May 252017
 

Scott Findlay, Managing Director at CFF Contractors who have been awarded a £1.4m contract.

With thanks to Karen Stewart.

Local developer LOJJ Scotland has awarded a £1.4 million contract for the development of Loch Street property to local firm CFF Contractors.
The 30 bedroom student accommodation development is due for completion this year and will provide much needed accommodation in the heart of Aberdeen city centre.

LOJJ Scotland who have a number of other developments in the area is run by Aberdeen local Alana Stott who is passionate about supporting the local economy and fellow businesses.

Alana said:

“Having worked with CFF Contractors previously we are delighted to award them this contract; knowing their workmanship and reliability made choosing them an easy decision”.

Scott Findlay, Managing Director at CFF Contractors said:

“it’s a pleasure to be working with LOJJ Scotland on this exciting project”

“Aberdeen has seen more than its fair share of challenges recently so it’s great to see new developments taking place which will have a positive impact on the city and surrounding areas.”

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May 252017
 

By Ian Baird.

Every time a report is written about the Harbour Board’s expansion plans into the Bay of Nigg, there is invariably a reference to a Scottish Enterprise report which justified the project in economic terms, along the lines of, ‘An independent study, commissioned by Scottish Enterprise, estimates that the development will generate an additional £1 billion per annum to the economy by 2035 and will create an additional 7,000 equivalent jobs.’
But that Report was written in December 2013, three and a half years ago and therefore pre-dating the current prolonged oil downturn.

Before finally committing to the project in December when a contract was agreed with Dragados, surely in the light of what is acknowledged to be a significantly changed trading environment, the assumptions and projections made in the Biggar Report should have been reviewed?

Had this been done with any vigour, it is difficult not to come to the conclusion that the business case for £350+ million development no longer stands up to scrutiny and proceeding with the development on that basis cannot be justified.

Let’s look at some aspects of the Report from the perspective of 2017.

1) Harbour Capacity: One of the most compelling arguments emanating from the Harbour Board as justification for the expansion was that the harbour was working at or near full capacity. The argument was echoed in the Report which stated:

“It is clear additional capacity is required to retain activity in the oil and gas sector in Scotland.  If this capacity is not developed, then there is a risk that new and existing demand will be lost to Norway. Capacity constraints at the Harbour are also likely to hinder existing and potential users from developing new market opportunities in areas such as renewable energy, decommissioning, passenger ferries and cruise liners.”

As the construction of the expansion begins, is the existing harbour still running at or near full capacity? The Report noted that arrivals to the port in 2012 numbered in excess of 8,100. Based on the Board’s statements we have to assume this figure is close to maximum capacity. By 2014 arrivals were very similar at 7,937, but in 2015 they dropped to 7,428 and then precipitously to 6,462 in 2016 (unpublished).

That’s more than a 20% drop in traffic activity from the 2012 high to 2016. In short, the harbour is no longer working at or near to full capacity. Of course, had the arrivals levelled off at around the 8,000 mark, it could be legitimately argued that capacity issues were inhibiting expansion but with a 20% drop in activity it is clear that this is quite simply a downturn in business.

To update, the first 4 months of 2017 are no better than the equivalent period last year; and so just as the heavy plant moves in to the Bay, annual arrivals are around 1600 fewer per year than when ‘at or near maximum capacity’.

When challenged about declining arrivals at the 2016 AGM, Chief Executive Colin Parker argued lost business because of larger vessels being unable to enter the harbour were the main cause of the decline. This seems a curious statement given that vessels as large as 20,000 tonnes have used the harbour and yet the average gross tonnage is only about 4,000 tonnes. Two of the largest ships using the harbour are the passenger ferries plying to the Orkney and Shetland Isles. They each have a gross tonnage of 11, 720.

How many arrivals were there of vessels with a gross tonnage of over 10,000 tonnes, other than the ferries, using the port in a year? In 2015, only 21 out of 7,428, or .002%; in 2016, ever fewer at 11. Apart from the ferries, the upper 50% of the tonnage capacity range (10,000 to 20,000 tonnes) is virtually unused.

Where is the evidence that lack of size capacity is inhibiting business?

Fig. 1: The Harbour Board claims the existing harbour is too small for larger vessels. This graph shows that, apart from passenger and freight ferries running to the Northern Isles, the upper end of the tonnage capacity range from 7000 tonnes upward is barely utilised by oil-related, cargo or other vessels.

2) The new market opportunities identified in the Reportrenewable energy, decommissioning, passenger ferries and cruise liners – are central in the projections of increasing traffic to the expanded facility. How well does potential success in these markets stand up to scrutiny from today’s perspective? Let us look at each in turn:

Renewable Energy: Despite initial enthusiasm for chasing business in this market, the Harbour Board has been very quiet about prospects in this sector since the Report’s publication.

There has probably been a belated recognition that weaknesses in the local infrastructure (inadequate roads network for heavy and wide loads, lack of fabrication facilities) and being close to neither centres of turbine and blade manufacture nor to the offshore areas identified as potential for offshore wind arrays, means that there are no specific advantages, and several disadvantages, for suppliers of renewable energy components considering using Aberdeen as a transport base.

Biggar suggests a need for creating industry clusters around key infrastructure investment locations, and that one such cluster should incorporate the supply chain for offshore renewables by developing the land beside Nigg Bay as a marine renewable cluster in Aberdeen City and Shire.

