Aug 242012
 

Voice’s Old Susannah looks at events over the the last week … and what a week it’s been in the ‘Deen. By Suzanne Kelly.

‘SHATTERED!’ roars the Press & Journal headline following the council’s decision on Wednesday not to pursue a £92 million pound loan to build the Granite Web.  There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth; most of the wailing stemming from Jennifer Craw’s insistence on putting her feet on the back of the seat in front of her as she sat in the public gallery.

What was agreed was the madcap idea of trying to fix the Gardens and our existing facilities.  Surely if that sort of thing worked, people would already be doing it. No, a Granite Web was the only thing that was going to save our town’s economy.

We are apparently doomed to being a ghost town.  Unfortunately no one’s told this to the many companies moving into the area.  Shame.

Without further ado, here are some definitions relevant to this week’s news stories…

Online Bullying: (mod. Eng. noun) the use of electronic media to harass, intimidate or ridicule.

Those on the losing side are quite rightly using Facebook and email to hound, vilify and harass those who voted for the modest independent compromise motion. There has been a Facebook page set up calling Barney Crocket ‘The man who killed democracy’.

Absolutely. He got elected, did what he said he and his party were going to do, and reminded everyone why the referendum was a sham won by a slim margin in favour of those who saturated the public with lovely brochures and endless radio ads.

The content of these ads promised the earth, billions of pounds of income, and 6,500 new jobs. Sadly, some people remained a little sceptical that these were achievable, even though the P&J said they were.

The official campaign organisations didn’t spend as much so they couldn’t win; just because the guidelines told them what their limits were for spending and ad content, there was no reason they couldn’t compete fairly with the wishes of a billionaire and a multimillionaire.

But back to this Facebook page. All those people are queuing up to smear Crockett and his like-minded councillors; well, fair enough.

It was almost as if he were trying to lump all the opposition together and tar them with a very sinister brush.

Obviously the page in question is not in any way connected to the BiG partnership or any of its student interns, Jake the Ghost, or Morris the Monkey – for that would be playing fast and loose with Facebook and PR professional association rules. And that just wouldn’t happen – except for the time that it did, of course, during the referendum.

The important thing for us Aberdonians to remember about online bullying is when it is or is not a good thing. It is perfectly acceptable to use social media and emails to hound people like Crockett and Boulton, who clearly don’t care that businesses are departing Aberdeen in droves and the four horsemen of the apocalypse have been seen near Tillydrone.

But when someone rich and important like Tom Smith is subject to online bullying, then it is a matter for the police. Unfortunately when Tom went to the press, something he now says he didn’t want to do, he mixed online bullying together with people having online conversations which didn’t involve him, as well as with the very illegal crime of computer hacking, which carries a potential jail sentence.

As we since learnt, there was no crime committed, even though he told us there was in a Press & Journal front page article days before the referendum.  It was almost as if he were trying to lump all the opposition together and tar them with a very sinister brush.

How exactly this timid soul was forced to go public with his story remains a mystery. Was he bullied into it?  Anyone with knowledge of the media handling would be welcome to explain it to me.  But as it stands, it seems like Tom was rather left with his foot in his mouth, or something like that.

Olive Branch: (Eng. noun) an offering of peace or conciliation, usually offered after an argument or an altercation.

I’m afraid that a Mr K Flavill has much to answer for. He had the bad humour not to accept the olive branch which was kindly offered to him by the City Gardens Trust supporters, post-referendum. The headline ‘Olive Branch brushed aside’ painted this villainous arts sector worker in his true colours.

However, as the definition of ‘online bullying’ above clearly proves, there are circumstances in which something can either be desirable or not.

Since the City Council has agreed on a measure which will save the Gardens, improve the Gardens, save the businesses on the back of Belmont Street, improve the Lemon Tree and other features of the city’s cultural portfolio, an olive branch is clearly inappropriate.

I do hope no one will suggest that the Granite Web’s supporters should accept an olive branch and work to improve what needs improving, if that is possible without a Web and a £92,000,000 debt.  An olive branch in such circumstances can’t be an option.

Sensory Soundscape: (noun, very very modern English) {NOTE:  definition known only to Prof. Paul Harris of Gray’s School of Art}

Well, along with not getting our bosque, we will not be getting the ‘Sensory Soundscape’ that Prof. Harris spoke of lovingly in his address, as he put in his deposition in favour of the Web.

He was involved for 18 months with the project as well as the ‘cultural working group’. He spoke to us all about the Web giving us an ‘all-embracing sensory experience’, as well as ‘seamless connectivity’ to boot. And we don’t get to have our ‘sound trails’ either. Obviously you can’t have ‘sound trails’ without a ‘sensory soundscape’.

Old Susannah is now done with her excellent diet, although I could really shed another pound or two, but thank you to all at Temple Aesthetics.

Why am I telling you this?  Because as soon as I can get out from under my mounds of UTG-related research papers, I will be heading for my own personal sensory soundscape and sound trails:  YES – I am heading back to BrewDog Aberdeen just as soon as I can manage.

Soundgarden will probably be providing the sensory soundscape as I get a pint of either ‘Dead Pony Club’ or ‘Hello my name is Ingrid’, God willing. You want an all-embracing sensory experience? Brewdog will fix you up on that score AND still give you change from £140 million.

Irony: (Eng. noun).  A  concept of humour which Americans cannot understand. 

Sadly, being American-born I have little sense of irony, and arguably even less sense of satire. However, friends suggest two examples to try and help me.

The first concerns a writer called ‘O Henry’. One of his short stories involved a poor newlywed couple trying to get gifts for each other for Christmas. The wife sells her hair to buy a pocket-watch chain for her husband. Meanwhile, he has sold his watch to get her a set of beautiful hairbrushes.

The second example I am given comes from our very own HoMalone. When the deer cull was first suggested as the only possible way in which the non-existent, arbitrary trees were going to thrive on wind-and arson-swept Tullos Hill, Malone wisely turned cold-hearted ( uncharacteristically of course) and refused to listen to the thousands of petition-signers and the three community councils that told her in no uncertain terms not to kill the deer.

