Feb 142013
 

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

Another week passes in Aberdeen; Jamie Oliver’s new Italian restaurant had its first tasting sessions, and bookings extend way into the future. I feel kind of badly that no one told the poor guy we were ‘closed for business’, having rejected the Granite Web.

Then again, since 6,000 people will be in the promised jobs created by Donald Trump, this will mean we need more restaurants, too. Since the government said it, it must be true.

Our city council has put forward a plan to spend £56 million and improve our city centre and our roads.

To think – we could have spent only £84 million more, forgotten about fixing the few potholes we have, and built a granite web instead. Sophisticated culture-seekers would forget Venice, Paris and Rome to come walk up one side of the web and down the other.

I did say I’d be pleased to stop writing about the web, but its supporters, realising their vision is the only vision, are still using their influence to float this idea.  They are going to flog this dead horse a while longer it seems.

Flogging dead horses is something which has been going on in Europe for some time as far as our meat is concerned anyway. Which leads to some definitions for the week

Labelling problem (modern European Union compound noun) – a minor, unimportant event where something has had the incorrect label put on it.

Thinking of dead horses, I wouldn’t worry too much about eating horse meat. Sure, you may have been paying through the nose for beef, or perhaps you’re buying budget ready meals for you and your family. Meat is meat of course. Except for the small fact you’ve probably been cheated and lied to so someone could make a profit at your expense.

Just because meat packing companies were lying about what the meat actually was, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they’d mislead us over anything else, does it?   Some people might care about hygiene, animal welfare issues including transport, but I’m sure everything’s fine on that score. You can bet on it (and you could probably have bet on that hamburger you’re tucking into when it was alive).

Don’t worry about anything to do with your health and diet; the European Union are having a meeting or two on the horse meat issue. Result! I’ll bet you feel better already.  First and foremost, they’ve decided they were in no way at fault in this situation. I’m sure we agree.  I for one would hate to nag my MEP over this issue, or saddle him with any other worries.

EU agricultural regulations might just be a tad complicated, and might be enforced differently from one country to the next (or not enforced at all), but it’s nothing to do with our lawmakers, their abattoir inspectors, their agricultural policies, etc. According to news website EU business, the EU Commission spokesman Frederic Vincent reassuringly said at a news conference on the possibility of a British ban on EU meat exports:-

“We’re not talking about a food safety issue.   Nobody got sick as far as I know. It’s just a labelling issue. So at this stage a ban on anything would not be appropriate.”

The Commission itself could only legally take action if there was proof of a health issue, he added.
http://www.eubusiness.com/britain-france-food

Old Susannah is so happy to learn no one got sick.  Guess that’s the end of the food worry.

I’m sure it’s unimportant, but if you’re interested, some of the drugs we give horses to treat ailments such as inflammation  include ‘Bute’ – a medicine which arguably is linked to cancer in humans. But no worries.  ‘No one got sick.’

If a person did come in contact with cancerous materials, they’d instantly ‘get sick.’ Thankfully we have great scientific minds at work in the EU and not just politicians trying to worm their way out of tough situations via damage-limitation exercises in spin.

We’ve established that a person might not be instantly physically sick just from eating horse (which is a staple meat in many places – so much so it makes me wonder why the EU spokesperson had to say ‘no one got sick’).  I’m sure this little misadventure in mis-labelling  will be totally comical to the thousands of horse-lovers who’ll find out they’ve eaten horse meat when thinking they were eating something else.

The EU’s Muslim population will likewise be delighted to find that pork might have contaminated their food, too. Perhaps we’ll have a new brand of horse steak ‘I can’t believe it’s not burger!’

we can’t have countries just going around deciding what they’re going to do on their own, can we?

Sadly, there are those who don’t take the EU’s word at face value for some reason or other.  Damian Carrington of the Guardian has written an article asserting that EU policy change was responsible in part for this situation.  He’s found a few so-called experts (like some guy Dr Mark Woolfe, head of food authenticity at the FSA)  to back this position up.

Since the Guardian is a left wing paper which actually criticises national and EU government initiatives, you can forget about Carrington’s piece (which is here in case you are interested – http://www.guardian.horsemeat-scandal ).

But why is the EU so keen to insist no one’s got sick?  This is what they said about any import bans:-

Owen Paterson, the British environment secretary… ruled out restrictions on imports of European meat into Britain, saying that such measures could be considered only if food safety issues were involved.

“’This appears to be an issue of fraud and mislabelling’” Mr. Paterson said.”
nytimes/anger-flares-in-europe-as-scandal-over-horse-meat-

Yes, no health issues, just labelling.  Only the worst kind of cynic would think that the EU was more interested in politics, power, damage limitation (or heaven forbid money) than our health. Furthermore, we can’t have countries just going around deciding what they’re going to do on their own, can we?  Where would we be then?  If only there was something in place to give farmers a fair, just and reasonable financial aid…

Common Agricultural Policy (modern EU compound Proper noun) an European Union system by which farmers and agricultural land holders are given a subsidy.

Perhaps if we were only willing to contribute some small amount of money to farming in the EU, things like this wouldn’t happen. Here is a quote which may be of interest on that score:-

“The CAP cost British consumers £6.7bn in 1998 and taxpayers footed a further £3.4bn to fund the scheme. The total was equivalent to £3.30 per person per week in Britain, or £250 per year for every man, woman and child.” – Elliott Morley, Agriculture Minister, 1999
http://www.civitas.org.uk/eufacts/FSPOL/AG3.htm

Ah the old days of the 1990s, when there was hardly any money to go around.