Fine words, but despite the fact that construction of the harbour expansion is under way, there seems little action towards this suggested initiative and there seems inadequate land available to develop a suitably well-equipped cluster as proposed.

Decommissioning: Although the total decommissioning market is huge, Aberdeen’s potential to handle significant elements of it will again be limited by onshore infrastructural weaknesses and by the lack of deep-water berthing. Since the Report was published, many other ports in Scotland, North-east England and Norway have signalled their determination to secure a share of the decommissioning market.

Many, such as Dundee, Cromarty, Kirkwall and Scapa Flow are already well ahead in extending infrastructure and capacity. In what will be a highly competitive scramble for work, it is difficult to see Aberdeen, coming late into the game with improved facilities in 2020, attracting any more than relatively minor contracts.

Ferries: Apart from its inclusion in the Report as one of the potential markets for the expanded court, no evidence or research is offered to substantiate the sector as a potential market. The Northern Isles are the only destinations with a regular ferry service to Aberdeen. The existing ferries are large and, although running near to full capacity at peak holiday periods, for much of the year they are running well below.

At current passenger and freight usage levels, larger ferries plying those routes would not be cost-effective. NorthLink have not identified any need, nor expressed any interest, in introducing larger ferries to Kirkwall and Lerwick.

Cruise Ships: The Report predicts that up to 40 cruise ships could be attracted to the new harbour each year but there are quite a number of qualifications to that figure:

“If a new harbour is built and [if] improvements are made to surrounding roads infrastructure then this may make the harbour a more attractive destination for visiting ships. For example road improvements may make it easier for coaches to access to the quayside, which would make it easier for cruise companies to organise excursions for passengers. The additional space may even make it possible to create dedicated visitor reception facilities. [My emphasis]”

The projection of 40 cruise ships per annum is therefore very speculative. While it is true that the average size of cruise ships is rising, ruling out many of them from the opportunity of docking in the existing harbour, it does not follow that a sufficiently large harbour will attract those larger ships. A bigger swimming pool doesn’t necessarily mean more (or larger) swimmers, perhaps just more space per swimmer.

If we compare the new harbour with, for example, Shetland’s port at Lerwick, which is projected to attract 80 cruise ships in 2018, there must be some doubt about its attractiveness as a destination, requiring as it will a bus journey with views (and possibly smells) of a sewage works, possibly an incinerator, Altens industrial estate and a complex onward route to get to either Aberdeen city centre or to Deeside.

In fact, all of the Report’s projections of future economic gains are qualified by the recognition that for their predictions to be realised it would be necessary ‘to upgrade the roads infrastructure in the surrounding area’.

We are now embarking on a £350 million development, not only in the absence of any such planned upgrade, but with the economics of the North Sea oil industry considerably changed for the worse, and with technological changes and innovations which lessen Aberdeen’s ability to attract certain kinds of business (for example the commissioning of the Pioneering Spirit vessel which can lift and transport complete platform topsides of up to 48,000 tonnes to a limited number of deep-water berths).

There is no doubt that on the completion of the new harbour, some additional types and sizes of vessels will visit the port.

The question is: will they do so in sufficient numbers and frequency to justify a £360 million investment and the permanent loss of a valuable amenity to the local community?

To fulfil the expectations of the Biggar Report, harbour activity not only has to regain the current 20% loss of traffic but has to utilise to near capacity the additional 25% berthing the expansion will enable. That’s 45% above current activity.

Given that the mainstay of the harbour is oil-related business and that it is not contested that it is an industry in decline, there must be a huge question mark over the prediction that in Year 20 of the Report’s projections the net economic impact of Aberdeen Harbour in the City and Shire will be 12,350 jobs and £1.8 billion GVA (Gross Value Added).

The questions are these therefore. What re-evaluation of the Biggar Report was undertaken prior to the final decision to proceed with the expansion into the Bay of Nigg? Is anyone from the Harbour Board, Biggar Economics or Scottish Enterprise prepared to stand by the projections in the 2013 Report? If not, on what basis is the project proceeding?

Sources: Economic impact of Aberdeen Harbour Nigg Bay Development – A final report to Scottish Enterprise, Biggar Economics, December 2013

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Apr 282017
 

With thanks to Ross Anderson, Senior Account Manager, Citrus:Mix

Construction work has begun on a £16 million student accommodation development in Aberdeen.
Focused on sustainability and technology this next generation of student accommodation will meet the needs of the newest university generation.

The development, is located on the former tyre depot at the corner of Willowbank Road and Hardgate, will serve both Robert Gordon University (RGU) and the University of Aberdeen, benefiting from good public transport links and close proximity to the city centre.

Carlisle-based Northern Developments has started work on a 222 en-suite student bedroom scheme which received planning consent in 2016.

Northern Developments has delivered more than 1,000 student beds across the North of England and bring 32 years’ experience in design and build delivery. This experience is reflected in the focus on sustainability of the building and ensuring that the experience of the students living in it will be of the highest quality.

Aberdeenshire sub-contractor Andrew Cowie Ltd has started groundworks on the site and the project will be complete in the summer of 2018 for September arrivals.

Eddie Ward, commercial manager for Northern Developments, said:

“We are very pleased to have started work on the Willowbank Road site and look forward to delivering this exciting development.