She also prevented myself and Andy Findlayson (now a Councillor) from speaking about the deer to the Housing & Environment Committee which she chaired.   Her reason for not listening to the people was on the important point (or some say technicality) that she had a verbal report on the deer at the meeting, and not a written one.

Yesterday as I sat in the gallery, I listened to Aileen Malone say how important it was to listen to the people and to give them what they wanted.

Perhaps I will eventually learn the definition of irony.  Maybe Councillor Findlayson will have some thoughts on the subject too.

Fudge: 1.  (noun Eng.) a delicious, sweet, rich concoction. 2. (verb, Mod Eng) to try and obscure the truth, evade,  or move the goalposts in some way.

Senior Statesman Callum McCaig accused the Motion to forget TIF, and just fix what we have with far less borrowing, of being a fudge. Surely nothing would ever be ‘fudged’ by the Web devotees?

Aside from changing their minds and not letting the public say no to the whole scheme when the consultation was live, and aside from disregarding the public choice of garden design, I’m sure that’s true.

There was also the little matter of hiding the actual companies who received tens of thousands of pounds from PR and advertising work on the Web by billing the City via the Chamber of  Commerce. No fudge here.

Except for blanking out details from the Garden Project committees’ meetings, apart from hiding the identities of those who spent a fortune on the secretive, unofficial pro-Web campaign – some of whom stood to gain if the thing went through – no fudge going on at all.

Final word of thanks.

None of these long months of fighting to keep our only green city centre space would have been possible but for this one man. This man’s actions brought us 18 months of bitter conflict, and he deserves all of our thanks. Thank you indeed former Provost Peter Stephen.

If you hadn’t used your tie-breaking vote to go against the tradition of keeping to the status quo in tie breaks, we would not have spent hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money pounds on committees, PR, advertising, design shows, ‘stakeholder events’ and so on.

When people today complain that democracy has been killed, it’s good that your conscience is clear. You may or may not have taken a late-night visit from a few rich people before the original vote, but hey, I’m sure you would have been as open to any of us paying you an evening call to discuss the city’s future, too.

Next week:  An Old Susannah column with improved connectivity, forward-looking and dynamic, wholly democratic and transparent, offering value for money and stakeholder engagement, complete with a total sensory soundtrail experience.  Or maybe just a few more definitions.

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Aug 242012
 

By Bob Smith.

Faa’s at bawlin an greetin
Oot ower a UTG balustrade?
It’s Sir Ian an aa his cohorts
Faa hiv aa iss wailin made 

The cooncillors are aa numpties
The Freens o UTG are as weel
Fer nae littin the ACSEF lot
Git awa wi iss dodgy deal

Aiberdeen’s nae a bonnie place
Says yon Dutchman Leo Koot
He’ll be up stakes an leavin
An “TAQA” wi him nae doot

Wee Stewartie wis fair fizzin
His phizog wid hae turn’t milk soor
Tam Smith he’ll be jinin in
In  fair kickin up a stoor

Mike Shepherd o Freens o UTG
Wull be weerin a smile richt big
An aa the fowk faa helpit him
Wull be deein an Aiberdeen Jig

Noo we’ll hae tae git crackin
Wi  a  better scheme fer UTG
An bring the gairdens up tae scratch
So’s  the green oasis we’ll still see

©Bob Smith “The Poetry Mannie” 2012

Aug 212012
 

Suzanne Kelly, Chair of campaigning group ‘Democracy Watch’ called upon UK and EU regulatory agencies to investigate details of the proposed City Garden Project today. Citing both past invoices paid by the public worth hundreds of thousands of pounds and the revelation that leading businessmen plan to add £15 million towards the project’s estimated £140 million costs may have conflict of interest issues.  The project is subject to a vote of the Full Aberdeen City Council on Wednesday 22 August.

Sir Ian Wood will ‘give’ £50 million to the City if it agrees to borrow £92 million more via Tax Incremental Funding to build a ‘Granite Web’ over the existing Victorian Union Terrace Gardens.

The subject has been voted down in a previous consultation, but narrowly passed a non-binding referendum exercise.

Labour promised that it came to power it would end the scheme; Labour duly gained a majority in the May elections

In correspondence today to regulatory entities and leading political figures, Kelly writes:-

“I would ask for an investigation into the situation in Aberdeen concerning the potential development of Union Terrace Gardens with regard to procurement issues and potential conflict of interests.

“I am not a legal professional, but it certainly seems to me that people who have or had influential posts on publicly-funded quangos might have used their roles to further their own interests – this should be investigated before any moves to proceed with the ‘City Garden Project’ are approved.  The entire situation needs to be looked at in detail.

“Stewart Milne and Tom Smith have been actively pushing this scheme via their memberships and positions of influence in the publicly-funded Aberdeen City and Shire Economic Future quango, ACSEF.  Milne owns the ‘Triple Kirks’ site next to the proposed area of development.  His land at present would be hard to develop or even access.  If the development of UTG goes ahead, the Triple Kirks area could only increase in value; this is obvious. 

“Milne would therefore likely stand to gain financially.  How he has been permitted to act within his ACSEF role to further a scheme which seems set to enrich him – largely at the taxpayer’s cost – should be investigated.  I did ask ACSEF to comment and they replied it was a matter for his conscience.  When millions of pounds of public money and common good land are at stake, this is not nearly good enough.

“Tom Smith likewise has used his position in ACSEF to further the plan to build a ‘granite web’ over the gardens.  He and Colin Crosby were the original directors of an entity set up named Aberdeen City Gardens Trust.  The Trust would apparently wind up managing the garden development and be in a position to handle millions of pounds – yet Smith has been allowed to pursue a role in ACSEF which directly impacts on his ACGT entity. 

“For reasons unclear to me, this Trust has been granted automatic rights to perform these valuable services without any tender exercise whatsoever being done.  I cannot help but think this is against UK and EU procurement policies and laws.

“In the end, we have a situation where common good land, owned by the people of Aberdeen, is being considered for development simply because Sir Ian Wood will ‘give’ the city £50 million towards a building project there.  He will not let us use this ‘gift’ on another site (the now vacant St Nicholas House would be one alternative); he will not entertain alternatives of any kind. 

