Jan 032013
 

By Angus Macmillan.

Conservationists and nurseries have been quick to claim that the spores of chalara fraxinea, which is the fungus causing Ash Dieback, could have blown over from mainland Europe but are very quiet about their role in planting diseased trees from the same source.

They have known for around six years that Ash Dieback was widespread in Europe but are now blaming government for not introducing a ban earlier in the hope they will be compensated or get grants for replanting from the hard pressed public purse.

Considering the vague media references to where the diseased plantings took place and what organisations owned the woodlands, I decided to make a Freedom of Information request to the Forestry Commission to reveal this information in detail.

They replied saying, they were not prepared to release this information at this time and that, whilst it might be of interest to the public, it was not in the public interest to divulge locations and owner organisations as it could deter other owners from reporting the disease. The Forestry Commission obviously has a poor opinion of those who plant trees and possibly quite rightly so.

Following a newspaper report that the Woodland Trust “is one of Britain’s biggest importers of ash” – and they call them “native” trees – had at least two infected properties, I emailed them to ask how many of their woodlands had Ash Dieback. Unsurprisingly, they didn’t reply.

So there we have it. Up to 80 million ash trees are at risk from disease but the Forestry Commission is quite prepared to protect its tree-planting buddies from criticism, in what must be one of the most scandalous environmental introductions from abroad by those who have been advocating the destruction of “alien” populations of both flora and fauna for years.

And it’s not in the public interest to reveal who they are?

The “con” in conservation is truly exposed.

Further reading –  The_Rise_and_Fall_of_Biotic_Nativeness_- A_Historical_Perspective

Oct 182012
 

Voice’s Old Susannah looks back on the week that was, complete with Zeppelins, BrewDogs, and a bad smell coming not from the Torry sewage plant, but a whiff of scandal from Edinburgh. By  Suzanne Kelly

Tally  Ho!  By the time you read this, I’ll have been to the Led Zeppelin film ‘Celebration Day’ at the Belmont.  Am counting the minutes.  Another major highlight of this week was  BrewDog Aberdeen’s second birthday party.  I celebrated with great people, great beers, food and a lovely cake.  Happy Birthday to Brew.

I also took in a bread-making course at Nick Nairn Cookery school; it was a great course, not least because of the lovely breads I got to take home (including the tutor’s lovely white loaf).

On the down side of this week, a dog has disappeared from its garden on Holburn Street.  Grampian police downplayed earlier Facebook posts warning of potential dog thieves in our area. 

The police issued a Facebook post about a week ago, saying dog-napping worries were just rumour-mongering, and several FB posters chimed in to ridicule the people worried about potential thefts.

The cops categorically claimed no such thing was going on. Fast-forward to 16 October, and a dog has mysteriously disappeared from its back garden in Holburn Street.

Unless the small dog, not tall enough on its hind legs to reach the lock, undid the lock, went away, and decided never to return again for food or shelter, it looks like theft is a possibility.  However, the police refuse to treat this as a theft.  There is no evidence you see.

Perhaps they had expected a smoking gun, guys in striped shirts wearing masks holding bags of swag?  I wonder whether they even checked the gate for fingerprints – they certainly could have done so.  The moral is – keep an eye on your pets as much as possible, and report anything like thefts or suspicions straight away to the Scottish SPCA – and/or email stop.dogfights@yahoo.co.uk.  PS – dogs, cats, handbags, Led Zeppelin CDs , etc. are not safe left alone in cars for any length of time, either.

Common Good Aberdeen reached its financial target of £15K for a children’s play area in Union Terrace Gardens with ease, expect a play area in UTG sometime soon, hopefully with a volunteer-run, cafe, too (with all profits going directly on UTG).  No one could object to putting a play area in a city centre park, could they?

But perhaps best of all this week was sharing joyful commuting stories with fellow bus travellers.  To a man we’re all thrilled to bits at the reduction in routes.  We are of course waiting for the corresponding reduction in bus fares, which must be just ‘round the corner‘.  How wonderful that the No. 21 bus is no more, just as those wonderful Milne homes are going up in Cove.

  I’m wondering  exactly what kind of ‘independence’ Alex is actually offering

It must have been my imagination (and the imaginations of a few dozen other people), but it seemed as if quite a number of scheduled buses (no. 3s, 1s, etc) didn’t actually materialise when they should have.  I got to learn a few more new words from fellow travellers while waiting for a No. 1 bus on Monday evening.

In the wider Scottish environment, this was the week that Cameron and Salmond signed up to a yes/no referendum (wish we’d done so over the gardens –  but never mind).  Alex smiled from the covers of most newspapers this past week, and he told the press:-

 “I didn’t want to look too triumphant.” 

Don’t worry about that, Alex, you didn’t.

In fact, Alex is starting to look like a man with Ninety-Nine Problems.

Old Susannah is looking at some of these minor worries.  All things considered, I’m wondering  exactly what kind of ‘independence’ Alex is actually offering.  For openers, once you consider some of Alex’s  pals, you come to one inescapable question:  How independent exactly is Alex himself?

Is he offering Scots independence or perhaps a form of government that is just a little bit older?

Feudalism: (Eng. noun) – A system of governance/land steward ship prevalent in the middle ages in Europe where a small minority of wealthy property holders wielded power over those with less money, and a great gap existed between the haves and have-nots.

Believe it or not, it was not only the English who were oppressing the Scottish people throughout history, many Scottish nobles did so, too.  Clan warfare, theft, battles, treachery, wife-stealing, drunkenness, cruelty – these are not just part of the daily grind at Holyrood.  Indeed, there were many forms of Scot on Scot violence in the bad old days, too.

In the feudal societies of the past, a rich man owned everything in his territory and all those below him fell in line in accordance with his wishes.  If this ‘lord’ (or sometimes the noble was given the title ‘Sir’, as in ‘Sir Ian Wood’) wanted a castle, a bit of land, or say a granite web, his lackeys ensured he got what he wanted by hook or crook, or compulsory purchase order or by an arm’s length management company or Aberdeen City Gardens Trust.

Thankfully, the days of the rich man dictating the future of the land to the common man are gone.

Alex Salmond will ensure that no rich men can possibly dictate policy, seize land (or public parks), bend Quangos to their will, shield their gold from the taxman via offshore schemes, etc.  No, Alex won’t in any way favour the rich or help them gain unfair advantage.