“It will meet the demands of modern student living in every respect and will be very appealing to the millennial generation who quite rightly expect high standards and the latest technology to suit their technological and educational needs.

“As a business we strive to use a local supply chain to both deliver the best in class development but to also support a local economy such as that in Aberdeen.”

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Apr 132017
 

Port of Malaga. Photo by Daniel Bichler.

By Ian Baird.

When in December Aberdeen Harbour Board’s Chairman Alistair MacKenzie signed the contract with Dragados’ representative in Scotland – Daniel Paunero Alonso – to build the harbour’s £350 million expansion into the Bay of Nigg, it was the culmination of an an idea which had been conceived six years earlier.

Against stiff local opposition, with multiple planning and maritime applications to overcome, and complex loan agreements to negotiate, Chief Executive Colin Parker, the Chairman, and his fellow Board members must have breathed a huge sigh of relief when finally reaching the stage where building could commence.

But Daniel Alonso would have had a smile on his lips too. He had helped secure a huge contract for his firm in his operating region of Scotland.

Three years earlier, Daniel’s star wasn’t shining so brightly. In October 2013 in his then capacity of Manager of Dragados in Spain, together with Sanchez Domines, President of Dragados’ parent company Sando, he was summoned to testify as a defendant in a tribunal case in Malaga. The pair’s presence was required to answer allegations of irregularities in projects undertaken by the two companies at the Port of Malaga in 2008.

The Port was claiming losses amounting to a total of €5.3 million as a result of work carried out which subsequently proved not to be done to specification. The prosecution in the case, which is still ongoing after 5 years of investigation, is demanding a total of 26 years of imprisonment for 5 directors and engineers of the two companies for the crimes of document falsification, embezzlement and fraud.

Is this important as far as the Harbour Board is concerned?

Well, it may be the end of the planning and approval stage, but it’s only the beginning of what will be, at a minimum, three years of construction. Entrusting Dragados with this major project should mean that the Harbour Board has exercised due diligence in satisfying itself that the company has a sufficiently impressive record to give them confidence that the construction will be completed on time, on budget and to the required specification.

Is it possible that in their haste to ensure that planning, financial and contractual matters all fell into place, the Harbour Board, inexperienced in awarding such a large contract and struggling to raise the necessary finance, were overly hasty in agreeing a deal with Dragados, lured by the most attractive tender price to the exclusion of other considerations?

Had the Harbour Board investigated the details of the problems in Malaga, they would have found that there were two projects that ran into problems after their completion.

what happened in Malaga should, at the very least, have sounded a warning bell or two

The first was at the South cruise ship mooring in the Port which had been built in a joint venture between Sando and Dragados. Following a slight collision with the mooring by a cruise ship in 2008, an investigation into the damage to the pier established that fewer, and thinner, pilings had been used in its construction than had been specified.

In this case a State General Inspection concluded that the discrepancy in value between what was paid for by the Port and what was built by the two companies amounted to €1.8 million.

The second project which ran into trouble at the Port was at container dock no. 9. This was also a joint venture with Sando, but in this case Dragados was the leading partner.

After a particular vessel was unable to access the dock, it was discovered that the excavated depth of the mooring was less than had been specified and, additionally, that debris had been dumped in it. In this case the discrepancy between what was charged for by the companies and what was delivered was estimated at €3.6 million.

In addition to these very specific problems with a failure to build to specifications, there were also in both cases significant cost hikes.

The budget estimate for building the South mooring was €8 million but eventually cost €12.21 million – 50% over budget; the budget estimate for container dock 9 was €28.2 million but eventually cost €35.9 million – 25% over budget.

From the perspective of Aberdeen Harbour Board what happened in Malaga should, at the very least, have sounded a warning bell or two. Of course it is true that Dragados have been involved as contractors in many major projects without landing in court as in this highlighted case. But globally their record of completing projects on time and on budget where they are a major contractor on very large projects is very patchy [1].

By giving Dragados the major responsibility for a £350 million (budgeted) project (almost 10 times as much as the budgets for the two Malaga projects combined), has the Board considered a) the likelihood and b) the implications, of a cost increase and/or a delayed completion time?

Let’s say there was a 20% increase in costs and a 30% increase in construction time. Can the Board finance, for example, a £420 million project which takes four years to build instead of three?

Even if they can, will future business be able to service the loan or will the cruise ship and decommissioning markets prove to be elusive in the face of aggressive competition and a possible severe economic downturn? The combination of a cost escalation, a delayed completion date and a continuation of the oil downturn in the North Sea could prove to be a fatal combination for the Harbour Board’s ambitions.

if the Bay is to be lost it should at least be for very tangible benefits for Aberdeen

This article does not accuse Daniel Alonso of being complicit or having any knowledge of the failings in the two projects in Malaga and perhaps not too much should be read into the fact that he is now in Scotland rather than managing the company’s home territory.

But it seems extraordinary that with so much at stake, the Harbour Board is totally reliant on a company which has proved in the past that its management team failed to ensure adherence to specifications on two major harbour projects and exceeded budgeted costs so spectacularly.

Historically, one of the benefits to local communities of Trust Ports has been that no profits are dispensed to shareholders. That has meant that all profits have been re-invested in port improvements to help increase traffic and enhance local economic activity, as indeed has been the case with Aberdeen Harbour Trust until now.