“This scheme will take a green park and its 250 year-old trees and turn it into a turfed-over concrete jungle – with an outdoor theatre directly in front of another theatre.  The Aberdeen taxpayer is already subsidising two entertainment venues; using public funds to create a third is unacceptable.  Wood may call this a ‘gift’’ I would personally call it ‘coercion.’

“I would also ask the relevant regulators to look at the various personnel overlaps between public and private sector groups influencing this scheme – a scheme which will still cost the taxpayer £92 million at current estimate – a scheme which does not yet have a timetable, actual budget or scope.”

Kelly campaigned as chair of ‘Democracy Watch’ in the local referendum, and had this to say:-

“Labour were sceptical over agreeing to a referendum; and having participated in the exercise, I see they were right.  There was an unofficial group campaigning for the City Garden Project; and they bombarded the public with literature which I personally found misleading.

“I did try to complain to the Electoral Commission and to Advertising Standards, but neither could intervene in a referendum.   There were glossy brochures, newspapers, print and radio advertising placed by this group which far exceeded the value that the official groups were allowed to spend.  There were problems with the official material as well; the Green Party’s statement was cut off in the paper brochures for instance. 

“But to tell the public that the web would create 6,500 new jobs as this literature did seems highly unlikely.  I am told that some of the people behind this ‘unofficial’ group are also members of ACSEF and/or Aberdeen City Gardens Trust – possibly people who stand to gain financially from the project proceeding.  This makes the entire referendum exercise a mere ‘he who spends the most wins’ exercise.  I would ask the authorities which might look into my other concerns to look into this as well.”

Kelly concludes:-

“The vast sums of public money spent on PR, consultants and advertising to push this scheme could have gone on education and community projects.  This city does not need to borrow £92 million to turn its green park into a construction zone and a potential ‘trams fiasco.’  This city does need its existing buildings occupied and unused brownfield put back into use.  Businesses continue to operate here because of our industry. 

“Unnecessary, grandiose building projects detrimental to the environment seem to me designed to enrich the rich at public expense:  this scheme must be scrapped and the roles and actions of its powerful supporters examined.”

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Aug 172012
 

By Bob Smith.

Noo a hunner business billies
Faa support  City Gairdens Trust
Tae destroy Union Terrace Gairdens
They aa think iss is a must

They’re aa the usual suspects
Faa stan tae mak a killin
An ding doon ony cooncillor
Faa disna show ony willin

Ye hiv the likes o Martin Gilbert
Twa Stewarties, Milne an Spence
An woe betide ony business chiel
Faa micht sit upon the fence

A letter tae oor  toon council
Wis sint wingin on its wye
If ye vote agin the plans
We micht hing ye oot tae dry

Think o the bigger picter here
Is their affa mournfu plea
An Sir Ian he’ll jist waak awa
If oor biddin ye dinna dee

Their PR machine is gearin up
Wi  helpfu freens at the P&J
Faa canna say onything naistie
Advertisin revenue cums intae play

Fit richt hiv aa thae buggers
Tae tell us fit’s best fer oor toon?
An try tae dictate tae oor council
Fit they can or canna vote doon

We wull sin fin oot fit’s fit
The cooncil’s back is tae the wa
Can they haud faist agin the critics
An a hunner “snipers” an aa an aa? 

© Bob Smith “The PoetryMannie” 2012

 

Aug 172012
 

Old Susannah takes a look recent events in the ‘Deen, and tackles tricky terms with a locally topical taste. By Suzanne Kelly.

Tally Ho!  Once again future of our Union Terrace Gardens with its green field, 250-year-old elms, other trees, and wildlife is in the spotlight. The vote of the full council next week on 22 August will be significant to our getting our £140,000,000 granite web, which will fit in situ so naturally that we’ll think the Victorians built it in time.

Sadly, some anti-progress, anti-referendum, nimby tree-huggers are suggesting that the more suitable place for a public square is the St Nicholas site, and our only city centre park should be left as, well, a park. Three independent councillors will suggest an alternative to the web at the 22/8 meeting.

However, Sir Ian has much more money than they do, and will take his ball home if anyone suggests not doing the plan he wants.

We know he’ll give up as he’s said as much four or five times already (but failed to do so).  Sir Ian and Valerie Watts say without a web, we cannot be the City of Culture in 2017!  Well, that’s the argument for the web settled then.  What good are clean air, a healthy environment, heritage, common good land and existing culture when we can try to win an award?

Not surprisingly this issue of Aberdeen Voice will be filled with articles concerning our city’s future, and reasons to keep our common good land out of the hands of the usual suspects (Smith, Crosby, Milne, Wood of course, and the rest of the ACSEF acolytes).  Old Susannah is keen to redress the balance, and ensure that the selfless, apolitical philanthropists behind the £140,000,000 project get the consideration they deserve.

To that end, here are some relevant definitions.

Intellectual property: (modern English phrase) principle that the ownership of an original idea rests with the idea’s creators, and should be protected by law.

Peacock Visual Arts had come up with the original idea of building a new arts centre inside UTG; they were helped by Scottish Enterprise and ACSEF with their original scheme.  This help was kind of like the help that the Fox gave to Jemima Puddleduck.

Magically, the Peacock idea was hijacked (with Scottish Enterprise help) and transformed into the transformational 8th wonder of the world, The Granite Web.  After all their expense and groundwork, Peacock was left out in the cold, irrespective of their moral right to their intellectual property of putting a cultural venue in UTG.

Just as well this wasn’t going on in America; it would still be being fought in the courts now.

Thankfully, such hijackings of intellectual property concerning UTG are very rare, except for the most recent one.  Common Good Aberdeen, a group of people who simply want the gardens enhanced and protected from developers, recently came up with an original idea which they pitched to the City.

They proposed serving drinks and snacks from a temporary structure inside one of the disused central arches in UTG for a year. ALL profits, if the scheme survives a vote to be held today (17/08), are to be diverted to improving UTG.

Thus volunteers will take an unused space, encourage people to use the gardens, and generate money for the gardens’ improvement.  Obviously, we can’t have this kind of thing going on.