If he did do so, say for a Murdoch (to whom he seems to have offered his services at one point), a Wood (whose web he favoured) or a Trump (who got permission to ruin the only moveable sand dune system on the UK mainland), then we would not have a free republic.  We would have feudalism.

Intervention: (Eng. noun) to take action in a situation to try and prevent an undesirable outcome.  Interventions can be legal or not.  In Scottish politics – usually not.

When Aberdeenshire Council said no to Donald Trump, Alex’s Government weighed in and  said ‘we’re open for business; c’mon over’.  Thanks for the intervention!

But now it looks as if when Scottish Futures Trust (SFT) didn’t give the beautiful, sparkly granite web the thumbs up, Alex intervened again.

The cat is out of the bag, the chickens have come home to roost, and so on.  No doubt with the best interests of Aberdonians at heart, Alex seems to have put the £140 million web into position to get TIF funding.  Where would we have been without him?

This little intervention raises just one or two questions.  Firstly, I wonder what first attracted politician Alex Salmond to Billionaire tycoon Sir Ian Wood and his Wood-Wide-Web?

How could Scottish Futures Trust (SFT) criticised Wood’s wonderful web?  Well, for openers here is how it scored ( click on table to enlarge ):-


http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Topics/Government/Finance/18232/FOI/TIFScoring

“…further detail / clarity could have been added in relation to:

  • The potential level of private sector activity created (in terms of NDR creation) and its likelihood
  • The underlying enabling nature of the assets themselves – i.e. why are these the right assets
  • The potential level of retail activity in comparison to the overall activity enabled by the TIF
  • The rationale for the redline
  • The key milestones of the project
  • The consideration of risk and risks beyond those detailed in the submission”
    http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Topics/Government/Finance/18232/FOI/TIFComments

The SFT/Government fought tooth and nail (whatever that means) against Steve Vass of the Herald getting this information made public.  For one thing, the SFT claimed people weren’t smart enough to understand their findings.  Quite right.  They argued people would not understand  that Scottish Futures Trust and its reports were only meant to guide the Government, which was then free to ignore the report and do whatever it chose to do.  Funny, this method of government consultation seems perfectly obvious to me.

You are of course as surprised and disappointed as I am that our web didn’t get higher scores.  It’s hard to imagine SFT deciding there were some financial and risk elements.

We should have sent them some of those lovely glossy brochures from Vote for the City Gardens Trust –  you know, the ones that promised 6,500 permanent jobs and £122 million flowing into Aberdeen every year if we got us a web.  That would have swung the balance.

Some  voters may well wonder why this SFT  information wasn’t  shared in advance of any referendum vote.  I’m sure it was for our own good and not to confuse us with facts.  However, if you  are angry we had a referendum with crucial facts withheld deliberately, Go Ask Alex.  Just drop him a line to find out who was playing at what, and why anyone thought we weren’t clever enough to understand a short report.

  No doubt Alex is confident that an independent Scotland will demand a granite web

Perhaps this is all too complicated for us non-Government mortals after all.  I’m so confused I’m thinking the Government wanted a trial run of the referendum system to see what the pros and cons were in advance of the Independence Referendum.

The pros?  You can put anything you want to in a glossy brochure, true or not as long as you remain anonymous.  Result!   You can also hide the voting record from any scrutiny, as was done in Aberdeen.

The Cons?  I think there were plenty of ‘cons’ involved, don’t  you?  In fact, I’m fighting the urge to list the cons by name.

You could also be forgiven for wondering  why the SFT report was prepared in the first place, if the Government had its own ideas about what should or shouldn’t be given a TIF loan.  (Old Susannah heard an unconfirmed rumour that Alex told Sir Ian to ‘leave his money on the table’ for a year.  No doubt Alex is confident that an independent Scotland will demand a granite web.  We could put it on the back of the new Scottish Banknotes).

So, Alex is going to try not to look too triumphant.  If it helps, Alex, just think back to some of your finer moments:-

  • Testifying to the Leveson Inquiry – Alex claimed the Observer had hacked his banking account in 1999 (no evidence was found) – almost as if he were trying to deflect attention from the revelation that Mr Salmond’s adviser (Aberdein) – had agreed that the first minister would call Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt “whenever we need him to” on Murdoch’s behalf.
  • intervening in Aberdeenshire planning permission and giving Trump carte blanche to bulldoze the SSI, make life a misery for the existing residents, and run the area with heavy-handed security
  • Asking Donald Trump to back the return of Megrahi to Libya
  • Spending c. £48,000 to go to the premier of the film ‘Brave’ with an entourage
  • Claiming a sum adjacent to £1,800 per week for food and drink (four year period May 2007 onward)
  • Meddling in the future of the Granite Web, and elevating it over other areas’ projects
  • Cutting money to charities while allowing unelected quangos to thrive…..

It might not amount to quite 99 problems, Alex, but you’re getting there.  Give it a week.

Teflon: (mod Eng.noun) a non-stick coating often applied to pots and pans.

Bill Clinton lurched from sex scandal to Whitewater financial scandal and back to sex scandal again, yet he escaped relatively unscathed.  People called him ‘the Teflon President’:  nothing stuck to him.

Not that our First Minister would ever do anything untoward of course, but it is almost like he’s using deflection techniques – sorry to even think it!  Just because he showed up at Leveson with counter claims that he had been hacked when he was there to testify as to his relationship with Murdoch is no reason to think he’s a slippery character.

In fact I’ve  written to Salmond to ask for his comments on some of these little trifling issues.  As soon as he answers, I’ll let you know.  Until then, just keep waving the Saltire, chant ‘Freedom!’ and believe everything you’re being promised.  Would Alex ever steer you wrong?

Just one little thing to remember:  sooner or later that non-stick pan stops working, and it gets thrown out.

Next week:  A wee update on council finances, and an old FOI of mine updated.

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Sep 212012
 

Voice’s Old Susannah  takes a look over the past week’s events in the ‘Deen and further beyond ( including the murky depths of ‘local’ cyberspace ). By Suzanne Kelly.

Across Aberdeen this past week most of us have enjoyed the last warm(ish) days of summer, and the sunny days and early evenings. Others have been glued to their computers waging a curious battle over a protest planned for tomorrow (Saturday 22nd September).