I guess we’d better up the subsidies or we might wind up with more ‘labelling problems’ (which are of course not serious or anything to worry about).  You might think this level of subsidies was quite a (horse) gravy train, but you’d be wrong.  In fact, a website tells you a bit more about the value for money we get from CAP http://farmsubsidy.org/news/features/2012-data-harvest/ .

I must say, the figures we’re talking about start to make the granite web’s cost look as inconsequential as the web itself looked.

I’m sure every CAP penny is fully accounted for and only spent on practical necessities (although the Guardian would have you believe differently guardian-budget-battle-brussels ).  Just because the EU has issues with creating a complete, transparent set of accounts which can be successfully audited, approved and published, doesn’t mean anything’s amiss.

Finally, lots of the blame seems to be falling on Romania, where this type of food labelling might or might not have started.  The Romanians quite rightly threatened to veto the new EU budget; it seems they were unhappy with a few things including their CAP.  I guess this threatened veto and its implication in the ‘labelling’ problem might answer the question posed by Monty Python: ‘What did the Romanians ever do for us?”  (Just don’t mention the Price Wars).

Supermarket Price Wars (Modern English compound noun)

I’m sure it’s completely unrelated to the way EU policy is implemented in the UK, but supermarkets put a tiny bit of pressure on farmers to get the most produce for the least money.  You would think CAP subsidies would make up for any low profit margins.

CAP subsidies are easy enough to get in the UK – there is hardly any paperwork (if you’re an accountant and EU law expert); there is no bureaucracy (e.g. most animals need 3 ear tags for openers or farmers are fined) , and our government always pays EU subsidies to farmers accurately and quickly (except for that time we got fined a few million by the EU for making farmers wait months for their subsidies).

Back to the supermarket issues.  We all know that petrol prices, rail freight, taxes and so on have had tiny increases.  This has made farmers costs go up like everyone else’s have.  Are they getting more money from the big chains to cover their costs?  Not so much.  Our benevolent supermarket chains strive to keep customers happy.

Someone’s profit margins have to go down for the prices to stay low, and it’s certainly not going to be the supermarket’s

This is not because they want to gain as much of the market share for the grocery sector as possible; nor because they want to make it so small competitors don’t stand a chance.  It’s because they genuinely like us all, and want to give us as much stuff as cheaply as possible.  And that’s where the farmer happily plays his part.

The supermarket price wars are the never-ending battle between the giant chains to keep their prices as low as possible.  Result!  Farmers might get just a little bit squeezed.  Someone’s profit margins have to go down for the prices to stay low, and it’s certainly not going to be the supermarket’s profits that get cut.

Has a farmer grown carrots which are not all identical in size and shape?  He or she will have to get rid of the bad ones, and only get paid for the perfect looking ones.  Farmers should be grateful big chains buy their produce at all.

Where does animal welfare fit into the supermarket price wars?  Your customers who care about how animals in the food chain are treated when alive and/or who can afford to pay for better looked after animals will buy free range, organic chickens.  Those on a budget will find there’s budget meat for you.  Just don’t expect the animals have had a great life in the outdoors on the farm.  And as we now know, don’t even expect the animal meat you buy is the meat you think you’re buying.

Maybe it’s time we started buying food from local producers directly.  Maybe it’s time we stopped insisting our vegetables should all be perfectly formed.  Maybe we should make animal welfare a priority, and stop shipping live animals around the country (and the world).

Or maybe we should just sit back, have a frozen shepherd’s pie or two, and wait for the EU to make it all better.  Eventually.

Are you really so hungry you could eat a horse?

If perhaps you would rather ‘aid a horse’ ….. read on.

Some people have this crazy notion that horses are animals that work all of their lives, and deserve to be treated with more dignity than to be sold off as burgers when they age.

One such place is the Bransby Home of Rest for Horses, Mountains Animal Sanctuary (which had some of its Christmas donations stolen and its premises vandalised ) – and of course locally we have Willows, which is inundated with abandoned horses and ponies.

These and similar organisations get just a little bit less than are doled out in EU CAP subsidies.  If you can spare some time or money, you could do worse than making a donation to an animal welfare charity of your choice.

 Next week:  a look at the exciting new plans for golf course No. 2 for the lucky Menie residents, a look at Aberdeen city’s plans, and for me, a look at my vegetarian cookbooks.

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Dec 032012
 

Old Susannah casts her beady eye around the ‘Deen – and this week, far beyond! By Suzanne Kelly

Tally Ho! Apologies for the late-running of this service but Old Susannah has been in New York and Glasgow over the past 10 days or so.

The biggest news of the week is the annual Glenfiddich Spirit of Scotland Top Scot award going to Michael Forbes, Menie resident and nemesis of Donald Trump. Many congratulations on an award well deserved.

It was disheartening to see New York in such a state; there is a huge, under-used park at the very centre of Manhattan.

Because this central park hasn’t been successfully transformed into a vibrant, dynamic, iconic web, New York is closed for business. Retail trade is down, with many small family-owned, non-chain store businesses operating throughout the greater Manhattan area instead of multinationals and pound shops.

This park also has major connectivity problems. Some if it is actually below street level! Yes, really. Other parts have a wall separating the park from the street, and people have to travel a few blocks to get to the next entrance.

To make things even worse, some of the park is even higher than street level. I hear a delegation from New York will travel to Aberdeen soon to look at the web plans, and see if the Granite Web can’t be built over Manhattan.

Until such time, New Yorkers will have to suffer the consequences – little tourism, hardly any business, and not much going on culturally.

If they were to just set up their own version of ACSEF, I’m sure the local taxpayers would be happy to fund an unelected quango that knew better on all issues than elected officials, and do whatever it said without question.

Then it was on to Glasgow.