While some of the City’s administration and councillors are supporting this fresh, original scheme, other powers that be (one Mr Gordon McIntosh) has written a report saying that the Council must ensure that it gets ‘Value for Money’ for the disused arch if it is put to use.  Good man!  Mind the pennies, and the hundreds of millions of pounds will take care of themselves.

It is almost as if MacIntosh didn’t want the gardens used for social purposes

Gordon wants to take Common Good’s idea, clearly their intellectual property, and turn it into a commercial bidding exercise (which of course will cost the City money to put out to tender and evaluate incoming bids), and presumably charge whomever would want to rent the empty arch out.

If an organisation has to pay rent on the empty space, it is not that likely that they will plough 100% of their profits into fixing the gardens, which is what Common Good Aberdeen proposed.

It is almost as if MacIntosh didn’t want the gardens used for social purposes or for means to be found to generate UTG improvement funds at no cost to the City.  We have an empty space that is making no money, which volunteers want to use as a means of raising money to fix the gardens, while adding a social amenity to the area at no cost to the city.  If I were as clever as he, it would make sense I’m sure.

Much better that the City spend time and money on a bidding exercise to see if anyone wants to steal CGA’s idea for profit rather than any genuine philanthropy happening.  So, if after we spend taxpayer money on a bid to run a small café, some private company comes along to do so, then it’s profit to them and not the gardens.  Result!

That’s the kind of thinking that got us the city administration we’ve been enjoying these past several years.  If any of the councillors who have a chance to vote on the CGA proposal today are reading this column, I am sure they will do the right thing.

Let’s look at this principle Gordon wants to nobly uphold of ensuring Aberdeen City gets ‘Value for Money’.  Since we’ve seen that we can’t let people use a tiny arch for one year to sell snacks for generating improvement funds for the gardens without proper scrutiny, no doubt this important principle would have to apply to any and all schemes, great and small….

Value for Money:  (mod. English phrase) phrase used in public administration to describe the principle of ensuring that any services or products being sourced by government are obtained by the best qualified suppliers at the lowest possible prices.  European Law also dictates that any public services or goods contracts of substantial value be awarded by fair, open tender processes. 

They might even be expected to give the city a performance bond or guarantee

Let’s imagine just for one moment that a big city, somewhere has a park filled with trees, wildlife, and open spaces for people to enjoy.

Such a space might even be owned by the people outright.

Let’s imagine one step further that after years of mismanagement this hypothetical city wants to make a quick buck or two, and decides to develop this park, despite environmental concerns and public outcry.

The city in question would be expected tofirst write up a tender document, describing what it would want a management company to deliver in the gardens in question.  The tender document would describe in detail exactly what structures were to be created, what activities would take place, what everything would cost, and exactly what the management company’s role would be.

Advertisements asking for bidders with sufficient experience would be placed around the world, and the companies with sufficient experience of project management and venue operations would compete in a tender exercise.  If any would-be management companies had existing personal and business ties with any of the city’s officials or entities (maybe like ACSEF), these would have to be declared and scrutinised:  no one with power over the decision-making process would be permitted to be involved in evaluating tenders or giving work out.

Each bid would be evaluated by the city – without the name of the individual bidders being known – based on the company’s experience, financial health, submitted detailed operation and building budgets and so on.  A shortlist of the best companies would then be evaluated, and the best ‘Value for Money’ bidder would be awarded a contract.

They successful bidder might even be expected to give the city a performance bond or guarantee, and a parent company guarantee to ensure they would not simply disappear or sell the contract on to a third party.

Strict performance benchmarks would be drawn up, and the winning bidder would only be paid for each phase of the detailed project as they successfully delivered it.

Crucially, the entire process would be available for public scrutiny after the sensitive pricing and tendering exercise was completed – before any final contracts were signed.

OR, if the city was Aberdeen….

Members of various interlinked public and/or private entities such as ACSEF would talk to their pals, find out how to make money out of the public’s common good land, ‘transform’ an idea from an arts group into a money-spinner for friends in the construction and development sectors, and use their public and private muscle to get the city leaders to bend to their will.

Some of their number would set up a small private, limited ‘charity’ company, perhaps calling it Aberdeen City Gardens Trust.  This company would automatically be appointed by the city to run the multimillion pound construction scheme without any ‘value for money’ tendering exercise, scrutiny or competition.

Audit Scotland might wonder which companies were paid to carry out the expensive PR / advertising jobs

The newly formed Trust would actively influence decisions such as whether to build theatres next to theatres (Brilliant!),  chop down ancient trees and remove habit for protected EU species which live in said park and promise to plant fir trees (which can’t thrive in a city centre – even more brilliant!).

In the process taxpayer money would be spent to convince the city that building an unspecific project based on a few illogical, unworkable architectural flights of fancy was worth the taxpayer borrowing £90,000,000.

The project would be pushed ahead with this Trust at the head of delivering services, without a project scope defined, without a time frame for construction, and crucially without a budget open to public scrutiny.

It is a very good thing that the EU will never want to look into the manner in which the Granite Web is being foisted on the population or what procurement rules may be being ever so slightly bent.

Similarly, Audit Scotland would never decide to look at precisely how ACSEF and Scottish Enterprise ordered tens of thousands of pounds worth of PR, advertising, and ’stakeholder’ events’, then had the Chamber of Commerce submit invoices to the City Council to pay with public funds.

Audit Scotland will not wonder which companies were paid to carry out the expensive PR / advertising jobs – and why these companies did not get named on the Chamber of Commerce invoices, which cover several years. If that happened, then the elected councillors might start to question whether the entire proceedings were valid, examine the role of ACSEF and its members, and whether the EU, UK or Scottish regulatory agencies would come around asking questions.

Other firms with relevant project delivery experience might get slightly cross at the absence of a tender exercise for such a aluable public project; some of these companies might even know as much about multimillion pound schemes and public amenities as Tom Smith does.   It could all get just a little awkward, sticky, embarrassing and litigious.

I’d best keep these potential problems to myself.  I would hate it if any councillor having doubts about the project were to worry unduly about supporting the web on my account.

Final: (Eng adjective) The last of something; the end of something.