In the quest to win new friends and influence people, the ‘Protest Against Aberdeen City Council’ Facebook pages have entertained a wide variety of opinions, and a wide spectrum of humour (I am using the term ‘humour’ loosely).

Somewhere between 12 and 500 people will appear at 1pm tomorrow in front of the Marischal College  building (which will be deserted, as it’s Saturday), to protest against Aberdeen City Council, Labour, and the death of the granite web.

An interesting report is to go before the Audit Committee soon; it is by an independent reporter who finds that both the councillors and the officers of Aberdeen City Council need to think about how they interact.

Anyone who read about this report in the Press & Journal would have been shedding tears, assuming this bullying was 100% by mean councillors against poor but honest officers.   Indeed. More on that later.

But the real talk of the whole country is around the most fundamental question of all, which is dividing the Scottish nation, setting brother against brother, and causing an affa bother:  is the deep-fried Mars bar a national treasure or not?  Earlier on, the Mars company reportedly disowned the creation;  other sources later claimed the Mars business had embraced the calorific snack.

This crucial question will no doubt be the subject of several independent consultations, a referendum, Holyrood debate, health & safety analysis, a PR campaign by the BiG partnership featuring Morris the Monkey, and more than a few bar room fights.

Some people claim that the original, unadorned Mars bar was good enough as it was, and should be retained.  Others claimed it wasn’t 21st century enough unless it was covered with a web of deep fried flour and grease.  Not since Culloden has such bickering been seen in this part of the world.  Old Susannah hopes resolution is possible.

There have been a few amusing news stories across the UK as well.

  Just tell that to your boss next time you need a few grand on your company’s credit card; I’m sure they won’t mind

Seems some of those nice people at Scottish Enterprise have been very enterprising indeed.  Old Susannah never realised what a generous employer SE was, but it is kindly allowing staff to take SE credit cards and take out nice big, fat juicy cash advances (in a variety of currencies), and paying the amounts back as and when.

As a taxpayer, I’m so pleased we can help out the less fortunate SE employee with the odd £10K loan or two.  It’s alright though, as the employees always intended to pay the money back.  Just tell that to your boss next time you need a few grand on your company’s credit card; I’m sure they won’t mind.

It’s almost as if proper financial controls were not working 100% at SE – which is a bit unfortunate in such a tiny organisation; they still operate on a mere £750,000,000 or so per annum (much of which is salary – which Old Susannah finds difficult to reconcile with the cash advances the cash-strapped staff seem to need).

And in England, a woman has been sentenced for hijacking a ferry boat, telling her pursuers ‘I’m Jack Sparrow!’ and sailing away until finally caught.

Readers will find it hard to believe, but she was high on drink and belladonna (deadly nightshade to you and me, which is quite poisonous).  I prefer the odd BrewDog and crisps, myself.  After two days of drink and hallucinogens, she felt ill for some reason or other, and called the paramedics.

When they arrived she was, naturally enough, on a moored ferry boat, as you do.  She ‘didn’t mean to untie the craft, but the ropes kept getting under her feet’.  Fair enough – could have been any of us really.  The ferry boat’s owner told the BBC this incident was a:-

“total one-off bizarre incident which we have never experienced before”.

Old Susannah should hope so, too.

I’m afraid the definitions this week do involve the web; don’t worry – this too shall pass.

Carrot or the Stick: (English saying) to offer an inducement – reward and/or sanction to gain support or agreement.

Any movement needs to recruit new members.  Those nice Scientology people give out free books on  Oxford Street, and tell you how clever you are.  Next thing you know, you’re married to Tom Cruise and waiting for the mothership.  The Moonies used to give out flowers; various missionaries would trade a square meal in exchange for preaching at you.

The Friends of Union Terrace Gardens and Common Good Aberdeen – two forces with the same ultimate goal of saving UTG from development have web presences, hold meetings, and hold the odd demo or two.  New members and the curious are welcome.

Speaking of odd demos, there is a group called ‘Protest against Aberdeen City Council’ holding the demonstration I mentioned before, taking place tomorrow.  They too have a web page and embrace open debate.  And what a debate it has been.

The finest minds in all of Scotland’s past pale into insignificance against the rhetoric, logic, self-restraint and persuasive skills of a small number of the posters on this page.  I’m surprised we’ve not all been convinced the web’s the way to go by this bunch.

The page’s administrator, who apparently lives in the United States, has allowed a wide raft of comments to go unmoderated, which I’m sure doesn’t mean they are encouraging trolls at all.

Usually when you want someone to come around to your way of thinking, you offer them some reason to do so – the proverbial  carrot and the stick.  The Big Partnership, recently rendered silent on the topic of the web, used both the carrot and the stick to get us to join the granite web fanclub.

  There is an explanation of why the English Defence League has nothing to do with hate or violence

The carrots were ‘build the web and 6,500 new jobs appear’, ‘two hundred million pounds will magically flow into the city annually until the year 2023 (not 2022 or 2024 – 2023) AND the added incentive that Morris the Monkey and Jake the Ghost want the web convinced us in the thousands.

The sticks used to try and beat us into submission?

‘No one will come to Aberdeen’, ‘we’ll look silly if we don’t take Ian’s £50 million and do what he says with it’ and ‘people will think Aberdeen is ‘closed for business.’

I always liked this last ‘closed for business’ argument.  It was supposed to make me think of a vibrant and dynamic shopping mall, doing lots of business.  Instead, it made me think of an indiscriminate callgirl who would do anything with anyone if the price was right.

How are the ‘Protest against Aberdeen’s’ members and posters winning hearts and minds?  Reasoned argument?  Supplying facts and figures?  Welcoming newcomers?  Parrying dissent with rapier-like wit and friendly banter?  Absolutely!

Please do go and visit this page yourself – it has all the relevant facts you need to know to make an informed decision to support the web.  These include colourful postings such as the following:-

*  There is an explanation of why the English Defence League has nothing to do with hate or violence;

*  there is a woman being insulted because of her looks;

*  there is a man who says he’s no longer onside with the protest because of the abusive comments made by protest supporters – so he’s attacked as being a ‘plant’;

*  a man who was abused as a child is asked if he was ‘a little sh*t who deserved a clip ‘round the ears’;

*  there is a woman who ‘has it on good authority’ that all the bills the taxpayer has already picked up for the web were really somehow not paid by the city council (who the invoices were made out to), but Sir Ian really picked them up; and

*  a hilarious joke about building a mosque on UTG (alas; Old Susannah is unable to appreciate the witticism or the point being made)

People against the web have in several instances risen to the bait and argued back.  But whatever side of this issue you are on, have a look at the comments made by people like Sandy M, George S and others.  They’ll have won you over with their carrots and sticks before you know it.

