Oct 082010

The future of Union Terrace Gardens came under intense scrutiny again on Wednesday 6th when a full meeting of the council was asked to vote on a new timetable for they key steps in the project. Although the proposed agenda was described as ‘only indicative’, its adoption would mean that the council were giving the go-ahead to this extremely complex initiative.

The group Friends of Union Terrace Gardens, who are campaigning for a more considered approach towards any development of the site, were allowed to make a submission to the council before the matter was put up for debate. Chairman of the group, Mike Shepherd reports;

I was allowed to give a deputation, which involved giving a ten minute talk to the council. I noted that the City Garden project has already suffered some significant delays. For instance, the item to consult the public on short-listed designs for the square has been delayed by four and a half months and will now start on the 24th August 2011.

One of the results of this is that several key decisions have been placed into the council meeting next April. These include approval of the final funding business case; a statement on the ownership of the gardens; approval of the SPV’s project business plan, approval to lease council land to the SPV and permission for the SPV to take the project forward.  I urged that there is a need for caution on what is a complex financial and legal issue. I argued that to make several key decisions in one day’s council business is far too fast for the council to properly assess the situation and makes it likely that some big mistakes will be made.

The term SPV mentioned above is an acronym for Special Purpose Vehicle. An SPV is a legal entity which is a limited company or a partnership created for a specific purpose separate from the sponsoring organisation (in this case the council). The SPV could be similar to the Aberdeen City Development Company, an organisation currently being formed by the council to act as a joint venture between private enterprise and the council for the purpose of semi-privatising council assets deemed to be ‘market failures’.

A comment was made that having ignored the initial consultation where the public said no to the scheme, we would now be forced to pick the least-worst design

It has been proposed to set up the City Development Company with 12 board members of which only up to four will be from the council. The remaining board members are likely to come from private enterprise and possibly from Scottish Enterprise, a national government organisation.

The SPV would be charged with taking the city square through to completion.

This organisation is not supposed to exist until January 2012, when the council have noted a budget of £900,000 for staffing costs. However, we read in the calendar that the council are now being asked to approve granting the lease for the gardens to the SPV on April 27th 2011, at least a year before a planning submission is likely to be made. We have been told by the Council Executive that the lease would probably be assigned for 125 years. Although the council would nominally own the park, control would pass over to the SPV.

I said the following to the council during my deputation:

“If the lease is assigned early, then what happens if planning permission is not given? Does this mean that the council will have given up control of the park to a third party with no clear idea as to what happens next? How will the council get the lease back; can it get the lease back? What will be the status of UTG as a council-operated park if the lease is assigned 3 years before any construction is anticipated? Will the public be allowed to use the park after April next year?”

I didn’t get any answers to these questions. Surprisingly, the issue of a lease barely come up in the council debate that followed. However, one further controversy arose. Councillor John Stewart, the council leader and supporter of the City Garden Project, was asked if the option to keep the gardens substantially as they are would be one of those given to the public when they were being allowed to comment on the designs for the city square. No was the answer.  A comment was made that having ignored the initial consultation where the public said no to the scheme, we would now be forced to pick the least-worst design.

Councillor John Stewart wrapped up the meeting by supporting what he described as an exciting, new vision for the city centre. He urged the council to approve the calendar going forward as a way to explore a possible future for Aberdeen and to fully assess the risks for the project. The vote went in his favour 21 to 13.

The fate of Union Terrace Gardens will come up again at the full council meeting on the 27th April 2011, a date when control of the gardens could be given away early. By this time, it is likely that that city-centre park will be a major issue in the Scottish parliamentary elections which are to take place eight days later on Thursday 5th May 2011. I have a feeling that the controversy over Union Terrace Gardens will have reached boiling point by then.

Oct 012010

Thanks to Martin Glegg and Press Association Scotland.

Former university principal Dr David Kennedy has handed back the honorary degree awarded to him by Robert Gordon University in protest against the decision to award one to Donald Trump.