But the absence of shareholders can have an adverse effect when projects that require external financing are considered. Because there is no financial risk to any individual Board Member or employee, the Board is in a position to back projects knowing that it is risk-free from their own personal perspective. That same phenomenon was responsible for the reckless trading by bankers prior to the 2008 crash.

If this project fails badly, either because of delays, escalating costs, unpredicted market conditions, or a combination of all three, the individuals who currently comprise the Board and the Executive will quietly retire (Chief Executive Colin Parker has already announced his imminent retirement), leaving a badly crippled Trust Port to recover from a gamble which didn’t pay off.

The residents of Torry who opposed the harbour development in the Bay of Nigg did so because of the loss of the Bay as an amenity, and the resulting general degradation of the local environment through increased traffic and pollution.

Whether the harbour would ultimately prove a commercial success or not has not been a major consideration. But now that it appears about to become a reality, I’m sure the concensus will be that if the Bay is to be lost it should at least be for very tangible benefits for Aberdeen and the wider community.

It would be a cruel blow indeed if the Bay was sacrificed for a speculative project which ultimately proves under-utilised and a financial millstone to the Harbour Board, and the Bay of Nigg is destroyed for no useful gain.

Notes:

  1. To cite just three examples, Dragados USA is 3 years behind schedule and $223 million over budget in a tunnel-boring project in Seattle; the company was removed from the Florida Department of Transportation’s list of qualified contractors because of project delays and other problems, it being stated that on some projects they “have a variety of materials and workmanship issues that will have to be addressed before FDOT will accept the work.”; and Los Angeles Metro Agency refused to give a major contract to Dragados, despite being the cheapest bidder, because they considered they had a high probability of exposing the agency to cost overruns and project delays,

Sources:

Dársena Case’ by Marta Sánchez Esparza / Malaga, El Mundo,  23/10/2013
http://www.elmundo.es/elmundo/2013/10/13/andalucia_malaga/1381659778.html

Article, by Agustin Rivera, El Confidencial, 5/10/2013
http://www.elconfidencial.com/espana/andalucia/2013-10-05/el-presidente-de-sando-imputado-por-el-agujero-del-puerto-de-malaga_37380/

Article by S. Sánchez, Málaga, Málaga Hoy , 16/10/2013
http://www.malagahoy.es/malaga/presidente-Sando-descarga-tecnicos-puerto_0_743925794.html

‘Sacramento sewer contractor faced delays, minority hiring violations’ The Sacramento Bee, June 4, 2016
http://www.sacbee.com/news/investigations/the-public-eye/article81843937.html

‘Beleaguered Seattle tunnel project facing $223M cost overrun, 3-year delay’, Construction Dive, July 25, 2016
http://www.constructiondive.com/news/beleaguered-seattle-tunnel-project-facing-223m-cost-overrun-3-year-delay/423164/

‘The prosecution asks for 26 years of imprisonment for five people responsible for port works’, Ignacio San Martin, La Cadena SER, 16 November 2016 http://cadenaser.com/emisora/2016/11/18/ser_malaga/1479473619_856001.html

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Feb 172017
 

With thanks to Aberdeenshire SNP.

Aboyne, Upper Deeside and Donside SNP councillor Geva Blackett (pictured) has hailed the start of the project to reinstate Ballater’s popular Old Royal Station, destroyed by fire nearly two years ago.

The B-listed building, owned by the council, was historically used by the Royal Family travelling to nearby Balmoral Castle and was hit by a fire which broke out in May 2015.

The building had been leased to VisitScotland for the last 15 years and housed a Visitor Information Centre, restaurant, museum, clothes shop and photography business.

Although much of the building was severely damaged by the fire, a replica Royal carriage survived, as well as various undamaged display cases.

Aberdeenshire Council committed to rebuilding the station and subsequently submitted a successful planning application to the Cairngorms National Park Authority.

There will be changes to how the internal space will be used – both the Visitor Information Centre and the restaurant will return and these will be joined by a library and an enhanced exhibition space. The Royal Carriage will be reinstalled as one of the main attractions.

The project, expected to cost in the region of £3million, is expected to be completed in December of this year, all being well.

The principle elevations of the original building will be reinstated matching the Victorian architecture and detailing, including Queen Victoria’s Waiting Room.

Commenting, Cllr Geva Blackett said:

“This marks the start of the restoration of this iconic building that plays such an important role in Ballater and indeed the whole of Royal Deeside.  Watching the first turf being dug makes me hugely optimistic that the fortunes of this beautiful village have turned a corner.”

Aberdeenshire Provost Hamish Vernal marked the start of the project by cutting the first turf with a ceremonial spade and wheelbarrow used to start the construction of Ballater Railway Station by the Great North of Scotland Railway Company in 1865.

He said:

“Ballater has had a tough time lately. The fire was a terrible tragedy along with the devastation suffered as a consequence of Storm Frank.

“However, I can see real progress with many shops open for business again and more and more residents returned to their homes.  Therefore, it is great to see another milestone achieved through the start of the construction work to redevelop the Old Royal Station.”

Morgan Sindall area director, Mark McBride, said:

“Morgan Sindall has a successful track record of delivering public sector projects and we’re proud to have been selected for one that has such significance to people not only in the local area, but across Scotland as a whole.

“It’s our first contract awarded through Aberdeenshire Council’s main contractor framework and we’re pleased to get work underway. 
 