For some reason, the streets there don’t have much going for them. Well, not in the way of litter, potholes and broken pavements anyway. The public transportation is affordable, clean and frequent – even after 6pm!

One really tough-looking guy on the underground strode purposely near where I was standing – to put a used ticket into a used ticket bin. Must have been something wrong with him.

Returning to BrewDog on Monday evening, I bought the last two bottles of Ghost Deer. This truly delicious beer is the world’s strongest fermented beer (and it has fetching artwork).

I also managed to buy one of the last limited edition Ghost Deer t-shirts, so I am well chuffed at having something to wear when I next see Aileen Malone.

Ghost Deer is marketed as ‘an audacious blend of eccentricity, artistry and rebellion.’ It reminds me of someone, I just can’t figure out who.

 Want a few weeks off work? Stop washing your hands when you use restrooms and stop disinfecting surfaces

The deer theme continued at Aberdeen Art Centre as I attended an opening of work by Nicky Cairney and her mother, Angela Cairney. The show was well attended and the work is very varied, with themes of nature, man’s interference with nature, and environment the overriding themes.

Please do go and see it, especially the silhouette work concerning Tullos Hill and golf. When lit in different ways, these dioramas throw powerful shadows with more than a little hint of political commentary.

Before moving on to some seasonal definitions, something seems to be wrong with the council. When the first icy days hit us, salt and sand were being used on the roads AND pavements. I really don’t know what they’re playing at – you didn’t get this kind of thing happening when Kate Dean was convener. Let’s see if they keep it up.

Cold weather also can mean an increase in viruses. A few unpleasant illnesses are doing the rounds, so try and stay well. Here are some definitions which may help.

MRSA Virus (noun) a strain of the staphylococcus bacterium which can cause serious infections in people, and which is becoming increasingly immune to antibiotics.

Want a few weeks off work? Stop washing your hands when you use restrooms and stop disinfecting surfaces. Also forget all that nonsense about using a tissue once, throwing it away, and then washing your hands. That’s for wimps.

It’s an awfully good thing that Aberdeen Royal Infirmary and Grampian NHS ensure all the wards in our area are spotless. I was told you could eat off the floor in Ward 49, for instance. Bring a knife and fork.

It’s important to remember that if you get an infection that needs antibiotics, the doctor doesn’t really want you to finish the whole course of medicine. Just take a few pills, stop after a day or two, then be totally surprised when you don’t get better. You’re doing a good deed for biodiversity by making bugs stronger and stronger. Result!

However, there is a more serious hospital virus going around. At present, there is only one known case.  This case is, however, in our area – so do be vigilant…

MRCS Virus (noun) new strain of hospital virus causing computers to imply doctors have more qualifications than they do. Pity poor Doctor (???) Muhammad Ishaque.

It’s clear that ARI takes checking references seriously

This trainee doctor worked in Aberdeen Royal Infirmary, where he picked up this curious disease. Unfortunately, the highly-trained professionals at ARI failed to spot this virus before he was hired. Perhaps a better check-up of incoming doctors is called for.

To most people in the medical profession MRCS means Member of the Royal College of Surgeons.  The implication if you got an email from said trainee was that they were a qualified, recognised surgeon. This trainee didn’t exactly have all of the medical qualifications his computer said he had. Instead, he claimed he contracted the MRCS virus on his computer at the hospital.

This rare virus causes a trainee doctor’s outgoing emails to magically contain the letters MRCS after the trainee’s name. Scientists are baffled at the emergence of this new virus, and are closely studying Ishaque, the only known sufferer in the world.

So by all means clean your hands – but clean your hard drives as well.

I guess it’s no big deal – as the ARI seems to insist – that this person examined people. They say he was always working alongside a fully trained doctor. It’s not as if people expect a person examining them would have been fully vetted before allowed anywhere near the public.

I’m thinking of going along for a job as well – guess if I work with a qualified doctor, no one would mind being examined, advised or probed, would they? It’s clear that ARI takes checking references seriously. Otherwise, we might wind up with people being treated badly in hospital, and that simply couldn’t happen here.

Funnily enough, there is a long-running rumour that a form of this virus may be at work in Aberdeen City Council computers, a rumour that says not all officers have all the qualifications they claim to hold. Obviously the city’s HR team check and double-check all references.

Gift Cards (modern English noun) A procurement card with a given amount of credit, which allows the holder to buy goods and services.

Poor former administration of Aberdeen City Council. Despite having teams of accountants, financial experts, staff of all descriptions and black-and-white procurement procedures, they just couldn’t find a way for some essential purchases to be made. Easy to understand, I’m sure.

Instead of being hassled with procurement rules, they bought and dished out tens of thousands of pounds worth of Tesco gift cards. Result! ACC staff obviously bought just what they needed for their jobs, kept receipts, and filed accurate business expense claims.

Maybe instead of going to work as a doctor for ARI, I should just get a job at ACC and some Tesco gift cards

Old Susannah remembers the story of an enterprising social worker who did their best to stimulate the economy by purchasing much-needed goods. Mind you, technically some of these purchases should have successfully made it into the hands of the people the social worker was caring for, rather than being used by said social worker for personal use.

That’s just splitting hairs, though. Some thoughtful social workers have, so I am led to believe, given a wee bit of help to their clients when it is time to vote as well. What a comprehensive service!

Back to the use of Tesco gift cards. According to STV:

“The fact that money seems to have been spent towards the end of the financial year, that some things were bought that were inappropriate expenditure and the fact that a certain area was stockpiling cards in (sic) unacceptable.”

Another little fact of city council budgeting is that departments might lose funds in the following year if they did anything rash – like not spending all of the money they were allocated in the current year. This is how we encourage departments to do all they can to save money. I’m just not exactly sure how that is working out.

