21st November 2011 to the 5th January 2011, Aberdeen City Centre was festooned with festive lighting and decoration.  Of course some of the lights came down almost as soon as they went up; seems northern Scotland can get windy in winter.  Who’d have guessed?  (Note – this historic pattern of high winds will of course be no object to planting trees on Tullos Hill, even if a Forestry report says wind is a problem there).

  I have my own theories about what the giant, over-sized, totally out-of-proportion red balls symbolised

According to the City’s website ‘Other communities around the City also take part with their own festive lighting on lamp-posts.  Aberdeen’s main thoroughfare (Union Street) is the centre piece with 11 cross street lighting all with a Christmas theme.’

I was surprised that Christmas was the theme for the beautiful lights on Union Street – I’d have thought the City was supposed to be non-denominational.  But I saw the light.  The decorations on Union Street show pictures of presents, toys and sweets – and buying stuff like that is the true meaning of Christmas after all.

I have my own theories about what the giant, over-sized, totally out-of-proportion red balls symbolised, but perhaps I’ll keep that to myself.  I look forward to watching them fall down again next year.

Jargon: (noun) vocabulary which is not recognised in the mainstream, is hard to decipher, and which may be deliberately exclusionary.

Next week I intend to look at upcoming budget/financial actions our fair city may be taking.  Believe it or not, I am not always convinced their financial skills are as good as you might think.  If anyone can help me decipher  the following paragraph which I found on the ACC website, then please get in touch:-

“There are also other projects currently active that will produce efficiencies for all Services, i.e. ICT infrastructure and connectivity, procurement revisions, etc. The ICT infrastructure and connectivity work is delivered solely by Service Design and Development and therefore is not included  in the above listing. The projects listed above all fall into the category of technology enabling making change happen.”

It sound absolutely wonderful, but I haven’t a clue what it means.  It’s from an older document covering finance and budget.

Is it  possible that a lack of straight-talking is confusing issues?  No, I thought not.  I guess I’m just not ‘falling into the category of technology enabling making change happen’ as naturally as everyone else must be doing.

Final thought:  Children in Need:
Spare a thought to those who don’t have the things they need this season.  Take the case of Stewart M.

Stewart, aged fifty-something years, will not have a happy holiday season (or any kind of happy season) without some help.  A mere 7.8 million pounds will give him the toy football stadium he wants.  Next year he may also buy some toy players to go in the toy stadium if it’s not all been thrown out of the pram.  Please give generously.

Another Final thought:  Electoral Roll:
Live in Aberdeen?  Want to vote on the future of Union Terrace Gardens?  Make sure you are registered to vote before 10 January.  IF you are not on the electoral role, follow this link and register:  http://www.grampian-vjb.gov.uk/clients/GVJB/flexviews/core/assets/pdf/er/voterregistrationform.pdf

 

em

Dec 162011
 

On Wednesday 14th December, Aberdeen College Students Association staged a protest outside the Loch Street entrance of Aberdeen College’s Gallowgate centre  as a fight back against education cuts.  As it stands there will be a reduction of 20% in college budgets in Scotland over the next three years.  Patrick Neville reports.

The damage caused by these reductions will result in catastrophic cut backs that will directly affect colleges. These cuts have a high probability of affecting student financial support, staff jobs and classroom resources and for some colleges may cause course closures and forced mergers. If it is financial support that is affected then students from poorer backgrounds will face another barrier to progress through education and will be segregated from the rest of the students.

College education must be a priority in the budget. Colleges in Scotland serve as a medium for people of all ages and backgrounds to access further education.

With less access to college education, hopes for people to successfully be able to find future employment or develop the skills necessary for their lives are at serious risk.

Lani Baird, President of Aberdeen College Students’ Association, said:

 “The level of cuts the Government are suggesting that colleges should endure is absolutely outrageous. The damage caused by these reductions could result in catastrophic cut backs resulting in a cut to student support, staff jobs and classroom resources. For some colleges these cuts could result in course closures and forced mergers. If there were efficiency savings to be made at Aberdeen College they have been made, if there was fat to be trimmed it’s been done.

“If financial support is affected, the poorest students will be the worst hit and risk becoming alienated from education. When there is less access to college education for our community, the hopes for people to find employment or develop the skills necessary to improve their lives are put at serious risk. This further cutback will have a damaging impact on students in the North East and the Scottish Government need to take their head out of the sand and do something about it.

“We are calling on all North East MSPs to protect our colleges and the future of thousands of students. Colleges in Scotland serve as a medium for people of all ages to access education that helps enable them to work. MSPs must make protecting college education a priority in the budget.”

The National Union of Students (NUS) Scotland has begun spearheading a campaign on the matter titled “Our Future Our Fight” which is open to the Scottish public to participate in. A petition has been set up at http://www.ourfutureourfight.org/ which enables Scottish residents to sign their name in support of protecting college education. By signing the petition, a letter will be sent out on the senders behalf to their regional MP’s and MSP’s with additional room to add your own comments on the matter.

Please note that if you sign the petition, you should expect to receive an email back from your representatives.

Dec 012011
 

Last year Aberdeen City Council proposed the complete closure or privatisation of Aberdeen Instrumental Music Service. After a strong campaign, the council was persuaded of the senselessness of its proposal. We were assured that the existence of the Music Service would be safeguarded, provided the Music Service made cuts requested by Aberdeen City Council. It did. The service was saved for a year, but it is once again under threat. Kathryn Reid tells Voice about the Come and Play Protest

On Tuesday 6 December, the Council’s Finance and Resources Committee will meet to discuss Priority Based Budgeting: Draft financial budget 2012-2013 5-Year Business Plan budget.

Once again it contains a proposal to ‘withdraw music tuition’.

We want to demonstrate to councillors how much musical talent is thriving in Aberdeen thanks to the Aberdeen Instrumental Music Service, and we aim to do this in the most obvious way – by playing and singing!

We are planning a Peaceful Playing Protest in Union Terrace Gardens, from 12noon to2pm at the same as the budget meeting is taking place. We are inviting as many people as possible to attend so we can really make an impact. If you are a member of an instrumental or vocal musical group, please come along with your friends and lend your talents.

More information and details are available from rona.h.cook@gmail.com

A FEW THINGS TO REMEMBER…

This is a peaceful protest. Bring a smile and your best behaviour!

Union Terrace Gardens doesn’t have facilities for an orchestra, so take along music stands if you need them.

Neither chairs nor a PA system can be provided, so remember this when planning your performance.

Union Terrace Gardens managers have been kind enough to let us use the space, let’s show our gratitude – don’t leave behind litter or damage the area!

It’s Aberdeen, and it’s December….wrap up warm!

OTHER THINGS YOU CAN DO TO HELP…

Write to councillors on the Finance and Resources Committee giving your point of view

Write to your MSPs

You can find addresses and links for councillors and MSPs at
http://www.friendsofaberdeeninstrumentalmusic.co.uk/
 

Sign the online petition at:
http://www.gopetition.com/petitions/no-withdrawal-of-music-tuition-in-aberdeen.html

Tuesday 6 December,
12noon – 2pm.
Union Terrace Gardens, 

HOPE TO SEE YOU ALL THERE!