Old Susannah is so old that she went to The Who’s ‘farewell’ concert at Shea Stadium, NY, with the Clash as opening act (was it 1981?  Wish I could see The Clash again especially). The Who played, said it was their final tour, and that was that.  Since then, The Who have had about 57 other final tours.

ACGT were given custody of the ballot papers, even though the taxpayer had paid for the vote.

Sir Ian seems to be a fan of finality as well.  Those of us with memories longer than a goldfish’s will remember the first ‘consultation’ – you know, the one in which the voters rejected the garden scheme.  Sir Ian was going to go walk away then if the concept failed to win the public’s hearts and minds.

Well, we did say ‘no’ but as is often the case, ‘no’ must have really meant ‘yes’.  The official line was that those who were against the scheme simply didn’t understand it.  Fair enough.  So Ian didn’t say ‘farewell’ after all, and resurrected the scheme.

The public were going to be given a chance to vote against developing the gardens when the shortlisted 6 were on view.  This option was what councillors on some of the ‘City Garden Project’ committees had asked for.  However, in the end Gerry Brough is quoted in meeting minutes as saying this was not after all ‘appropriate’ during the design show after all.

People most definitely used the exhibition to write on the ballot papers they wanted no part of destroying UTG, which was very naughty of them indeed.

Thankfully, to avoid any embarrassment for Sir Ian, Tom Smith and Colin Crosby of ACGT were given custody of the ballot papers, even though the taxpayer had paid for the vote.

Campaign groups demanded sight of the papers; but brave ACGT held fast.  We will never know for certain what the real public vote was during the shortlist as to scrapping the scheme or not.  We do know however that the giant glass worm, the public’s choice, was turned down by Wood.

When things started looking bad for the scheme yet again, Wood churned out press releases saying he would draw a final line under the project, and walk away and give his £50,000,000 to the third world instead.

When the three independent councillors said they were working on an alternative idea, Wood said he would not compromise.  And that is his final word.  Well, for this week anyway.

Word arrives that early next week Sir Ian will AGAIN meet with individual councillors to make his ‘final’ plea.  Old Susannah is starting to get deja vu.  I do wonder though why Sir Ian gets to make continued visits to the councillors, sit in the ‘press’ box when he attends council meetings and so on.  Anyone would think he were rich or something.  Thankfully this is a democracy.  Word also reaches me that these continuous pleas from Sir Ian are beginning to grate on more than a few councillors’ patience.

What Woody will do if the vote goes against the scheme will be, of course, to make a final farewell, take his money and spend it in Africa….

And if you believe that….

Next week:  a look at who voted how, what’s next, and if common sense and Common Good Aberdeen prevail, lots of Champagne and lots of BrewDog.

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Jul 202012
 

Aberdeen Voice’s Old Susannah can barely contain her excitement over the imminent Olympics, and reviews the week’s past local events. By Suzanne Kelly.

Yet another exciting week in the Granite City has just passed. I had a great weekend with Anthony Baxter, the Milnes, Susan Munro, photographer Alicia Bruce and more at the Belmont on Saturday.

Baxter’s award-winning documentary, You’ve Been Trumped has returned, and at the Saturday evening show Menie residents and director Baxter did a lengthy Q&A session. I enjoyed the additional footage on the windfarm controversy and other updates. The film still makes me angry, it must be said.

Oddly the residents have a completely different take on what is going on at the estate than the Shire’s Clerk of Works – I wonder why?

If you’ve seen the film you will remember shots of trees being buried in a giant excavation. The Clerk wrote to me months back and advised that this hadn’t happened. So there. I sat next to David Milne during the screening; we are both amazed at the unprecedented way this documentary is doing the rounds. Next stops are New York and LA.

Don’t bother looking for any news of You’ve Been Trumped’s return or its many awards in the local press: you will be searching in vain.  If however you want a nice picture or two of Ivanka Trump, you’ll be well rewarded. We are all as good as rolling in money and new jobs now, I’m sure.

Sunday was a great day to visit Willows; Sandi Thom performed a lovely acoustic set in a barn packed with peacocks, peahens, cats and people of all ages. I like her voice, I hadn’t appreciated her guitar skills until I saw her play. You can’t fake it unplugged with an acoustic guitar. Even the animals were attentive. The Willows is a wonderful place to visit – and a great place to support.

Later in the week Old Susannah and Aberdeen Voice editor Fred met with some legal consultants. Do watch this space, particularly if you’ve ever had doubts about the legality of some of the previous Aberdeen City administration’s decisions. I even had a nice long chat with a councillor or two about some of the issues of the day. There may be some developments coming in the near future.

Tomorrow there is an event in Union Terrace Gardens. In the words of Dorothy from Common Good Aberdeen:

“There is to be a very interesting and moving event taking place in Union Terrace Gardens this Saturday, 21st July 2012 at 2 p.m. T.A.C.T. Bereavement Support are to hold their service of remembrance for loved ones, with a Book of Remembrance being opened. Quiet observation and reflection would be the order of the day, and what better place to have it. Common Good Aberdeen will be there to support in the form of helping with the afternoon tea.”

Hope to see you there.

Despite all the running around and events, I’m managing to stick to the diet programme I’ve been put on by Temple Aesthetics. It is called the Alizonne diet, it seems to be working a treat, and I do get a variety of flavours in the meals I eat on this plan.

The problem is, my visits to BrewDog are out for now (unless I go there and drink water and coffee – and with the best willpower in the world, I’m not sure I could do that just yet). Still, I’ve lost 5½ pounds in the first week. I hope to be back to normal eating habits soon. And normal drinking habits too.

This week I have to admit that I got a bit jealous of the lucky few who attended the opening of Trump’s golf course at Menie. I’ve had a look at the goody bag they took away.

Wow. Not only did I miss out on the free toothpaste (I think that’s what I saw) and golf goodies – but I have to do without an embroidered baseball cap as well. Shucks. It was clear that this collection of goods was put together by an imaginative billionaire with the highest standards of class and taste.

Even though I didn’t get an invitation or a bag myself (I wonder why?) I will still try and get ‘Trump’ baseball caps for Anthony Baxter and the Menie estate residents; I’m sure that will make everything seem better.

But let’s move on with some definitions.