“Ballater Old Royal Station has a rich cultural history and is integral to the region’s tourism industry. We’re mindful of the need to retain as many of the original heritage features as possible during the restoration process and confident that the finished building will be well received.”

The station was opened in October 1866 by the Great North of Scotland Railway and was the nearest station to Balmoral Castle. It closed in February 1966.

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Dec 012016
 

Sometimes it’s best to keep it all in the family. Here’s a heartwarming tale from our roving reporter, Bec Hander.

money-euro-1144835_1280In a resounding victory for transparency, objectivity, and fair play, an Aberdeen City Senior Sustainable Development Officer was awarded 3 EcoCity Awards worth in the region of £1500 from Aberdeen City. The selection committee included academics, councillors, and several of the winner’s fellow ACC officers.

The Officer, also a director of a local community energy scheme that promises to ‘more than double’ the punter’s investment, is thought to be overcome by surprise at winning 3 of the 7 awards; he had expected to get them all we hear.

The award application details are:

“The EcoCity Awards recognise and reward local people for their efforts to make Aberdeen a more sustainable city. Members of the Sustainable Development Team in partnership with the Environmental Services Team, Transport Team and the Recycling Team, have worked together on the EcoCity Awards 2016 and invite submissions from individuals, community groups, schools, businesses, charities and other organisations.”

– and what could be more local than someone salaried by the City to work as a Senior Sustainable Development Officer?

Demonstrating its largess and generosity, the City Council and officers both recommended and invested in the scheme – very canny as they will ‘more than double’ their investment – and are going to assist with landscaping. They have already generously advertised the investment offer in their publication Our Green Times – modestly not naming the officer who is a director of this scheme, and who won an unequalled 3 Eco City awards.

Judges are thinking of changing the criteria next year, making it mandatory for award winners to already be working as city council officers. A few sore losers pointed out that normally a competition is closed to people who are related to, or work with, the judges or the organisation giving out the awards. Aberdeen City however always operates in such a transparent and fair manner that such criteria would not be necessary.

One of the winning officer’s awards was for his work as an individual.

It brought a tear to the eye of all present that this young man has managed to work full time for the council in a senior environmental capacity (is that full time? He must be working around the clock to avoid doing his hydro scheme on ACC taxpayer time or using ACC resources), get his outside project funded by the council, have the hydro advertised to the public in the council’s green publication, and somehow managed as an individual to get an extra £500 – or whatever it was.

Asked whether the council had any qualms about the promises publicly made by this winner to double a person’s investment, the council obligingly said it backs that statement completely. Should any investors not double their money, the council will, as advertiser, supporter, and investor in this scheme, be over the moon to make up any losses an investor might have.

It’s not as if there is any favouritism, cronyism, or mutual backscratching going on

This award-winning environmental officer managed to make great savings for the city. Not long ago, he ensured that local people on a photography course would have their photographs used in a publication that went to thousands of homes – without paying the photographers a penny or even asking their permission.

Most of course were just so humbled and honoured to see their work in print that they were overcome with emotion, even if some were residents of poor areas of the city – what’s money at the end of the day?

None of the directors of the hydro project are going to get any money from the project we have been told; in fact, they’re spending their own money with no thought of reward according to an email they sent. Just as well then that the city is putting money into its employee’s plans, advertising it, and bunging him the odd £1500 here and there – sorry – I mean giving him a well-deserved handful of awards based on him being just another average guy in the community.

Any similarity to this cash windfall and the time that arts grants money was awarded to an ACC arts officer who knew the judges is purely coincidental. It’s not as if there is any favouritism, cronyism, or mutual backscratching going on in Marischal College. With that kind of paranoid attitude, you’d be expecting them to give builders like Stewart Milne huge tracts of land for a song – and that’s never happened, has it?

Any suggestion that there might have been conflicts of interest, unethical overlaps in the roles of those involved in applying for and awarding awards to an ACC officer are without any foundation.

We can look forward to many more such schemes from our council in the future – make no mistake.

Images courtesy of Pixabay, used under creative commons license. Featured Image, credit: Geralt. Top right and thumbnail, credit: Janeb13.

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Nov 042016
 

There are few people taking to social media to profess love for Muse’s Marischal Square development which is growing up and around – and now under Provost Skene House.  Photographs from the site show that far from respecting the house, it is not only surrounded by this oversized new office structure, but also digging works are also taking place which certainly seem less than safe for the Provost Skene House. Article by Jon Symons, Photographs by Suzanne Kelly of the Provost’s House as it now sits, and from Writing from Scotland – by Christine Laennec.

provost-skene-house-one-use-onlyPhotographs which have appeared on social media make it look as if the fabric of Lord Provost Skene House is not being respected by the builders. Aberdeen Voice has been promised access to the site and a statement from the builders.

This will be published in due course.

So what is it about Provost Skene House (PSH) that inspires an abiding affinity with most Aberdonians?

Is it the fact it was initially built in 1545 and is 471 years old?

Is it the fact Mary the First was on the Scottish throne when the foundation stones were laid?

Perhaps it’s because PSH is the oldest surviving house in Aberdeen and one of the few remaining examples of early burgh architecture in the city.

It has an exceptional interior with outstanding examples of 17th century plasterwork and a painted gallery with an unusual cycle of religious tempera paintings.

The first records of the house date back to 1545 and the vaulted basement is likely to be from this period.