Hmmm. I wonder who gets to keep the Tesco Club card points, worth a fair bit of money, air miles and free pizza? I think we should be told. That’s an awful lot of points someone’s got. Who, I wonder, has them?

Clearly the financial records will show that such points are retained and used by the council, as the purchaser of the gift cards. Maybe instead of going to work as a doctor for ARI, I should just get a job at ACC and some Tesco gift cards.

That’s almost it for this week – but to cheer everyone up, Aberdeenshire Council is ‘manning up’ and getting tough on crime. Yes, at this festive time of year, there can be an upsurge in street crime.

But hooray! The shire is going to save us all from the scourge of – too much bunting, banners and festive lights. According to the council, there will be a crackdown on this kind of unwanted, hazardous, illegal activity.

Meanwhile over at the Menie Estate…

Next week:  more festive definitions.

Confidential note to the person with the Saltire posting fetish: great – good for you – keep putting the Saltire up but can you please stop nailing your signs into living trees? You’re not doing the trees any favours.

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May 112012
 

What could have been more simple and straightforward (let alone transparent and democratic) than asking the people of Aberdeen to vote on the future of Union Terrace Gardens?  Suzanne Kelly delivers her verdict.

I gladly threw myself into the work of being at the head of an official campaign organisation (my group ‘Democracy Watch’ was one of the official campaign groups with a statement in the referendum voting pack), and I naively assumed that a simple vote with straightforward rules was imminent.

Had I known then what I know now, I would instead have joined Labour and opposed the referendum.  Here are some reasons why, and a bit of background.

After the referendum count, supporters of the City Garden Project celebrated their ‘victory’ with glee behind the scenes, then a few days later publically offered the proverbial olive branch to their opponents who wanted not only to retain, but improve Union Terrace Gardens.

‘We must work together to restore harmony, to improve the city’s garden and ensure economic prosperity’ is a fair summary of their position then.  This clumsy attempt to paper over the cracks caused by Sir Ian’s determination to have his ‘gift’ of £50 million used to fulfil his personal desires was not working on anyone.

In online social network sites, the messages from the pro CGP camp ranged from ‘ha ha you lost’ to ‘if you don’t accept the referendum results, then it’s a case of sour grapes.’

With all due respect to Crawford Langley, the elections officer appointed to run this sorry affair, the phrase ‘making it up as you go along’ sums this referendum up for me.  As an official group we were told there would be strict spending limits and a strict 300-word maximum statement.  And that’s about all any of the groups were told.

Had I known from the outset, set down in black and white, any of the positions the elections officer would later adopt and what control he would or would not have over any ‘unofficial ‘groups– then I would have saved myself the bother of wasting my time.

The playing field was never level.  The result – considering the vast sums which the Vote for the City Gardens Project group must have spent – was extremely close.  And the established press did all the cheerleading for the CGP it possibly could have.

Here are my ten reasons why the gardens referendum is invalid:

1. Spending

It was galling enough to learn that an unofficial group – Vote for the City Gardens Project –  could spend freely.  (It was even more galling to learn they could make any claim they wanted with impunity – as will be shown later).  But when it was discovered that ACSEF had been spending taxpayer money – at least £73,000 – for over a year to promote building in the garden, I realised that my group would never match the PR muscle of VFTCGP or ACSEF.

The £73,000 is referred to in an earlier article which can be found at: https://aberdeenvoice.com/2012/02/the-great-city-gardens-project-gravy-train/ .

ACSEF recommended various bits of “stakeholder engagement, events management, and communication…” all geared towards building over Union Terrace Gardens.  And you and I footed the bills, which came to Aberdeen City Council via the Chamber of Commerce – with virtually none of the actual service providers (photographers, PR agencies, event coordinators) used being named in the invoices, with the exception of the Press & Journal, which earned several thousand pounds in advertising revenue.

Parties were held, photos taken, celebrity endorsements made – all before the referendum.

As to the Vote for the City Garden Project group, their spending must have been epic.  There was the lurid full-colour glossy A3 flyer, sent not only to households in the city, but in the (non-voting) shire as well.  There were radio adverts – not that we will ever find out how much was spent or who placed the ads.

We do know now that ACSEF was implicated in some of the newspaper advertising; this came about via complaints to Advertising Standards Authority about the content of the ads.  But more on that later.

The other official groups were never going to afford radio, full page newspaper ads and tens of thousands of glossy brochures (let alone the pseudo newspaper, the multi-paged ‘The Granite Web’).

2. Irregularities?

In a past Aberdeen election, Crawford Langley went to the police with suspicions over dubious postal votes.  However, in the referendum some 74 votes were used twice.  Mr Langley explained to me that some of these people wrote on their paper votes that they had also voted electronically (though I don’t know how many).

I am unable to share his confidence that everyone who voted electronically and had a postal vote in their name was not a potential victim of vote theft.  Mr Langley says that these little scrawled notes ‘negates any vote fraud’.  I however have reservations about whether or not the person writing such a note was indeed the intended voter and the same person as voted on line.  Since we had people who favoured the CGP ‘joking’ online about stealing votes, why not simply allow scrutiny of the votes (but this is a big issue as we will see later).

FACT:  In the 2005 election Crawford Langley called in the police after six people contacted the elections unit to say they did not receive their postal vote forms.

A source who wishes to remain anonymous for a variety of reasons (not least that they wish to keep their job) raised concerns to me (in my capacity as a (fledgling) investigative journalist) of potential care-home vote issues.  They believed that votes in one home were not circulated to the residents.

Crawford Langley has dismissed this possibility because the person with the concerns went to me and is remaining anonymous (as is their right).  The decision was taken not to investigate any potential residential home issues.  This decision does not sit well with me, my source, and other contacts of mine who have experience of residential homes, and I would have preferred to have the possibility investigated; only then could it have been dismissed.