Miscalculate: (verb, Eng.) to incorrectly estimate a quantity or a situation; to fail to appreciate all relevant variables when making decisions.

For all those Olympic fans out there (I presume there are some, even though there is evidence coming in to the contrary), it seems that a few little errors of judgement may have been made.  These involve the demand for tickets, and the all-important security arrangements.

Firstly, despite our Prime Minister pleading with us to agree that the games are great for the UK (he doesn’t want us to call them the ‘soggy’ Olympics, we should think of these as the Great Olympics; do make sure you think accordingly), not all of us seem to be keen on the games.  The football matches, which we have all dreamt of for years, are not exactly selling tickets quite as quickly as expected.

This minor miscalculation means that sales have been overestimated by around half a million tickets, depending on who you talk to. The BBC has this to say on its website:-

Organisers said there had been around one million football tickets left but these have been cut in half by reducing capacity at stadiums. A spokesman for Locog said: “We are planning to reduce capacity across the venues by up to 500,000 tickets across the tournament This will involve possibly not using a tier, or an area of a ground, in some of the venues.”

I hear they might want to hold one of the games in my back garden to cut costs.  Old Susannah is no economist of course, but if there are one million football tickets left unsold from an event that was supposed to make tons of money, does that mean we might not make quite as much money as we thought?  Even if the tickets were £1 each (they were not), that is one million pounds less than expected.

G4S, has said that it ‘regrets’ taking on this contract.  I’m sure they do.

But I don’t want to be negative.  I guess people are skipping football tickets in favour of the more important, exciting events, like women’s 10k three legged race or the men’s McDonald’s hamburger eating contest.

I am sure the sponsors won’t mind a little bit that a few million people less than expected will be there to look at their logos and be impressed at sponsorship for the events.

The other wee bit of miscalculation seems to involve how many security personnel would be needed. After all, we have to make sure that no one is allowed to bring in their own food and drink to the stadium village; the sponsors would be up in arms, and sponsorship is what the games are all about.

It seems that the firm that won the security contract have got their sums wrong, and every able-bodied police person in the UK is being told that they must go down to London to help out.

Don’t worry about the crime issues locally or the cost to the taxpayer: Cameron has already explained that the Age of Austerity will last until 2020.  If we have to stump up a few million pounds in police overtime, and the rest of the UK is hit with crime waves, it’s a small price to pay for finding out who is the best 50 yard dash runner in the world.

The firm which altruistically won the work for Olympic Security, G4S, has said that it ‘regrets’ taking on this contract.  I’m sure they do.  Having only secured a contract worth an estimated £57 million or more, depending on who’s doing the calculations, or miscalculations, they can hardly be blamed for small hiccoughs.

They might not have hired enough people, not arranged sufficient training or obtained uniforms, offered salaries below industry standards, but they couldn’t have been cutting any corners for reasons of profit.  After all £57 million doesn’t go nearly as far as it used to; it would barely get you half of a Granite Web.

The Home Office, which usually gets everything perfect, has also fallen a bit flat.  They had no way of knowing that lots of people from around the world would be coming to compete in London.  If the occasional terrorist suspect has got through the Border Agency without a hitch, I guess that’s fair enough.  I will try and remember that the next time I see a granny or a little child being body searched at the airport.

  Tom Smith says economist Mackay just doesn’t understand economics.  Good enough for me.

These little miscalculations demonstrate that this kind of thing can happen to anyone.  Except that it will not happen with the Granite Web. We don’t exactly know what’s proposed to go in the gardens.  We don’t have any working drawings available to the public showing how the ramps over the gardens will be safe, but they will of course have to be enclosed, barbed wire being a cost-effective solution.

We don’t know what the negative impacts will be on the existing city centre businesses, as the streets are clogged with construction vehicles and construction dust, if the thing is allowed to go ahead.  If only there were some other Scottish city that had started an open-ended civic project using many layers of public/private companies, then we could get a handle on the potential problems.  But I can’t think of a single example.

Failing that, we must rely on PriceWaterhouseCooper’s projections of 6,000 totally new jobs appearing and £122 million pouring into the city every year until 2023.  It all sounds so precise, doesn’t it?  Of course there was some economist named Mackay, but Tom Smith says economist Mackay just doesn’t understand economics.  Good enough for me.

So, since the economy is in such great shape, this is a great time to take an Olympic-sized leap of faith, get rid of the city’s only lungs, the UTG trees, clog the streets with construction vehicles – and of course borrow £92 million to pay for it.  It could all either go vastly over budget like the trams in Edinburgh, or turn out to be not quite as lucrative as £122 million flowing in per year.

The Olympics overstated the financial gain case, but this is Aberdeen:  the web will be a profitable, problem free project built to budget and completed without a hitch in no time at all, not like these amateurish cities London and Edinburgh.

Same Sex Marriage: (mod. English phrase) Situation in which two consenting adults of the same sex agree to enter into a marriage contract.

Readers of a sensitive disposition might wish to stop reading. This will be a shock, but there are people out there who apparently are not heterosexual.  Some of these people want to have long-term, legally-recognised partnerships or even marriages with their beloveds.  Clearly this is wrong.

The SNP were going to consider this issue, but have developed cold feet.  And too right.  What kind of a society would we have if people who loved each other could get married as they wanted?  Let’s stick to what we know works – a society where some six out of ten marriages end in divorce and separation.

  Actors are exactly the kind of people who go in for this kind of wild behaviour

On what the kids call ‘social network’ websites, there are a number of protagonists claiming that it should be their right to choose who to be with.  Top among these is one Mr George Takei.  He may be remembered for his role as ‘Sulu’ in Star Trek television and film appearances.

Actors are exactly the kind of people who go in for this kind of wild behaviour.  Elton John too has a ‘same sex’ partner.  Just  because they are intensively creative, intelligent, witty, generous men who have entertained millions for generations is no reason to think this kind of thing won’t mean the entire breakdown of society, or even the planet.

It is clearly our business what consenting adults get up to, so let’s put paid to any same sex marriage ideas here in Scotland – Scotland, arguably the home of modern philosophy, invention and upholder of the Rights of Man.  Next thing you know, we’ll have men going around in skirts.  God forbid.