Readers of a sensitive disposition may, however, wish to stay well clear.  https://www.facebook.com/events/456202784419418/

Cautionary Tale: (compound noun; English) A story intended to impart advice by showing someone else’s error.

This new Information Commissioner is taking no prisoners – well, actually she might be, as the police have been called in to enforce the law.

This kind of development in Aberdeenshire is extremely worrying!  The local authority seems to have accidentally denied it had information and accidentally deleted the information it denied having.  It was almost as if there was something to hide, and as if the law came second to what the local government mandarins wanted.

This story, covered in this past week’s Press & Journal (really) implies that Freedom of Information requests have to be answered with the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.  Old Susannah is reassured that there won’t be any such issues here in our city.

Even if the Information Commissioner’s office is reportedly auditing the work our FOI office does, it’s not as if information has ever been withheld from me, or anyone else, is it?  (Unless of course you count requests about Mr S Milne, the deer cull, cost of Marischal college…)

Pre-emptive strike: (compound noun; English) a form of defence or deflecting attention  by attacking one’s opponent first.

Well, a report going to the Audit Committee next week seems to imply that councillors had in the recent past not been treating officers courteously and had asked difficult questions.  Naughty!

No real naming and shaming was done.  I hope no councillors asked awkward questions of Pete Leonard for instance.  Mean councillors in the past may have asked him why he kept representing that the deer-culling, tree-planting scheme was completely cost neutral, even though he knew for months that phase one failed, and ACC had to repay £43,800 for the dead trees.

He recently tried to deflect this irritating fact by reportedly saying £43,800 referred to something in the 1990s.  Just because the money was paid in March 2011, when he was saying the great scheme was cost neutral to the Housing Committee, is no reason to think he wasn’t accurate or completely open, is it?

A cynic could think this report’s suggestions that councillors should show more deference to officers like Leonard is a pre-emptive strike.  Did the report authors know about all the assorted little machinations of Leonard and his ilk?  I’d love to know.  At least one person must have come out of this untarnished:  the softly-spoken, always calm and rational Gerry Brough, kindly volunteer to the City Gardens Project.

Now that this report has come out, I hope city councillors will be warned by this pre-emptive strike not to ask any tough questions!  Hope that’s settled then.

And there we leave it for now.

Next week:  I will attempt again to escape from the granite web – unless Zoe finally writes back about those CGP radio ads, promising us the web for free.  Will keep you posted.

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Sep 132012
 

By Suzanne Kelly. 

‘Undemocratic!’ is the cry coming from various people in Government and some Aberdeen residents concerning the death of the granite web scheme.

The truth is that democracy took a beating in the way the referendum campaign was waged, in the secrecy over the TIF ranking the scheme received, and in the statements made by ministers who should know they were overstepping their bounds.

For those who really care about ‘Democracy’ and how it has been chipped at by those insistent that the web goes ahead, here is an overview of some newly emerged issues.

  • TIF Application:  Information Wrongfully Withheld

Last Sunday 9 September, the  Sunday Herald  carried two articles pertinent to how undemocratically the granite web has been pushed.  The first piece by Steven Vass was entitled FOI Victory Over Aberdeen Project’.  Vass explains that the Scottish Government and the Scottish Futures Trust have been criticised by the Information Commissioner.  These two organisations are refusing to release information on Aberdeen’s TIF bid, in particular how it was ranked against other projects. 

TIF is meant to be used for deprived areas.  Our city centre needs improvement, and a good place to start would be practical assistance to local businesses which now must compete with multinationals in our shopping malls (which have far more financial power than the little guy does). 

We are not, however, a deprived area; businesses are continuing to set up shop here, our housing prices are good, and our standard of living has on the whole been found to rank highly in the UK. 

So why can’t we find out more about the TIF application?  Is it possible that our TIF application was one of the lower-scoring ones? (It was ,after all, soundly criticised by an independent accountant.)  If it was not a high-scorer, then was it given priority unfairly over other projects? 

In the interests of democracy, whatever side of the debate you are on, you have to agree that withholding critical information which could help evaluate the facts is undoubtedly undemocratic.  The information Commissioner has concluded as much , and hopefully on 22 October the truth of the situation will be revealed.  Either that, or the Government and the SFT will appeal to the Court of Session. 

It will be interesting to find out who was involved in this non-compliance with the democratic principle of Freedom of Information, and to find out what they have to hide.  It will be interesting as well to see if the Government refuses the Information Commissioner’s decision and lodges a Court of Session appeal.  

There is legislation saying this information should be supplied, and yet it is being withheld against the Information Commissioner’s decision. Verdict:  Undemocratic

  • Above the Law?  How BiG Partnership and an Anonymous Group of Businessmen Seized the Airwaves with Propaganda

The other article in the Sunday Herald brings us to an even more serious issue.  This article, entitled ‘How to get ahead in the race to the White House…by advertising’ explains how voters are bombarded with election propaganda and how important it is to spend on adverts.  It also brings us to the decision just released by OFCOM against the radio advertising that took place during the referendum.

The Herald article explains the vast sums spent on TV and radio ads to try to secure election victories in the US.  The article quotes Erika Fowler, the associate professor running the Wesleyan Media Project:

“  Campaigns are not going for efficiency, they are going for moderate voters in the centre who have not made up their minds.  There are going to be many, many people tuning out the messages, but in a competitive election cycle, you really are going for that last one or two percentage points.  So the parties and the interest groups… are going to do whatever it takes to get a competitive advantage.”

And as the article says,

“That means spending money…”

The American spin doctors and PR firms know, as do their UK counterparts, that advertising works.  And OFCOM, the communications regulator, knows it as well.  It exists to prevent the public being misled, and it has come down hard against the aggressive saturation campaign and adverts placed by The BiG Partnership on  behalf of the anonymous VFTCGP members- what do they have to hide?