3. They are all in this together

The overlap between members of ACSEF, the BIG Partnership PR agency’s work for the City Garden Project as well as its support for the VFTCGP entity, combined with the (then) City Council’s support of the project proceeding makes for some unholy alliances.

We have Gerry Brough working ‘as a volunteer’ on several of the city-led City Garden Project entities.  We have the City Council funding ACSEF.  We have ACSEF sending letters in support of the project going ahead.

For a fuller idea of who is involved with what (at least up to our elections last week), see a spread sheet which can be found at http://oldsusannahsjournal.yolasite.com/ (scroll down to the ‘UTG companies and supporters’ documents.)  Note this page also has a list of the invoices referred to earlier from the Chamber of Commerce to the City for PR / events advancing the idea of building in the gardens.

4. Promise them anything

The free-spending VfTCGP’s claims were unconstrained by any standards.  The Electoral Commission have written to me confirming that they have no power over materials used in local referendum situations – had I known that fact alone, I would have opposed the referendum.

Likewise the Advertising Standards Authority had no teeth.  What claims did I object to?  The use of the tenuous projections offered by PriceWaterhouse Cooper (who earned a nice bit of change for their work):  6,500 new permanent jobs to be created and hundreds of millions of pounds to flow into our economy.

PWC are unwilling to comment as to how their projections were used in the PR material; if they stood behind these figures, surely they would have been happy to endorse them (even if this means the granite web will create more jobs than the London 2012 Olympics by several thousand jobs).  But PWC will not comment other than to say the work they did on the CGP was ‘for a private client’.

I don’t know who the private client is, but the taxpayer certainly funded at least some of the work.

5. Our press – perhaps slightly biased?

Not only were the contents of most of the Press & Journal articles I read slanted, but even the page layouts and placements of graphics were geared to supporting the project.  For instance, I complained to the Press Complaints Commission about a front page story which continued on Page 3 – Page 3 carried a box labelled ‘facts and figures’ which repeated most of the PWC claims – which I consider to be fairly far from fact.

A testimonial – i.e. a photo of a girl appeared at the top right of this page, and the quote was along the lines of ‘I was against the project at first, but now that I see how many jobs will be created, I am for it’.  As a former advertising agency employee, such heavy-handed tactics are well known to me.  But the Press Complaints Commission decided that if someone read the entire article (as unlikely as that might be), they would eventually read that the ‘facts and figures’ presented in the box were projections.

Other examples can be found here and there of press bias.  One could be forgiven for wondering if the local press were keen to please some of their biggest advertisers over the CGP, whether consciously or not.

6.  OOPS!  Misprints and gremlins

The voting packs contained booklets – 165,000 booklets were printed and distributed – containing the 300 word statements from the official campaign groups, both for and against the granite web.  Sadly, and wholly mysteriously, the Green Party content was truncated and stopped in mid flow.

How a massive print run of an extremely short booklet went to print without being proofread for such errors is inexplicable to me.  I believe the Green Party did get an apology.  Still what would the voters have thought?  That the Greens didn’t have a fully-thought-out scheme was one possibility.

I was likewise not amused to learn that online my statement at one point ran seamlessly into the rantings of one of the more vocal proponents.  I was alerted to this by people getting in touch to ask if I had somehow changed my opinion on the garden.  This error was apparently rectified.  How many people saw it, I do not know.  Mr Langley again took the position with me that since I was the only person who got in touch with him, I was the only person who noticed.  I would not have known about it at all if supporters had not brought it to my attention.

He also felt that it would have been seen only by people voting online who would already have a printed copy of the statements in their hands.  Hmm.  My position is that most people who choose to communicate electronically would be reading the electronic documentation not the booklet – and if they relied on the booklet, then they only got half of the Green position anyway.

My overall feeling is that errors were made which were rather large and which could have been avoided by a bit of diligence.  In my experience if errors occur in one part of a project, you can bet they exist elsewhere.

The next two reasons are particularly worrying…..

7. Going Postal

I deliberately asked supporters of my position to vote via the post so they could keep a record of their slip (I suggested people photocopy their vote and keep the copy for their records).  For some reason, there are -somewhere in the City offices – votes which arrived too late to be counted, even though they were there on the day.

My source says ‘tons’ of them arrived ‘too late’.  When I last heard these votes were still in store somewhere.  Mr Langley advises that it was the voters’ responsibility to ensure that the votes arrived on time, and some 300 arrived too late.

Sadly, there are always issues with the post when it comes to the city council.  It claims to have sent me letters I never got.  It likewise has apparently never received items I posted.  For instance I hand-delivered 63 postcards opposing the Tullos Hill deer cull:  Ms Watts wrote after the fact she received a total of 35 such cards, even though other people handed cards in and others still posted cards.

At the time I am writing this article, May 9, I still have not received passes sent to me to attend last Thursday’s vote count.  Something is wrong somewhere.

Did the referendum votes arrive at the building the night before?  How many times per day does post get delivered to the City?  Who brings post to the recipients?  The more people in this chain, the more essential to ensure the referendum votes were proactively sought and collected.  Whether or not this happened I do not know.  I am sure that the election officers posted my passes for last Thursday’s count in good time for them to arrive, and it was their responsibility to get passes to me. However, just as for referendum voters, something went wrong somewhere.

8.  Top Secret – the Marked Register

No one but Crawford can examine the Marked Register of votes.  Crawford is absolutely certain this would be ‘illegal’ for the referendum, although this scrutiny is standard practice for elections.