Confidential to a certain councillor

I am very glad to know that you are having doubts about the private companies set up to carve up the Common Good land of Union Terrace Gardens.  You have confided that you are not sure the financials stack up, and you wonder if this isn’t either a vanity project, or a ‘jobs for the construction boys’ deal.

As you have those doubts, you will have to err on the side of caution, and reject any plans to start any project over UTG at this time.  If you vote to go ahead, you are going against your own better judgment.  I am glad you have these doubts – and as long as there is any doubt, the project must not proceed.  Don’t listen to me:  listen to your own common sense.

Next Week:  Old Susannah wants your gift suggestions for Ian Wood’s retirement.  What do you give the billionaire who has everything?

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Jun 222012
 

By Bob Smith.

A quine ca’ed Annie Lennox
His kickit up an affa stir
Rubbishin the “gairdens” plan
Some fowk are in a birr

Gweed on ye Annie quine
Fer ca’in the plans jist crap
Ye’ve ruffled a fyow feathers
Widdie’s gang are in a flap

Ye’ve ivvery richt ti hae yer say
An hark back ti the 60’s folly
Fin biggin bliddy concrete trash
Wis thocht maist affa jolly

St Nicholas Hoose fer a stairt
Faa drimt up iss ugly wart?
Syne they blockit aff George Street
Planners didna gie a fart

Yon college doon bye Holburn
Wisna pleesin ti the ee
It seenwis aa knockit doon
In case students hid ti flee

The fauchie new Uni library
Some think it anither boob
A square biggin made o gless
A muckle giant Rubik’s cube

Oor toon is in an affa mess
Fer ‘eers hisna bin weel run
Noo if things still gyang agley
Shout “Annie Get Yer Gun”

©Bob Smith “The Poetry Mannie” 2012

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Jun 072012
 

What is the probability that the City Garden Project will actually happen? Mike Shepherd looks at some of the obstacles it currently faces.

The City Garden Project cannot proceed if £70 million of private finance is not in place to fund it:

The nominal cost for the City Garden Project is £140 million, with £70 million each to be contributed from the private and from the public sector.
So far, only £55 million of private money has been pledged, although £70 million has always been the target figure. The project will stall if the full £70 million of private funding is not committed.

Aberdeen Council voted in January to agree the following:

“Instructs officers to enter into negotiations with a view to putting in place a development agreement with Aberdeen City Garden Trust (ACGT) and/or their representatives, which sets out the terms upon which Aberdeen City Council (ACC) would be prepared to make necessary Council owned land available, to realise the proposed development subject to;

“(x) Requires ACGT to confirm, in a legally binding form, that they have access to at least £70 million of private sector funds to invest in the CGP, prior to the signing of;

a. An appropriate Development Agreement, and

b. A TIF agreement confirming ACC’s ability to invest at least £70 million in enabling infrastructure related to the CGP.”
http://committees.aberdeencity.gov.uk/mgConvert2PDF.aspx?ID=18252

A council vote to give final approval to signing the Tax Incremental Financing (TIF) agreement will probably come up this summer. This is basically a request for a £92 million loan from the Scottish Government, £70 million of which would fund the City Garden Project.

The £55 million of pledged private money has been on the table since early 2010 and the full £70 million remains an unfulfilled aspiration two years later. The funding gap of £15 million will be difficult to make up.

One issue is that big companies who could afford to make donations on the scale of millions may be reluctant to get involved with such a controversial project.  They will not want to come under severe criticism from either the public or their workers.

Sir Ian Wood could come up with the extra £15 million, perhaps anonymously.  This would however be an admission that the project has failed to motivate the business community in the place where it matters: the bank vault.

The TIF business case is risky:

Noted academic Professor Tony McKay has criticised the business case for public funding through TIF as “the worst he’s seen this year”.

Claims that the project will create up to 6500 jobs and add £122 million per year to the city’s economic output are ludicrous, he says. He thinks that the Scottish Government will reject the application for a loan from central funds.
dailyrecord.co.uk/aberdeen-city-garden-business-plan-is-worst-i-ve-seen

TIF funding is based on the idea that without the core project, new businesses will not happen. These are the “But For” criteria that give the green light for putting a new TIF scheme in place. The new businesses created provide business rates to pay for the loan.

The Aberdeen business case contends that much of the commercial activity in two new business parks in the north of the city, and in the city centre, will not happen without the City Garden Project.

I suspect that few truly believe this, as the new business parks will attract inward investment to the city on the back of a currently resurgent oil industry anyway.

Nevertheless, I suspect that the Scottish Government will give a few knowing nods and winks to the “But For” criteria here. They may be amenable to allowing new business rates to be captured to pay off the Council’s loan of £92 million for the proposed city centre redevelopment.

But will it be enough? The business case makes it clear that the revenue will pay off the £92 million loan and accrued interest with a small margin to spare after 25 years. And required to do this are 6,500 new jobs and £122 million added to the city’s economy each year for the next 25 years, a “ludicrous” estimate as mentioned previously.

Let’s take the lesser case whereby the city gets 5,000 new jobs and about £100 million per year of added value. This would also be miraculous news for Aberdeen if it were to happen, but it would be a disaster for Aberdeen City Council. The council would be left with a shortfall on a very large loan. It might have to sell off assets to pay the difference.

Audit Scotland was aware of these problems when it expressed concerns about the City Garden earlier this year, stating that “a key risk will be the affordability of the project and its impact on the council’s finances”.
[Audit Scotland: ACC Annual Audit Plan 2011/2012 p. 10]
http://committees.aberdeencity.gov.uk/mgConvert2PDF.aspx?ID=18879&txtonly=1

The land issues are complex:

At some point Aberdeen Council will have to approve a deal transferring property rights to the Aberdeen City Garden Trust (or its equivalent). This deal would be likely to involve assigning a long-term lease, and the council have said that they will not sell the land.

There are major issues here, not least those arising from transferring what would be a property lease for public land, potentially worth millions, to a limited company.

Union Terrace Gardens lies on Common Good land and at some point the Council would have to apply to a Court of Session to allow development to take place.  Additionally, there are contracts in place for the use of Union Terrace Gardens as a park. A legal document from 1871 states that the area of  Union Terrace Gardens should on no account “be appropriated to any other use than that of a recreation ground for the public.”