In 1622 this former three storey house was bought by Matthew Lumsden who added a two storey and attic gabled section to the south west side. His Coat-of-Arms, dated 1626 is clearly visible in one of the dormer gables.

The house was then bought in 1669 by the wealthy merchant and later Provost of Aberdeen, George Skene of Rubislaw and he reconstructed the original house and built the square tower on the north west side.

The house is steeped in history and was used by the marauding Duke of Cumberland’s troops in 1746 and for a long time after was known as ‘Cumberland’s House’.

In 1732, the house was divided into two separate tenements but was then brought together again in the mid 19th century and later used as a lodging house (Victoria Lodging House) but thereafter it slowly fell into disrepair.

Many of the slum buildings surrounding it were demolished in the 1930s but a public campaign (purportedly supported by the Queen Mother) saved Provost Skene House from Council vandalism.

provost-skene-house-one-use-only-facadeThe painted gallery is important and unusual.

Originally depicting The Life of Christ in 10 panels the ceiling is by an unknown artist although it does show Flemish and Germanic influences.

Some of the armorial devices included in the paintings may be those of previous owner Matthew Lumsden and this suggests the ceiling may have been painted between 1622-44.

The smaller painted room depicts landscapes with figures all done in a Classical style.

The archway, now removed at Muse’s instigation, was transported from Union Terrace Gardens and rebuilt at the house in 1931.

In the sixties the then Council decided to erect the monstrosity known as St Nicholas House and PSH was virtually hidden from public view from 1968 until 2013 when the Council’s carbuncle was finally demolished.

You could be forgiven for thinking Aberdonians had forgotten about their historical city centre jewel but that was not the case. During the limited (some might say derisory) consultation with the public on what should be done with the site it became obvious that Aberdeen’s residents had rediscovered their love for PSH.

Even the present Council realised this and determined, in recognition of the importance of the Broad Street site to the future of the city centre, officers should explore the options open to the council to ensure any development was of the highest quality and sympathetic to Provost Skene House and Marischal College and ruled that should include consideration of the council developing the site through a joint venture and the possibility of a design competition tender exercise.

Of course, saying one thing and doing something completely different would seem to be the hallmark of the current Council administration and it appears they have put money and potential profit ahead of all other considerations.

The final design (Muse Developments) was supposedly chosen by an unbiased and independently minded ten person working group based on Urban Design, Culture and Heritage but only five of the group were Councillors. The other five were Council Officers and an employee of Ryden, the site selling agent and later the company Muse chose to market the property.

More recently photographs have shown the apparent disregard the contractor has shown for PSH as they appear to dig under the south west gable end foundations with no obvious support for the four hundred and seventy one year old building.

When completed the Council seems determined to dumb down the house and use some of the rooms to showcase the likes of Joey Harper, Annie Lennox and other lesser known Aberdeen celebrities.

provost-skene-house-one-use-only-detailThey have also decided not to reopen the once popular PSH tea room and this may well be because they hope to rent the ground floor retail units of Marischal Square to fast food outlets.

Provost Skene House is a national, never mind a city, treasure and most Aberdonians hoped and thought it would finally be showcased in the green grassed and tree lined surroundings it deserved.

Unfortunately it seems this Council, just like the one in the nineteen thirties, has little if any regard for the needs and wants of Aberdeen’s long suffering citizens but then again, why on earth should we be surprised?

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Oct 272016
 

By Duncan Harley, and with thanks to Erica Banks, Communications Officer, Aberdeen Performing Arts.

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Emeli Sandé has pledged her support to the multi-million pound scheme to launch the historic venue into the 21st century and beyond

Built to a design by Archibald Simpson and opened in 1822, performers as diverse as Charles Dickens, Elton John and comedy puppet duo Pinky and Perky have trodden the boards to entertain and amaze Aberdeen audiences. Politicians such as Tony Benn, Winston Churchill, and Lloyd George also put in appearances, and throughout its history the building has played host to everything from concerts and bazaars to theatre and sporting events.

Indeed many Aberdonians can still recall their shock introduction to Glam Rock when in far off 1972 a hopeful David Bowie accompanied by legendary guitarist Mick Ronson brought Spiders from Mars to a Music Hall audience.

As the “A Listed” venue begins an £8m restoration and regeneration uplift, Aberdeen Performing Arts (APA) has announced that Alford-born singer-songwriter Emeli Sandé has pledged her support to the multi-million pound scheme to launch the historic venue into the 21st century and beyond.

“The Music Hall holds so many fond memories for me” said former Alford Academy pupil Emeli,

“From the music festivals in primary school to my first tour, the beautiful atmosphere and stunning acoustics really make this a special place to perform.”

The project is spearheaded by APA, the charitable trust which runs the Music Hall, His Majesty’s Theatre and The Lemon Tree.

To date, fundraising efforts have raised a massive £6.5m towards the transformation, including major contributions from Aberdeen City Council, Creative Scotland, The Heritage Lottery Fund, Historic Environment Scotland, The Robertson Trust, The Foyle Foundation, Garfield Weston, The Wolfson Foundation and The Hugh Fraser Foundation.

This week a £150,000 sponsorship deal has been agreed between APA and Aberdeen Solicitors’ Property Centre. Aberdeen Inspired has also gifted £50,000, bringing the total funds raised to just over 80 percent of the final total, £7.9m, ahead of re-opening in Autumn/Winter 2018.