As a referendum campaigner who had to obey stringent rules and spending limits, I was astounded that an unelected and anonymous group, ‘Vote for the City Gardens Project’ were allowed to place a huge volume of radio and print advertising.  Not only did they have a degree of media saturation which I couldn’t have hoped for – but the contents of their ads were misleading.  Why do I say that?  Here are two direct quotes from the ads and my comments on each:-

1.  Quote:  “I’m voting yes because of the £182 million of investment to the city centre – and it’s all coming from grants and private donations so it won’t cost the taxpayer a penny.”

“The City Garden Project won’t cost you a penny, it will be paid for through private donations and business rates.”

http://stakeholders.ofcom.org.uk/binaries/enforcement/broadcast-bulletins/obb213/obb213.pdf – see Pages 6 and 7

Comment As demonstrated by invoices paid by the City Council, taxpayer money has ALREADY been spent on this project for advertising, PR and ‘stakeholder engagement’ in the region of at least £200,000.  What is galling is that the BiG Partnership, working closely with ACSEF would have known this.  In fact, it is still a mystery what agency or agencies carried out the PR, advertising and photography:  was BiG a recipient of taxpayer money?  If so, how democratic or ethical was this agency acting when it submitted these ads for broadcast?

2.  Quote:  “It will create twice as much green space in the City Centre.”  (reference as above)

Comment We have a green park – when I say green, there is a deep, rich fertile layer of soil supporting wildlife and ancient trees. (Democracy fans note – there are trees and species in this park which are protected by UK and EU law, even though the past administration allowed fireworks displays in the gardens). 

If you build underground structures and have a layer of topsoil over them, you won’t have the same environmental quality as we do now. 

If you chop the trees down, and build a 5,000 seat outdoor theatre on formerly rich soil, then there is absolutely no way that you are going to double the amount of green space. 

Layers of turf over the concrete theatre’s roof and making similar turf-clad structures does not mean you can claim you are doubling genuine green space. 

By the way, the idea of building an outdoor theatre in Aberdeen makes very little sense indeed weather-wise.  Building a theatre in front of where a theatre already exists raises questions about the ‘non-displacement’ concept – rules are  supposed to prohibit using public resources to build something that will compete with or take away from an existing business – but this is being conveniently overlooked. 

Aside from my opinions on the accuracy of these ads – Aberdonian citizens were bombarded with over 200 ads on Northsound 1 and 2, and Original 106 played ads over 100 times  between 16 and 29 February.  ( In contrast, Mike Shepherd had one ad played a total of 26 times).

The point is that if so much as one person heard these hundreds of ads, assumed they were true (after all, the trusted radio stations continued to run them) and voted for the web based on these spurious claims (no cost to the taxpayer, double (??) the green space magically created), then the commercials and the big money behind them unduly influenced the referendum result.

What really beggars belief is the behaviour of the BiG Partnership.

They were involved with ACSEF to push the web scheme.  They know that invoices were paid by the taxpayer for consultation, PR, ‘stakeholder engagement’, photos and the like (even including a photo for about £150 meant to show how ‘inaccessible’ the gardens are). 

They knew that the web was already costing the taxpayer money, yet they were involved with creating and placing advertisements on radio saying the taxpayer wouldn’t pay a penny.  Whatever your position on the web is, don’t  you agree this is unethical?

  People would have been influenced by hundreds of ads

BiG also appear to have placed these ads apparently without getting full advice and clearance.  Reading OFCOM’s decision, it is easy to conclude the ads would not have been deemed acceptable had clearance been asked for in advance.

How does an organisation as big and experienced as BiG explain itself to the regulator?  This is what they said:-

“Northsound told us that this organisation was set up by a group of private individuals who supported the re-development project. They were not a formally constituted organisation, the Licensee said, and had “no legal status”. This advertiser appointed The BIG Partnership, a public relations consultancy, to run and manage its campaign.

“The BIG Partnership made the following comments through the Licensee:

“This campaign was set up a by a group of private individuals who wanted to see the project go ahead. They were not a formally constituted organisation. They have no legal status. They got together and appointed The BIG Partnership to run and manage the campaign and they provided funds for that campaign. The City Garden Project, as part of the wider city centre regeneration scheme, will be funded by private donations and a TIF scheme whereby Aberdeen City Council borrows money to pay for the regeneration and uses the new business rates generated by new business across the city as a result of the regeneration to pay back the loan. It will not be financed by Aberdeen City Council’s annual revenue budget and therefore not have an impact on local council tax payers or on the delivery of public services. The group behind the campaign is not political. The campaign aimed to influence the outcome of the referendum by communicating the facts and the benefits of the project to the public. The objectors to the project also ran similar advertisements.”

If there is even a single person  who voted for the project based on these radio ads, which should never have been aired, or has a friend or relative who was taken in by these ads, then they should come forward now and say so.  (Write to me if you wish; I can keep your details anonymous if you prefer  sgvk27@aol.com)

An anonymous group of people, via an experienced agency,  placed ads which should never have been aired .  The ads contain spurious claims, but at the time the regulatory bodies were unable to intervene.  The regulator has found the ads in breach of code. 

We need to know who the VFTCGP members were to see whether there were any conflicts of interest.  People would have been influenced by hundreds of ads, the contents of which could not be contested at the time. 

Whatever side of the issue you are on, if you care about law, democracy and fairness, you must admit these ads should not have aired and would have influenced the voters who heard them.  Verdict:  Extraordinarily Undemocratic

( Note –  BiG has not answered questions on this issue at the time of going to press. )

  • Local Newspaper Coverage:  Lacking and Slanted

Unfortunately our local hard copy tabloids, the Press & Journal and its sister, the Evening Express, are clearly in favour of the web going ahead. 

Their coverage in the past has seemed one-sided.  However, they have chosen to exclude the news item about the information Commissioner’s verdict re. the TIF details.  They have covered other Information Commission decisions in the past, and this one certainly has local importance. 

More importantly, at the time of writing, no local tabloid has mentioned the OFCOM decision, and instead have run pieces critical of the Labour administration.  The BBC and the Herald have decided these two stories were newsworthy enough to be published.  The local press did not find room for them, but do have articles on a new chocolate shop opening in the mall, and a photo of a black swan. 

Note –  The local press has not answered questions on this issue at the time of going to press.