The City Garden Project website mentions the following: 

The gardens will be run on a not for profit basis. All income will be put back into the running costs for ongoing upkeep and improvement of the gardens. The City Gardens will be able to generate income through activities held within the park; exhibitions, conferences and returns from coffee shops and restaurants.”
http://www.thecitygardenproject.com/faq.htm

I’m not a lawyer, but these issues look to be somewhat contentious. The January council meeting approved the allocation of up to £300,000 of council money to be spent on carrying out legal due diligence for the City Garden Project. The council lawyers must be very worried.

The new council make-up is not favourable to the City Garden Project:

The last council progressed the City Garden Project through its voting procedure with a comfortable majority on most occasions.

The new council looks to have an almost equal split between the ‘pros’ and the ‘antis’.
In addition, the Labour Party leading the new council administration has pledged to kill the City Garden Project.

There will be several votes to come, including a likely knock-out vote at the full Council meeting on August 22nd.

The City Garden Project will also need to survive the TIF business case approval, the development agreement and the planning submission.

This is an administration that will have other concerns. I’m told that central funding for Scottish councils is being cut by millions over the next three years, yet only 18% of the cuts have come through so far. The last thing any new administration will want is the divisive distraction of the City Garden Project and its potential to suck much-needed resources out of the council, for example the £300,000 on legal fees.

Council leader Barney Crockett is opposed to the City Garden Project. He has now been assigned as the Council representative on two bodies that support it: the City Garden Project management board and ACSEF. He will be a veritable cuckoo in what have previously been two cosy nests for the scheme.

The City Garden Project could itself be described as a cuckoo in the nest; its big yawning mouth crying to be fed with big gobbets of public money while other more deserving mouths lack succour. A hard landing beckons for this particular cuckoo.

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May 152012
 

All good stories have an unexpected and dramatic twist to the tale and the thriller / horror / war story of Union Terrace Gardens is no exception. Mike Shepherd writes.

We left the saga with a public referendum having been held and a narrow majority gained for the City Garden Project.

The final count at the start of March saw glumness on both sides with nary a cheer heard; one side having lost the vote, bitter at the sledge-hammer tactics of their opponents; the other side staring at a pyrrhic victory whereby hundreds of thousands of pounds of advertising money had resulted in a narrow majority vote.

One campaigner described the result as like a football match where one side had fielded twenty players and still only won one-nil!

There was still two months to go until the council elections on May 3rd. The SNP had been privately hoping to see a  majority of councillors elected so that they could form an administration without any need to seek coalition partners. The political pundits thought this unlikely but still predicted the SNP to end up as the largest group in the council. It was conjectured that the public referendum would have some influence on the vote.

The SNP had been linked to the City Garden Project not the least through Alex Salmond’s comments in support of the project during the referendum campaign. The Labour party opposed the City Garden project and pledged to scrap it if they got the chance. The other main party, the Lib Dems, were split on the issue with three councillors, Martin Greig, Jennifer Stewart and Ian Yuill having opposed Sir Ian Wood’s scheme.

Kenny Watt had provided a website giving information detailing where the candidates standing for election stood with respect to the UTG issue. He had tried contacting as many of the candidates as possible. Some who I suspected to be pro City garden project were non-committal when asked.

In spite of the referendum result, candidate endorsement for the City Garden Project was somewhat subdued in the lead up to the election. Kenny’s website was widely distributed and intended as a voting guide only.

The Council vote was a surprise to many, not least the Labour party. They found themselves with the largest number of new councillors at seventeen, ahead of the SNP. This was not quite enough to form a majority (which is 22 in a council with 43 members). They did manage to secure the agreement of the Conservatives and Independents to form a coalition.

  Sir Ian Wood’s scheme is looking much less likely than it had been two months earlier

What happened? There is no doubt that local issues played a part; the proposed third Don crossing in Tillydrone and the new football stadium in Cove and Kincorth.
However, I believe the UTG controversy had a significant influence.

The Labour party saw their number of councillors increase substantially and all three Lib Dems supporting UTG were returned in spite of their party’s poor showing elsewhere.

I’ve had numerous comments from people who admit to having changed their normal voting pattern because they were so upset about what they saw as a very cynical campaign strategy by the City Garden supporters in the referendum. It looks as if the referendum result had an unexpected sting in its tail.

The Labour party, now leading the new council administration, are still committed to abandoning the City Garden Project. I make it a very slight majority of pro-UTG councillors in the new batch. Nevertheless, the political practicality is that Sir Ian Wood’s scheme is looking much less likely than it had been two months earlier.

There are several hurdles for the City Garden Project to get through before it happens, each one of which is a show-stopper if it doesn’t get the vote. The new administration has discussed organising what would essentially be a knock-out vote for the scheme. If it survives that, then there is the business case to be approved for TIF funding, the approval of a land lease and finally the planning submission itself; each separate votes.

On top of that, there will be an intent by the new administration to get on with other business and I suspect they will not want to be distracted by such a divisive issue as the City Garden Project. There will be other priorities to consider.

That’s not to say that the beast is finally dead: By no means. The rich and powerful of the land are not giving up easily.

Sir Ian Wood intends to carry on regardless and will lobby councillors individually to pursue his project. The publicly funded ACSEF have rather unwisely criticised the Labour party position and the Chamber of Commerce are joining in.

Much will be made of the public referendum result, even though the result was marginal and the campaigning by one side was totally over the top.  Labour have the moral edge in that they never approved of the referendum in the first place, voting against it on the grounds that the ballot that counted was the one on May 3rd.

There will be more twists and turns to come in this saga no doubt. But at the moment, the prognosis for the City Garden Project is poor.  It is of note that the Labour party are already discussing what happens following the demise of the City Garden Project.  This includes the establishment of the Castlegate as a cultural centre and the possibility of instigating schemes similar to the contemporary arts centre proposed by Peacock Visual Arts over five years ago.

Local author Diane Morgan is busy writing a new book on the history of Union Terrace Gardens and hopes to finish it this summer. She has a problem. The final chapter hasn’t happened just yet.

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.