Jane Spiers, APA Chief Executive commented:

“We are so thrilled to have begun the next chapter in the life of the Music Hall. This is a huge campaign that has been years in the making – it has taken many months of planning and fundraising. However, this project is about much more than bricks and mortar. The Music Hall is a national treasure with decades of wonderful history behind it.

The range and calibre of artists, musicians and events the Hall has hosted over nearly 200 years is truly astonishing and its place at the heart of community and civic life is unassailable. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who has a connection with Aberdeen who doesn’t have a story to tell about the Music Hall – a prize giving, graduation, great concert, school orchestra, a romantic encounter.

We’re delighted that Emeli Sandé is lending her support to the transformation and we are proud to be developing a venue which will be international in outlook and also operate at the heart of the ever-growing arts community in the North-east.”

Plans for the revamped Music Hall include upgrades to the historic auditorium with new seating, flooring and more flexible staging, new performance, rehearsal and education spaces, upgraded artist facilities, a new foyer, box office and café bar and new ramps and lifts to improve access to all areas.

Jane added:

“It really is an ingenious re-imagining of the space. We’re restoring and retaining the Music Hall’s historic fabric and its wonderful acoustic and at the same time we’re adding new features in keeping with the expectations of a 21st century audience … our venues are a vital part of cultural life in the city”

Aberdeen City Council leader Jenny Laing backed up Jane’s comments

“The Music Hall redevelopment is a wonderful example of projects taking place in the city centre which will deliver a positive impact”

and Sean O’Callaghan of main contractor Kier Construction commented that

“It’s a privilege to restore this historic and much loved building. Our expertise and experience in delivering a diverse range of iconic heritage projects across Scotland stands us in good stead as we renovate Aberdeen Music Hall for future generations to enjoy.”

If you would like to support the project via donations, by lending the support of your business or by becoming a Music Hall ambassador contact Aberdeen Performing Arts .

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Oct 272016
 

With thanks to Esther Green, Senior Account Executive, Tricker PR

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Sophie Ewen.

Aberdonian Sophie Ewen (20), who began her career as an apprentice, has been nominated as Apprentice Ambassador of the Year in the 2016 Scottish Apprenticeship Awards.

Sophie, who completed her business and administration modern apprenticeship with Aberdeen Asset Management, is now the firm’s graduate programme co-ordinator.

The awards, which are organised by Skills Development Scotland will be announced at The National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh on 3 November.

The awards aim to showcase excellent apprentices who deserve recognition for their hard work as well as employers who are committed to the apprenticeship programme.

Sophie, who is a former pupil at the city’s St Machar Academy, was one of the first apprentices recruited by Aberdeen Asset Management in 2012 when the apprenticeship programme was introduced to complement the company’s existing intern and graduate programmes.

As well as studying for her Highers and Advanced Highers, Sophie was an active participant in the school’s extracurricular groups as well as being on the school’s charity committee and involved with the equal opportunities group.

Initially considering applying for a University course, Sophie was attracted to the business and administration modern apprenticeship as a way to join a large global company where she could earn while she learned and gain valuable working experience.  Through the structured rotation programme between different departments, Sophie quickly realised that HR was the perfect fit for her.

On completion of her apprenticeship, Sophie remained in the HR team where she helps in the co-ordination of Aberdeen Asset Management’s talent programme including apprenticeships, investment trainees, interns and graduates. Sophie also runs employability workshops for school leavers, mentors young people to help them get job-ready and finds time to volunteer with a number of training related charities.

Aberdeen supported Sophie to complete her investment operations qualification and she is currently working towards an HR chartership.

Martin Gilbert, chief executive of Aberdeen Asset Management commented:

“Sophie clearly has all the attributes and skills needed to be an Apprentice Ambassador of the Year. With her ambition and initiative she is a popular member of the Aberdeen team and never fails to help colleagues. Just like Sophie, we’ve found all our apprentices to be keen, motivated individuals who are committed to on-the-job training and learning.

“By rotating to different departments, our apprentices learn a wide range of skills and develop knowledge that will stand them in good stead for the future, while gaining a feel for the business and finding out which area best suits them and their skills and interests. We will all be cheering on Sophie in November when the winners are announced.”

The Aberdeen Asset Management programme for apprenticeships which will start in September 2017 will open in February 2017. The apprenticeship runs for 12 to 24 months and apprentices rotate to different teams every four months to give a well-rounded view of the asset management industry and its related functions.

The rotational aspect of the programme helps apprentices learn about the organisation, meet the people involved and help them decide which area of the business to begin their career in. As well as learning on the job, Aberdeen provides apprentices with an extensive induction, access to training courses and qualifications during their apprenticeship. More can be found at http://graduates.aberdeen-asset.com/en/graduates/apprenticeships.

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Sep 162016
 

Is Mother Nature Beating Trump Back? A Freedom of Information request response indicates the Marram-haired moghul is no match for Mother Nature. The FOI disclosure also shows that while the club and the Shire have a chummy, joking relationship, they are failing to keep the Master Plan updated. Suzanne Kelly reports.

empty-golf-course2016 correspondence between Aberdeenshire and Trump International Golf Links Scotland indicates all might not be well at the so-called ‘World’s Greatest Golfcourse’.

The Masterplan is not looking particularly masterful.

Scotland’s shifting sand dune system appears to lack the level of deference Aberdeenshire has shown to Trump so far.