Robert Gordon University (RGU) in Aberdeen will present the US tycoon with the honour  at the Faculty of Health and Social Care, Garthdee, at 10am on Friday 8th October, in recognition of his entrepreneurship. It also wants to acknowledge the long-term future his company is planning in the north-east, where the businessman is building a controversial £750 million luxury golf course. But Dr David Kennedy, who was principal of RGU from 1987 to 1997, said the decision to honour Mr Trump was “an insult to decent people

Dr Kennedy, a member of action group Tripping up Trump, said:
“I was shocked and appalled at the decision of the Robert Gordon University to honour Donald Trump.

“Mr Trump is simply not a suitable person to be given an honorary degree and he should not be held up as an example of how to conduct business.

“Mr Trump’s behaviour in north-east Scotland has been deplorable from the first, particularly in how he has treated his neighbours.”

He added: “The university needs to realise how strongly people feel about this issue. I can think of no better way to express my anger at the decision to honour Mr Trump than to return my own honorary doctorate to the university. I would not want to hold the award after Mr Trump has received his.”

He has sent Prof Harper a letter explaining his decision.

an event has been arranged which will bring together groups and individuals in opposition to both the Menie development and the proposed City Square.

As well as a championship golf course, the luxury development on the Menie Estate includes a 450-bedroom hotel, 950 holiday apartments and 500 residential homes. Some residents object to the plans and are refusing to sell their land to the billionaire. Many opponents of the development have bought a stake in a one-acre stretch of land at the heart of the resort site in a bid to disrupt it.

Dr Kennedy hopes his gesture will show his support for the families living on the Menie Estate.  Mr Milne said:

“I want to thank Dr Kennedy for his principled stand. His support and the support of thousands of others has helped us carry on through all the stress and worry of the last three years.”

Mr Trump will be presented with the honorary award of Doctor of Business Administration at RGU on October 8 by its chancellor Sir Ian Wood CBE. Announcing the news last week, Prof Harper said:

“Given that business and entrepreneurship lie at the heart of much of the university’s academic offering, it is only fitting to award Mr Trump with an honorary degree.

“He is recognised as one of the world’s top businessmen and our students, the entrepreneurs of tomorrow, can learn much from his business acumen, drive and focus.”

To coincide with Donald Trump’s award – which will take place at the Faculty of Health and Social Care, Garthdee, at 10am on Friday 8th October – an event has been arranged which will bring together groups and individuals in opposition to both the Menie development and the proposed City Square.

As Martin Glegg of Tripping Up Trump states:

“Trump and Wood are uniting and so should we”

The March of Menie will take place at 12pm on Saturday 9th of October. All in opposition to the Menie development are invited to march alongside the families whose daily lives are being ruined by the aggressive intimidation from the Trump Organisation. Those taking part will march from the Balmedie visitors centre to The BunkerSee map

For more info click here …. see also ‘Ti Anither Louse’

Oct 012010

Old Susannah gets to grips with more tricky terms.

A Quick Word on Willows Animal Sanctuary
Aberdeen City Council can find £200K for public relations firms to find out why people don’t want to get rid of Union Terrace Gardens.  Ian Wood can offer £50 Million to the City if it spends twice as much in getting rid of Union Terrace Gardens.  While the rest of us can’t hope to do anything as grand or important, Old Susannah would ask if anyone out there can please make a donation to Willows Animal Sanctuary in Fraserburgh which is in desperate need of money and animal feed (feed is being collected for all kinds of animals for Willows at Love and Roses, South Crown Street, Aberdeen).

Please visit http://www.willowsanimals.com to see what good work they do, and how you can help them survive.

The unfortunate reality is that when we are in hard, uncertain economic times, two things go wrong for animals.  Firstly, people cannot always afford to keep making donations to charities, and funding for many good causes from the private sector falls (which is why we are lucky to have such a compassionate, caring local government).  The second is that in hard times animals get cruelly dumped as people can’t afford food or veterinary care.  Willows is a major player in helping animals in the North East – please help if you can.

Property Maintenance
This may come as a surprise, but if you are a homeowner, then you should maintain your property.  Yes, really.  If you were unsure whether you should let your roof leak or your stairwells collapse, then Aberdeen City Council has come to your rescue.