We campaigners only found out after the fact that we would not have the chance to look for unusual voting patterns, clusters, or evidence of fraud (see above).  If there was no transparency and this was somewhere communicated to me early in the process I failed to see it.

If I had known in advance that I’d have no check over how the count went, I would have again opposed the referendum.  It looks as if I will never be able to determine if there were any unusual clusters of votes at residential homes, or elsewhere.

Langley’s position is that it is illegal for him to give access in terms of the Representation of the People (Scotland) Regulations 2001.  Other experienced politicians and campaigners with legal qualifications take a different position.

9.  Dirty Tricks?

The Press & Journal front page article concerning Tom Smith implied that people opposed to the City Garden Project had harassed him and his family and acted illegally – specifically by hacking into his email.  At the time of writing I am unaware of any prosecution arising out of this allegation.

I will be doing a FOI request to the police (now that I am done with the election and have enough time to do so).  Mr Smith is involved in many pro CGP entities, and has much to gain by the project proceeding.  His complaint to police over harassment, email hacking and so on – came close to the voting time, and gathered a great deal of sympathy.   To me the press article mixed legal and illegal activities to paint a portrait of a devious, law-breaking pro-retain camp.

10.  Spoilt Rotten?

I know that a large number of votes were deemed by the election officer to be ‘spoilt’ – this was because people wrote on their ballot papers.  According to people present at the count, many of these seem to be from ‘retain’ voters, who wrote comments on their slips.

In an election the instructions clearly say not to make any other mark on your ballot.  The referendum instructions DID NOT have this instruction.  Apparently voters and campaigners were supposed to instinctively know that the referendum was different from an election in many important ways – but not this way.

Then again, if they have not been destroyed, somewhere in the hands of a private entity (as I understand it) are the results of the public vote on the 6 shortlisted designs.  It is a well-known fact that many people who went to the design show wrote on the voting slips to show that they wanted the gardens left alone.

We wanted the figures and information from this shortlist vote released to the public – the public paid for it after all.  However, these private individuals refuse to release the results.  These same people now seem to be the same ones arguing that to ignore the referendum would be ‘undemocratic’.

Democracy?  I don’t think so

On May 9, 2012 ACSEF issued a statement in the wake of Labour’s election success to the effect that ignoring the referendum would be ‘undemocratic’.  In this case of the pot calling a press conference to call the kettle black, ACSEF coyly ignores its unelected status, its PR tactics and its blatant lobbying – done at taxpayer expense.

There is no doubt in my mind that ACSEF members have pulled out all the stops to further the City Gardens Project scheme. The question is – will Labour do the right thing and pull the plug on this self-serving quango?  One can only hope there is a referendum on ACSEF’s future – now that would be democratic.

So – at the end of the day I personally find the referendum exercise invalidated.  The other side has ignored public opinion over the garden before.  Thankfully, the election has now returned a council which just may save our garden, our trees (which clean our air), and our money in its millions.  Here’s hoping so.

Apr 062012
 

A report on the UTG referendum was discussed at a meeting of full council on Wednesday with a view to it being approved before being sent to the Scottish Government. Friends of Union Terrace Gardens chairman Mike Shepherd was permitted to give a deputation. Aberden voice presents Mike’s deputation in full.

“I was allowed to give a deputation here in January when I said that the FoUTG would agree to take part in a referendum if it was fair.

We agreed to the referendum in spite of the shameful behaviour of this council in ignoring the result of the public consultation two years ago. We agreed for two reasons.

First, we saw the CGP as a juggernaut pushed through relentlessly by business and a friendly council. There were only two options to stop this; either through the referendum or legal action. We chose the referendum.

Secondly, we chose this route through public spirit. We were only too aware of the poisonous attitudes building on both sides of the issue. Aberdeen was at war with itself. A fair referendum was the only way of killing this beast.

I also told the council that the referendum would have to be fair because implicit in taking part was that we accepted the final result, whatever it was. This was said in good faith.

THIS WAS NOT A FAIR REFERENDUM!

We do not accept the result. The process was flawed. Internet and phone voting should not have been allowed as without signatures, this was open to fraud. The Green party have also asked me to complain about their shortened message in the information pack that was sent out.

The City Garden Project supporters were allowed to spend tens of thousands of pounds on PR, newspapers, leaflets and radio ads. This money spent on advertising bought a marginal result for the referendum.

The ads were often misleading and in some instances blatantly so. We were told of a bogus £182M investment, consisting of a bogus £15M of private investment and a bogus £20M Art Gallery grant which didn’t exist. One misleading ad is under investigation by the Advertising Standards Authority.

This council also misled the public. The claim that a new park could create 6,500 jobs was utterly ludicrous. They did not explain the risks of borrowing through TIF properly, even when Audit Scotland expressed their concerns about the long term implications for the Council’s finances.

You are £618M in debt, you cannot afford the risk on further borrowing.

The council were partial to one side of the referendum. The ACGT were allowed to show a video in the Art Gallery, council property, yet we were excluded until after several days of complaint on the matter.

This was a dishonest referendum. The public were misled right up the City Garden path. The council should vote to ignore the result. Furthermore, this report should not be passed onto the Scottish Government as suggested. The proposal to spend valuable investment and infrastructure money on something as trivial as a new park is a disgrace.

We do not accept the result of the referendum and we intend to carry on campaigning to save Union Terrace Gardens. Thank you.”

Evening Express report here.  http://www.eveningexpress.co.uk/Article.aspx

Mar 152012
 

With thanks to Suzanne Kelly.

A new cloud covers the controversial Union Terrace Gardens Referendum today, as a care home worker came forward with concerns about postal votes sent to a residential home.