A Freedom of Information Request was lodged to disclose:

“… all correspondence – whether electronic or paper based between Aberdeenshire Council and Trump International Golf Links Scotland, Menie Estate, Balmedie AB23 8YE, and / or any parent company thereof concerning: environmental health issues, use of chemicals, waste management including incineration of waste, drainage, ‘bunds’ such as those near Leyton Farm Cottage on Leyton Farm Road, animal populations, use of private security firms, data protection compliance for the year 2016 to date.

“Such correspondence might be to or from: Sarah Malone, Sarah Malone-Bates, Sarah Bates, Donald J Trump, Donald Trump, Donald Trump Jr, George Sorial.”

The heavily redacted response (some pages are fully redacted) shows that sand and wind are causing havoc.

*  A 22 February memo refers to a site visit which took place on 19 February. This email memo indicates work was done on the burn and the dunes; an email presumably from the Shire council asks for photographs of the burn prior to works being carried out.

*  on 23 February, someone (presumably a TIGLS employee) wrote back with the requested photographs to say:

“… you will clearly see that the burn is full of sand which has caused the water levels to rise and flood and cause damage to our bridge, etc. You guys personally witnessed the sand/blow movement that was blowing sand into areas of the burn. And that was not even a dry windy day. 

“The pictures of the dunes again you will clearly see we did not clear any existing marrum grass of [sic] the dune itself. All these areas were pure sand caused by the storms which resulted in the sand blowing all over the 4th hole and filling up the burn on the far side. 

“As you witnessed we are doing our best to replant with Marrum to try and save/stabilize the dune and also protect our championship golf course. Also you will see the tunnel/area where it was cutting through from the sea to the golf course.” 

Perhaps attempting to stabilize a sand dune system on the North East coast of Scotland in Winter was not such a good idea.

suzanne-kelly-by-collapsed-section-of-course-photo-by-rob-av

Suzanne Kelly witnesses course erosion on a previous visit to Trump International.

The Shire subsequently acknowledges that the before and after pictures ‘shows the damage’. There is banter between the parties as to how cold it was on the visit, and how being a marram planter is not one of the visitor’s career choice. The conversational tone is perhaps not the same as the Shire’s planners use when dealing with normal members of the public who have had planning breach issues.

When the planning and environmental issues were dealt with by the Scottish Reporters’ Report, when the golf complex was approved, the idea was to have environmental monitoring that would be robust and thorough. This is not happening.

On 10 March, stating the obvious – i.e. that the dunes are not static – the Shire writes:

“Having reviewed the approved Management Plan this does not cover such events [presumably the winter storms; if so this would seem to be a major oversight] in sufficient detail (Major blow out of the dune ridge). These dune systems are very dynamic in nature [you don’t say] and one of the features it is [sic] particularly noted for is the mobility of the dunes. Therefore it is likely that the same event could reoccur in the future.

“The dunes between the Ythan Estuary and Blackdog have been identified by Aberdeenshire Council as a Local Nature Conservation Site – a regionally important site for biodiversity and geomorphology. One of the key features of the golf course at Menie [is] the nature of this stretch of coastline will change in nature but it is important to manage future events to minimise the disturbance to the dune ridge.”

Is the Shire suggesting that the protection of the club needs to be managed? Who will weigh whether such future ‘management’ will have a negative impact on biodiversity and tne nature of the unique dune system? Certainly not Professor Bill Ritchie. Ritchie was quoted in the Reporters’ Report as supporting the Trump scheme.

He was to have kept the environmental watch group ‘MEMAG’ working – but as its minutes show, MEMAG descended into shambles, with Trump personnel skipping meetings. Ritchie never commented on this situation.

The email continues, noting a rather serious failure; the Management Plan is not being reviewed annually:

“I note that the Management Plan states it is to be reviewed annually which has not been the case as far as I am aware. Therefore I would request that this is reviewed in light of the recent storms and steps identified of how to deal with future storms with particular emphasis on the watercourse and coastal dune ridge. 

“This would enable future storm damage to be dealt with without the same intervention from outside agencies [what agencies? one wonders] and minimise any long term damage to these dunes.”

Is so-called ‘long term damage’ the same as the dunes following the previously-natural moving and shifting pattern? Did the environmental experts do their job correctly in approving the area for a golf course? The case could be made that the environmental experts might have underestimated the power of storms and the dynamic nature of the dunes.

Having stood on part of a collapsed course some years back, and reading this now – it looks like a case could be made that the experts got it badly wrong.

The email continues:

“We would consult with SNH, Environmental Planners and SEPA on the proposals. … In addition I would request that the Habitat Management Plan is also reviewed in relation to Otters to avoid further complaints regarding their habitat.”

It could be inferred that the Habitat Management Plan is possibly not updated either, seeing as the Management Plan is not being updated. Sadly, the emphasis is clearly on avoiding complaints regarding otter habitat rather than on protecting the otters, their habitat, and other wildlife.

Perhaps this failure to properly estimate the dynamic dunes, the wildlife and the storms means that an overly-rosy picture was painted by the golf resort’s protagonists? From here, it looks like development of a wild place at all costs prevailed on the day the course was permitted.

However, it now seems Mother Nature has failed to read the memo on Trump’s vision for the ‘world’s greatest course’ and is taking a bit of direct action herself.

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