Inspectors are visiting your streets as I write, looking at your gutters, stairs and slates, and if anything’s amiss, then a  dedicated team of inspectors will send you a glossy colour brochure and a letter telling you what you should do.  The keener inspector will ask to be let into your building, garden or home with no prior appointment.  (The phrase ‘Just say no’ springs to mind).

Old Susannah has received such a letter, advising that her building’s occupants ‘might want to look at their guttering’.  The letter helpfully says that the Council cannot force us to make any repairs – AT THE MOMENT.  Strangely enough, there is nothing to advise where the extra money will be coming from to make the suggested repairs.  It is gratifying to know that the Council can free up money and resources to tell private property owners what they should do.  Over the past few years I have seen people trip and injure themselves on the City’s hazardous, uneven pavements, and I know people who have waited months in Council flats for serious repairs including leaks.

A few years ago a woman was injured when her council flat ceiling fell in on her.  A certain local builder whose kitchen floors are prone to give way if too many people are on them,  may or may not have heard from the Council.  But as we all know kitchens are dangerous places, and only a few people should ever be in one at any given time.  I also understand from reliable sources  that there may be a slow-down on Council flat refurbishments and workers are being temporarily (?) laid off.  ‘Practice what you preach’ will appear in a forthcoming definition.

Project Management
Project management should be simple:  a project needs three things:  a budget, a timescale, and a ‘scope’ of exactly what the project should be, make, or accomplish.  About this time last year, NESTRANS (our friendly North East transportation quango/board) told an Aberdeen Civic Forum that it did not know how much the Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route would cost or where the money was coming from.  It also could not say where the route would be going exactly.  Other than such trivialities, the AWPR will no doubt be a triumph.  The speaker did assure us however, that the project would happen in 2012.  Watch this space.

Bad Debts
The City Council HAS shown signs of improvement lately.  This year we are only (?) writing off £2.8 million pounds of ‘bad debt’ this year.  This is a vast improvement on the £11 million it wrote off a few years back.  It seems it’s just too hard to get money from some people who owe tax, parking fines, other fees – so we just declare it ‘bad debt’ and that’s that.  An affluent, economically sound city like Aberdeen can afford to do so.  Especially now that it has found some way to borrow £200 million worth of taxpayer’s money from the central government – which somehow is not going to cost us anything.  Well, unless you are a taxpayer.  Then you are loaning the City Council money.  No prizes for guessing that they want to put most of this into getting rid of  Union Terrace Gardens (sorry, building a prosperous civic square with parking and shops) – and have no interest in reinstating the many services it  has cut .

Sep 242010

Thanks to Mike Shepherd. Introduction by Dave Guthrie.

Few local issues have caused as much controversy as the role of Union Terrace Gardens in Aberdeen’s city centre. Everyone has an opinion.

As far back as 1952 there were plans to extend the gardens by covering over the railway line and Denburn Road. Continue reading »

Sep 102010

By Mike Shepherd

The plan was to build a multi-storey car park in place of Union Terrace Gardens with a concrete civic square on the roof. The local papers carried a drawing of the proposed scheme with happy smiling people wandering aimlessly around a concrete wasteland dotted with a few pot plants.

This view could have come from the feasibility study for the current City Square project, but it did not. This is what had been proposed for the gardens circa 1984 by the commercial company National Car Parks Ltd (NCP). If my memory serves me correctly the council may also have been involved as a joint venture partner.

Back then I worked in an office in Dyce and on the bus to work I read an article on the scheme in the Press and Journal. My initial thoughts were that this was not a serious proposition, the council could not possibly allow a much loved city centre park to be replaced by a multi-storey car park. Soon after, I talked to two of my local councillors and asked them about the plans. To my astonishment not only did they take the proposal seriously, but one of them had a rant at me. As far as he was concerned the sooner Aberdeen was turned into a modern city the better.

This was an alarming situation as it looked as if Aberdeen was about to lose the gardens and there was nothing anyone could do about it. I was overwhelmed by a feeling of powerlessness in the face of greater forces at work. What could I do?