The worker, who wishes to remain anonymous, approached Aberdeen Voice to say that over a dozen postal vote envelopes arrived at one residential home – but when the worker went to retrieve them a short time later – they were not where they had been left. No one at the residence seemed to know precisely what became of them.   The concern is whether or not the residents’ votes were properly distributed and managed.  The matter is still being looked into, and no allegation of wrong-doing has been made at this stage.

Aberdeen Voice’s Suzanne Kelly is researching further, and contacted the elections officer, and the other recognised campaigning organisations on the issue.

Kelly asked the elections officer for the marked Register to be checked with a view to how many care home residents returned votes, and whether there are any unusual voting patterns.  However, the elections officer’s position is that “it would be illegal for me to provide this in terms of the Representation of the People(Scotland) Regulations 2001.”  In an election relevant parties would normally  be able to view the marked Register.

Crawford Langley, the Elections Officer for the Union Terrace Gardens referendum vote, previously contacted the police over potential postal vote fraud in May 2005 when he was elections officer and a small number (between 6 and 12) of anomalies arose, where people appeared not to have received their postal vote forms.

Langley was quoted at the time as saying:

“We are talking about a very small number but, given the publicity elsewhere and the tight ship we run in elections in Aberdeen, it was sufficiently unusual that I needed to do something about it.”

The controversial referendum, which was over the future of Aberdeen’s Victorian Union Terrace Gardens, gave residents a choice to either ‘retain’ the gardens, or to endorse a £140 million pound scheme called the Granite Web. This entails the city obtaining a £70 million pound TIF loan, which will be matched by Sir Ian Wood / The Wood Family Trust (£50 million), £5 million from an anonymous donor, and another £15 from as-yet unnamed private sources. The TIF scheme is still in trial stages in Scotland.

many feel the media bombardment influenced the vote

The referendum was dogged by controversy. Official campaigning groups were entitled to place a 300 word essay into the voting pack, and had to adhere to strict expenditure limits.

The Green Party’s statement was not printed in full. Also controversial were the actions of a ‘secretive’ group (as described by a BiG Partnership employee) known as ‘Vote for the City Gardens Project.’ This federation of businessmen and women, who prefer to remain anonymous, are thought to have spent tens of thousand of pounds to promote the City Garden Project Granite Web.

Their glossy, A3 full colour brochure went to households in Aberdeenshire which were not eligible to vote as well as to City residents. The group also issued a four-page newspaper format item, and had several full-page spreads in the local press. Local radio stations broadcast pro City Garden Project commercials. None of the officially recognised campaigning groups would have been able to afford such a campaign, and many feel the media bombardment influenced the vote.

The materials produced by the group used projections by PriceWaterhouse Coopers to claim the scheme would create over 6,500 permanent jobs and mean £122 million to the local economy every year until 2023. Those who tried to contest these projections being used as fact found that the Vote for the City Gardens Project group was not accountable either to the elections officer or the Advertising Standards Agency. Other points of contention have been brought to the election officer’s notice as well.

Willie Young of the Labour Party, who were an official campaigning organisation, had this to say:

“We really do need to see the mark register so we can prove to ourselves that the referendum was run correctly. In a democracy we need checks and balances and the Electoral Commission is clear that those involved in an election should be given access to the mark register. I am not suggesting anything is untoward, but it is our right to make sure that it isn’t. We are baffled by the stance taken by the counting officer”.

Suzanne Kelly commented:

“It is abundantly clear to me why my source wishes to stay anonymous. They are keen to continue in the job they love, and are all too aware of what can happen to a whistle-blower. This issue is still being investigated, but I thought bringing it to the election officer’s attention immediately was the right thing to do.  This is why we need to check the votes sent to all of our residential care homes – we must ensure no one has been exploited and no votes have gone astray. Were all the votes sent to the homes used, and if not, what percentage went unused? Did the vote split at the residential homes echo the nearly 50–50 split the total vote saw? If not, then further research will be needed.

There is at present no allegation of any wrong doing by any individual – but it is clear that we need to have the transparency we were always promised concerning Union Terrace Gardens, but which we so sadly lacked. We’ve seen redacted minutes – minutes where lines of text have been ‘blacked out’ to keep the public in the dark. Why should there be any secrecy over what is common good land?”

Kelly was chair of one of the recognised campaigning organisations (‘Democracy Watch’) and has been liaising with other campaigners; a number of issues remain over the referendum, and these will be reviewed soon.

Jan 212011
 

Old Susannah has been constantly on the go the past week. Here’s her travelogue…

On Friday I attended most of the public hearing on the Loirston Loch proposal at the Town House. Admittedly, I left before the full meeting ended, so missing Kate Dean’s concluding remarks, but I would have lost the will to live altogether, and I had to be at Peacock for 6pm.

Sorry I only lasted 8 hours at the hearing, but seeing as Kate was doing a great job of being impartial as convener, I left, in the knowledge that the stadium was in safe hands. See the article elsewhere in this edition of Voice.

Next day, the P&J printed an article favouring the stadium development which ignored all the practical problems and local objections, alongside a piece on Cove Rangers being allowed to move to new premises. Of course, these two developments in the Aberdeen footballing world are completely unrelated. Old Susannah must have wandered into a completely different public hearing from the one the P&J wrote about, as I missed the parts that proved how this stadium will not only make us all rich, but also make us the envy of the northern hemisphere. I came away with the subtle feeling that one or two of the residents might not be onside with putting a 21,000 seat stadium on their greenbelt.

The Peacock exhibition features Alicia Bruce’s photographic portraits of the residents facing potential eviction through compulsory purchase, so that Mr Trump can have the world’s most kitsch – sorry – most excellent, perfect, wonderful, swell, expensive golf course. A review and photos of the exhibition is elsewhere in Voice.