Is it possible that our papers are slanting coverage to please their advertisers?  It just might be possible.  Verdict:  Newspapers can take any side of an issue they want; that is democracy.  However, do you want a paper that gives you one side of an issue, or one that covers all ground?

  • Democracy:  Labouring the Point

This is a good time to discuss Labour and Democracy.  When the referendum was announced, Labour said at the outset it did not agree with holding it, and explained they were already legally representing their constituents.  They also pointed out that the referendum was not a legal vote that had to be adhered to; it was in law always just a consultation (like the one we had before which rejected the city square). 

Labour told the people that if elected, they would scrap the City Gardens Project, which by the way was still in its infancy.  Some people seem to feel the web was a done deal.  It had not had TIF approval yet – it lacks details (we don’t have anything other than fanciful artist drawings which ignore necessary architectural and safety features which would make the thing look far different from the concept art), and it had to go through planning.

Labour explained what was wrong with the referendum before it started, and vociferously objected to all the abuses that went on during the campaign.  They asked to be elected with scrapping the CGP as a main campaign plank:  they did what they were elected to do  Verdict:  Democratic

  • SNP Sniping

It is very interesting to see in today’s Press and Journal our Scottish Government minister for planning,  Derek MacKay, speaking out against Labour over the web – which is a planning issue.  There are guidelines which direct him not to make such statements, but he seems to be ignoring them.

Is a minister involved with planning overstepping his remit and going contrary to Scottish Ministerial Code?  Seems like it.  Verdict:  Out of Order
http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Publications/2011/12/01141452/9

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Jun 072012
 

Voice’s Old Susannah comments on current events and enlightens us with definitions of some tricky terms with a locally topical taste. This week, more ABZ ‘A to Z’, some ATOS, and thoughts on the sad loss of a Voice colleague. By Suzanne Kelly.

Tally Ho!  It’s all been happening up and down the country, and whatever you think of the Jubilee, isn’t it grand that our ConDems have got the unemployed something to do.  Not only have they apparently been given important (albeit temporary) jobs as stewards at Jubilee events, but our government employment arm has combined this great work experience with a holiday.

Lucky invitees from the ranks of the unemployed enjoyed several days in London, camping under the stars (and a tiny bit of rain) to help run Jubilee events.  I have nothing against the Jubilee itself, and it is great to see people getting back to work.

Soon some of our lazier unemployed, including MS and cancer patients, will be given suitable jobs too; all thanks to our Coalition and ATOS, the kind (foreign) organisation which assess who’s fit for work and who’s not (and gives work to absolutely all of these people anyway).

While the layabouts got to layabout in lovely tents in London, it’s come to our attention that Conservative co-chairperson MP Lady Warsi was roughing it as well.  While this frugal woman would apparently stay in cheap B&Bs or kipped on a friend’s sofa  (as befits someone of her office), she’d put in expense claims for the maximum amount allowable, and seems to have travelled to Pakistan with a relative/business partner in tow.  Result!

Nothing wrong with having a bit of an earner now and then, as long as you’re not unemployed.  Voice readers might like to know Warsi’s never won an election.  Interestingly she was a ‘community cohesion’ guru of sorts (I’ll have to define ‘community cohesion’ sometime), despite some allegations that her election material was homophobic.  It is a funny old world indeed, and we are extremely generous taxpayers.

Old Susannah was up in the lovely town of Helmsdale for a long weekend.

This pretty coastal town is missing several tricks however.  There are no concrete high-rise buildings, no development plans, and not even a ring road.  There are several grassy areas with no granite webs planned, and the seashore doesn’t have any bingo halls, amusement arcades or huge factories.  And somehow, without so much as a single shopping mall, the people were friendly, cheerful and happy.

I met a lovely man nicknamed ‘Klondike Davy’ who took me panning for gold.  I say he is nice, but one or two people in the town have ridiculed him in the past apparently.  You see, he’s given prizes for the region’s highland games in the form of the valuable gold and garnet gemstones he’s found while panning.

The criticism from a minority, quite rightly, is that he’s given valuables and his time and efforts away for nothing.  People like that, or who give money to charities, run parties in Victorian Gardens and so on just aren’t stimulating the economy and are obviously mugs.

Apparently some of the lovely schools are in the wrong place, even after all the 3Rs strategic planning and expensive consultants

We don’t need great acts of generosity, children having fun, family days in parks with music – we need to encourage businesses to come to Scotland.  This can only be done by getting scroungers to work and by building granite webs.  Perhaps in 20 years’ time people will still remember having a great day out or winning a unique, valuable gift of gold.

Or perhaps in 20 years’ time people will still remember people being generous to a fault.  I know which I think is more likely.

Before we continue with our romp through ACC’s A to Z of its spectrum of services, spare a thought for our school children.  Apparently some of the lovely schools are in the wrong place, even after all the 3Rs strategic planning and expensive consultants.  I think we should close them all down and build new ones.

But if the children aren’t busy worrying about the unending cycle of exams they are expected to take, like so many dogs jumping through flaming hoops, another worry looms.  No, not lingering asbestos in Walker Road School, now completely clear of contaminants (I’m sure).  I can reveal that Aberdeen Football Club plan to give schools more unsold/unsellable tickets for the home games.

In this heart-breaking development, inconsolable youngsters were given the news they’ll be expected to pack the empty seats.  One young person, close to tears, told Old Susannah

“It’s bad enough to know that AFC is our team and that soon we’ll build an even more empty stadium near Loirston Loch, but to actually have to sit through a match will be torture.  Not to mention the cost of a coke and burger.”   

Reports that child welfare agencies may step in are as yet unconfirmed.  A further rumour suggests unemployed might be forced to attend games – but those surveyed so far have expressed a preference for sleeping in tents in the rain along the Thames.

Finally, Willows Animal Sanctuary needs help (the government only has funds for consultants), and it was such a pleasure to see a big help arriving in the form of Paul Rodgers and wife Cynthia.
(See article – ‘Willows Name New Patrons Paul Rodgers And Cynthia Kereluc’ in this weeks issue. )

The last time Old Susannah had seen Mr Rodgers (or ‘Paul’ as he said I should call him) was in the late 1980s, backstage at a concert for the Firm (if you don’t know – you should – Tony Franklin, Chris Slade, Jimmy Page and Paul Rodgers).  John Bonham’s son Jason was the opening act (if memory serves this band of his was called ‘Virginia Woolf’ – but don’t quote me).  Good times.