The campaign went viral and the car park scheme became highly controversial throughout the city

I went on to discover in my conversations with family and friends that the scheme was extremely unpopular and I could not find anyone other than councillors who supported it. In fact I could not find anyone that could discuss the issue without losing his or her temper!

I then decided to act. I formed a small campaign group and organised a petition with 2000 signatures. This may not sound that much by comparison to the recent “I heart UTG” petition with over 10,000 names, but this was pre-internet and getting 2000 signatures was hard work back then. We also contacted our councillors and wrote letters to the local press.

Aberdeen is ideally set up for a campaign of this sort. It is a small well-connected city where almost everybody knows somebody that knows you. The campaign went viral and the car park scheme became highly controversial throughout the city. At this point one of the councillors on the leading group running the city decided to speak up and voice his concerns about the plans. His party were then faced with splitting into two factions over the issue or throwing their lot behind the renegade councillor in order to maintain political unity. Subsequently, permission was unanimously rejected by the planning committee and the scheme was dead.

I now find myself 26 years later helping with a new campaign against a very similar scheme to build over Union Terrace Gardens. The councillors are a different bunch now but with the ruling group still out of touch. They are too close to big business in the city and it appears that they do not listen to the people.

Many think that the City Square project is unlikely to happen as it is just too expensive and too risky for the council to get involved with. It could take another two years for the council to realise this or they might even buckle under the pressure sooner than they did in 1984. The Friends of Union Terrace Gardens intend to campaign with the utmost vigour until this happens.

One lesson from 1984 is clear; Union Terrace Gardens occupies a prime site of downtown real estate with big business forever eagerly eyeing it up. The citizens of Aberdeen need to keep eternal vigilance to ensure that this space is kept the way they want it to be; a beautiful Victorian park in harmony with the granite buildings that surround it. The fight has been won before and it will be won again.

If you want to help with the campaign, join the Friends of Union Terrace Gardens on our website.

Aug 202010

By Mike Shepherd.

On Monday, the campaign group Friends of Union Terrace Gardens used the visit of the Scottish Minister for Enterprise, Jim Mather, as the basis for mounting a demonstration against the activities of Scottish Enterprise and ACSEF (Aberdeen City and Shire Economic Forum).

Jim Mather technically oversees Scottish Enterprise, the organisation responsible for funding over £300,000 of public money for the consultation on the City Square Project last year. Continue reading »

Jul 022010

By Sara-Jane Duffus

Aberdeen City Council decided yesterday to progress to the next stage of what was the City Square Project and what is now the, somewhat hastily, rebranded City Gardens Project despite strong objections from many councillors, in particular from the Labour camp.

Deputations were put forward against the Civic Square/ City Gardens Project by Mike Shepherd on behalf of Friends of Union Terrace Gardens and also by Steven Bothwell, owner of Café 52.

Despite neither man winning over the councillors, it raised the issue of whether TIF (Tax Increment Financing) is a valid, effective and secure mechanism with which to “fund the vision.”

Earlier in the day the council rejected the proposal for new purpose built offices at the Oakbank School Site, Mid Stocket Road despite this being one of the projects required to reach fruition to fund the Civic Square via TIF means.

The following questions from councillors during the debate showed an increase in the lack of confidence in this project from all sides. 

Councillor Young asked if there was a legal document in place to secure Sir Ian Woods gift of £50 million. Sue Bruce said discussions were in place to move forward with this.

Councillor Bolton asked that should the design project result in a substantial decrease in the entire cost, will Sir Ian reduce his offer to reflect this. To which there was no clear answer.

Councillor John West asked what opportunities the council would have “to put the brakes on if the designs were unacceptable.” He was assured the council would have the final decision.

Councillor John Stewart’s motion to progress with the project was passed by 25 votes to 15 against Councillor Crockett’s amendment to not take the project any further. Councillor Greig’s motion to progress with the project with amendments to keep the gardens substantially as they are but with improvements such as toilets, improved disabled access and events laid on to promote use of the gardens was also defeated by 22 votes to 7 with 11 abstentions.