Finally, George Galloway and his moustache are in the news this week. He seems to be saying he will end his political career in Scotland. Has no one told him that his political career well and truly ended when he was on Big Brother pretending to be Rula Lenska’s cat?  Respect….?

..and she shares the week’s defining moments in her Dictionary, Part 21

Embezzle

(Verb) To embezzle is to appropriate goods, property or money fraudulently when in a position of power, rather like when we pay Council Tax to local government with the false promise we’ll get something of value in return. Now it looks as if a City Council employee has been taking his work home with him literally – to the tune of somewhere between £300,000 and £400,000. It is understood the person and his wife are now ‘helping police with their enquiries’.

there is no fraud to worry about really, except the odd half million pound case like this one

Yes, it’s hard to understand how our well-run, efficient, properly audited and controlled City could have allowed such a thing to happen; ‘financial impropriety’ and ‘Aberdeen City Council’ are words you’d never expect to hear in the same sentence, I know.

Stringent controls are in place to prevent, for instance, property being sold below market value, property being sold to private developers when the City thinks it is really selling property to the NHS, or building work contract values escalating out of control, and the like. In fact there are ‘Investigation Managers’ and ‘Budget Analysts’ on the City’s efficient payroll.

But relax –  there is no fraud to worry about really, except the odd half million pound case like this one, which clearly is a one-off and will never happen again.

Incandescent (Adjective) Incandescent is the ‘condition of glowing or emitting heat and light’. Indeed, it is often associated with lightbulbs but presumably less so with the new mercury-filled ones which don’t give out quite enough light for my taste. John Major famously took the word ‘incandescent’ and coupled it with his anger, coming up with the phrase, ‘not inconsiderably incandescent with rage’ to describe how he usually felt. This may have been his greatest contribution as Prime Minister, although we might want to ask Mrs Edwina Currie her opinion.

This adjective is still being used by the brightest stars in the political firmament, as no less a luminary than our own Kate Dean has told the press she is incandescent. No, not just her natural glow of warmth, charm and beauty; she is incandescent with anger.

Who’s upset Kate? The Scottish Government transport authorities have had the gall to criticise Aberdeen’s public transport management – the nerve!

outsiders might mistakenly think we have problems. I hope that an apology to Kate is on the way

As if there was anything to criticise. Kate’s main problem is that she didn’t have a chance to defend the City’s sterling record on public transport. The frequent bus services, the low prices, the potholes, the bus lanes.Apparently we’ve created one million pounds worth of bus lanes recently, part of the reason traffic moves so swiftly.

The well thought-out transport arrangements for Union Square and the bus and railway stations are greatly appreciated by people with mobility problems as well as car drivers and bus passengers, who, in rush hour or late night shopping days, can spend ages window-shopping at Union Square from the comfort of their own cars. Building the new AFC stadium is going to add 80 buses at current estimate and 1400 cars to the mix on Wellington Road, pollution levels on which can be higher than national recommended levels, but with the new bus lanes, well, it will be fine.

Part of Ms Dean’s problem is that Aberdeen wasn’t invited to the particular meeting where the criticism was levelled, so she could not defend our excellent system. Clearly a system as perfect as ours would not be able to stand on its own merits for others to marvel at – outsiders might mistakenly think we have problems. I hope that an apology to Kate is on the way.

Joined-up government.

How do things in the public sector work so well?

How do our governors manage to accomplish so much good with our tax money so efficiently?

The answer is that we have ‘joined-up government’.

The term ‘joined-up government’ is defined as ‘a method of governing wherein all departments and branches communicate efficiently with each other and act together purposefully and effectively towards well-defined objectives – but you don’t need me to tell you that’s what you’ve got in the ‘deen.

It is little wonder that international property developers want to come here when they see how ‘joined up’ we are.

It’s hard to pick out just one example pertaining to our government in terms of its ‘joined-up’ thinking, so I’ll take the most recent one. In the P&J on 19 January, there’s a story of how Scottish Enterprise and Aberdeen City Council work in harmony to our benefit.

Peacock Art Gallery, you may recall, had managed to secure a large grant from the Arts Council to build new premises. Like vultures smelling blood, the City and Scottish Enterprise moved in to offer assistance. They assisted Peacock right out of its plans for the Union Terrace Gardens arts centre it had proposed.

But what becomes of the grant from the Arts Council? It’s now probably lost forever, and we have the amusing spectacle of Aberdeen City v Scottish Enterprise. The blame game is on.  Who did what and when is being argued over in the press as these two entities try to blame each other for the loss. Strangely enough, many years back, the Arts Council had ring-fenced a few million for an arts centre in the Castlegate. This money too was lost forever. A deadline approached, and the City Council seems not to have known anything about it, despite having a Council representative attending the relevant meetings. It is little wonder that international property developers want to come here when they see how ‘joined up’ we are. They know when they see examples like the latest drama over Peacock funding unfold, that we are people to be reckoned with – smart, astute business minds working in conjunction. There is no way we will be fooled or taken advantage of when great minds are in control. Not here.

On a serious note

Spare a thought for Sandy Ingram, the 79 year-old man found severely beaten in June of last year. He will now need full-time care, and can never return to the home he knew. Apparently he had seen two men on his property before he was assaulted. Whilst the residents in his area of Newmachar are now more vigilant regarding strangers, and are reporting suspicious behaviour to police, it comes too late for the Ingram family.

Someone out there knows what happened to him which is still a mystery to the rest of us. If you don’t come forward you are as guilty as if you’d hurt this elderly man yourself. And the next time someone else gets permanently injured or worse, you’ll have to live knowing you could have prevented it.

Even if you just suspect something, make an anonymous call. Do the right thing.