The couple are animal lovers to serious extremes, as I’ll describe next week.  It was a pleasure to meet them and to visit all the animals at Willows (although I did forego the exotic insects).  PS – The New Ark also could use our support.

Right – on with some more listings from the Aberdeen City Council’s matrix of services.

H is for Housing: – but to examine the city’s housing services, policies and expenditures – to say nothing of properties sitting empty – will take a bit more than a column to sort.  Consider this on hold for now.

I is for Insects: – Yes, you guessed correctly – the link takes you back to the list of extermination services mentioned last week.  I wonder if in the jungles on the equator so many insects and forms of vermin exist as must do here in Aberdeen.

J is for Jobs: – Yes, you can work for the council, and as an added bonus, the city will give you its beneficial assistance when it comes to knowing what you can and cannot complain about in public.  The city has apparently told its employees not to get involved with protests over school closures, park destruction, turning Hazelhead into a recycling centre and so on.

The city kindly warns its employees what will happen if they turn whistle-blower, yet somehow seems not to tell them in what circumstances they are meant to be whistle-blowers (as covered previously).  I would have expected to see a great deal of jobs for exterminators and pest controllers given the coverage this issue gets on the website, but no such jobs appear this week.

There are jobs for trainee planners (which may interest some of our recently unemployed ex-councillors), and indeed a few vacancies for Freedom of Information Officers – hopefully filling these FOI posts will speed things up.

K is for Kerb: – Old Susannah wondered what would pop up when I clicked on the link for kerb:  would it be a reference to the wonderful, smooth, well repaired and dog mess free kerbs we enjoy?  Would it be a reference to our former councillor who was arrested for kerb crawling?

No – there is a procedure for changing your kerb.  Do you want to go wide?  Do you want to change it?  Well, there is a dedicated person and procedure.  Sleep well tonight in this knowledge.

L is for – actually lots and lots of things: – ‘literacy and numeracy’ spring up (good to know the city is numerate, even if it can’t keep track of its millions or the employees who have embezzled hundreds of thousands over the years), as does my favourite ‘Lord Provost’ (I wonder if the new one will be as frugal – and portrait-worthy as the previous?).  L is for Local Plan, Local Development Plan, Local Transport strategy and so on.

But L is for litter.  If you’ve wondered why our streets are the envy of Europe, it’s because of our policy:-

“…it is an offence to drop or leave litter in any public place even if thrown from a vehicle. City Wardens assist the local community in maintaining a clean litter free environment and are authorised to issue Fixed Penalty Notices should the need arise.” – Aberdeen City website

Well, I doubt the need will ever arise for a warden to issue a fixed penalty notice, but if you should ever encounter the rare spectacle of someone littering – like the guy wearing a council badge (he had dark hair and a beard) last Thursday evening who put his trash in the doorway of a closed store on Union Street), then call the city, the wardens will spring into action, and the litter will be cleared away.

But that’s enough for now on the alphabet.  Time for something a bit serious and sad.

One of the Aberdeen Voice Team has passed away; you might have seen something about this on Facebook or elsewhere in the Voice.  She will be sorely missed by friends, colleagues and her family.  It was an unforeseen tragedy.

Can I please please urge anyone who is starting to be unhappy for any reason at all or dissatisfied with their life to open up about their feelings at an early stage.  There is a friend, colleague or relative who wants to help you, I promise.  They would be devastated if they lost you – believe me.   If you’re too proud or too afraid to talk to someone in your life (which is totally understandable), then talk to a counsellor.  But don’t let things get worse.

Like any problem, the best thing to do is get on top of it while it is still small.  If things are already on top of you, then I’m begging you to do something constructive about it today.

A great deal has been done to break down the outdated stigmas attached to depression and other forms of mental illness.  It is not a sign of weakness; it is not a sign of inferiority.  Above all, it is something that can be dealt with.

Whoever you are, whatever side of the political or economic divide, you are valuable, you are needed, and you have contributions to make.  Do please remember that.

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May 312012
 

Voice’s Old Susannah comments on current events and enlightens us with definitions of some tricky terms with a locally topical taste. By Suzanne Kelly.

Result!  I am sure we have all been dancing in the streets as our benevolent UK coalition Government has decided NOT to introduce a tax on heated Cornish Pasties!  What a relief!  I feel much better now about the Government writing off millions of pounds in tax owed by Vodaphone (and others).  You can’t say the ConDems didn’t look after us.

And here in Aberdeen, the P&J have launched a fantastic survey proving beyond any doubt that people still want the web at all costs (well, £140 million at a minimum).

We were blitzed by hugely expensive print and radio advertising saying the web will improve our lives, make us rich, and give us thousands of permanent jobs.

We were asked to pity poor Tom Smith (of ACSEF, City Gardens Trust, etc. etc.) who the press said had been the victim of harassment and illegal spying in the run-up to the referendum.  We were not allowed to examine the voting records for evidence of potential fraud (even after people joked/boasted about selling votes) – but the referendum should be obeyed at all costs.

We don’t have the actual visuals showing what the web will look like when the ramps’ security features are up – but don’t let that worry you.  We don’t have either a business plan, or architectural plans, and we can’t afford it – but let’s just go ahead anyway, as that will make Sir Ian happy.

Of course Labour always said they did not want a referendum and they pointed out it is not legally binding.  Labour also said that if elected they would scrap the CGP – and miraculously they got elected.

Old Susannah would like to end any ambiguity regarding issues on which public opinion matters:

Public opinion does not matter on: Loirston Loch, cuts to services for the elderly or specially abled, school closures, policing, street cleaning, community centre management, programmes for young people; Tullos Hill and its deer; common good land; Redmoss green spaces; grounds of Cove Bay FC; Don Crossings and Union Terrace Gardens improvement.

Public opinion matters on:  Putting a granite web over Union Terrace Gardens and chopping down its trees

I hope that helps.

Aside from Poor Mr Milne having problems with his fans revolting and Portlethen trash accumulation, the sun shone, and people in their hundreds flocked to the FUN Beach, in order to leave litter, barbeque grilles, paddling pools and rubbish in the sand.

Old Susannah asked a guy to dispose of his empty redbull can the other day; all I can say is at least he didn’t curse me out and just ignored me instead.  Here’s to the people who join the organised beach cleans, and to the people who keep places like Torrymelinos clean on their own.

Now that we’re back to our usual weather, it’s time to get on with a look at Aberdeen City Council’s internet pages and its A-Z list of services.  Visiting the Aberdeen City Council website and trying to find a service?  You can easily look up any information you want alphabetically.

Old Susannah takes a romp through the city’s website listings and brings you highlights :-

A is for ‘3Rs’  – (NB: I make ‘3’ starting with a ‘T’. But let’s not split hairs). This great 3R scheme sees the city doing yet more PPI-type deals in which private companies perform a service or build something (like a school) and lease it back to the City for massive sums of money.  It’s as if I sold you my flat for a fraction of its value, paid you to fix it up for me, and then paid you to rent it back to me for 10 times its value.  Bargain!

Most of the rest of the UK has moved away from this disastrous concept (invented in part by our dear ex-Treasurer, ex-PM Gordon Brown in order to keep debts off the books and make the financial picture look rosy).  But here in the Deen, we’re still embracing it, with our ex-Lord Provost seemingly quite proud of his services to the 3Rs (3Rs stands for Readin’ Ritin’ and ‘Rhithmatic – to use the spelling taught in the new PPI outsourced schools).

B is for Bats – Normally you might expect a city council proud of its environment to tell you that bats are a unique and endangered species it is proud to have within its city limits, and that bats are protected by EU as well as national laws.  But the A-Z tells you nothing of the kind.  It tells you about pest control, and how much the city wants for getting rid of all sorts of critters:-

  • Insects £56 + VAT
  • Rodents [Domestic] £78.50 + VAT per course of treatment
  • Rodents [Commercial] £56 + VAT per visit
  • Bed bugs £74.50 + VAT per visit.

I suppose the difference between domestic and commercial rodents are whether or not they have ACSEF membership.

Of all the city’s money-making, nickel-and dime schemes, this one seems to be both expensive and extensively recommended, as you will see.

Aberdeen seems happy enough to scare and scatter bats in Union Terrace Gardens by allowing HMT to throw massive fireworks displays at Hogmanay.  (What was wrong with the beach as a venue one wonders?)  Doubtless the rangers were consulted and saw nothing wrong with lighting fireworks over UTG.

Then again they are happy to plunk a 21,000 seat stadium in an SAC at Loirston, and happily arranged for the eradication of our pesky deer.  So what if bats, the peregrines,now ‘discouraged’ from their usual roost at Triple Kirks by Mr Milne, and other animals living in the park were exposed to fireworks?

We might be about the only town centre with this mix of animals anywhere in Europe, but we’ve got webs and offices to build, so let’s use subtle tactics like fireworks to get rid of our annoying wildlife. Again, using any of the tons of empty offices buildings isn’t nearly as important as ensuring construction companies can make lots of dosh.  So – mind the bedbugs.

Sadly, the council omitted to say how much it charges to kill your deer.

C is for Civic Receptions – like the one we just held for the outgoing Provost.  I never did get my invitation to this £4,000 tradition, which could not possibly have been cut back on.  Then again, me and another independent candidate never got our passes for the vote count.

C is also for Cat – the link on the City’s website will for some strange reason take you back to the page where you can get pest control to get rid of your rodents.  Hopefully our more bloodthirstier council personnel haven’t started exterminating cats just yet.  (I can’t wait to get to ‘R’ to see if there is a ‘rats’ listing – but it looks so far like it is politically correct to say ‘rodent’, not ‘rat’).  Note ‘C’ is also for ‘complaint’ – but doubtless no one needs to complain to the city about anything.

D is for Debt Counselling – Old Susannah is not sure she’d take financial advice from a city which hadn’t known it was over £50,000,000 in debt some years back, which had written off £11 million in bad debts in the recent past, and was cutting back on essentials but buying portraits and sending Lord Provosts off to Japan.

However, if you are a football club owner and builder who needs to know how to stop losing money when your team plays or needs help shifting ‘luxury’ flats – do feel free to use this service.  D is also for ‘dog’ and ‘dog fouling’ – at least the ‘dog’ link didn’t take me to the pest control site again.  As to dog fouling – as I stay in Torry, I really have no idea what this means.

E is for Earwig – yes you guessed it – which takes you back to the vermin control pricelist.  Quite frankly, I would probably look in the yellow pages before I went to the City’s site for info on earwigs.  Speaking of earwigging, Old Susannah is hearing some very interesting stories emerging from LibDem HQ.  Can the Liberals lose any more members?  Maybe it can.

E is also for Environment – Were you expecting info on air pollution, the polluted burn at East Tullos (more on that next week), EU environmental projects and protection placed on animals?  Well, the link for ‘environment’ takes you to:

And what does it say about conservation areas?  “Conservation areas are designated by the planning authority as being areas of special architectural or historical interest.” – so it’s only the build environment we seem to be concerned with at the council.  That would explain quite a lot.

F is for Freedom of Information – yes, the council are proud to explain what your rights are, and what the law says.  I cannot tell you how swiftly, accurately, completely and transparently all of my FOI requests have been answered.  But do watch this space.  I am expecting some more info soon – hopefully sooner than my request about property sold to Milne-related companies and contracts these companies also won from the city.

That only took a  year and the Information Commissioner’s involvement.  Sadly, the FOI team at the city were found to be in the wrong on five different counts on that one.  Yes, F is also for five.  F is also for ‘feral cats’.  Yes, you have guessed correctly – the council’s website  for ‘feral cats’ takes you back to the pest & vermin control site.

There must be an awful lot of killing planned for this town.  Yes, F is also for fleas, flies and foxes – all of course linking to the vermin control page.

G is for ‘Green Space Audit – believe it or not, green spaces are open, usually green (! really!) spaces  in and around city centres.  We have a strategy.  One which is supposed to …

“…  provide attractive and appealing places throughout the city, particularly in those areas identified by the open space audit as low in quality. However within a context of serious financial constraint, it promotes innovative and radical ways of maintaining and managing these open spaces.”

Presumably within our serious financial constraint to manage our green heritage there is a fair amount of room for turning meadows into barren rocky hills,but no doubt Tullos will be tree-covered soon, even if it is a few months since the gorse was largely destroyed, shooting deer (and lots of other things too by the sounds of it), and especially borrowing 90 million pounds to put a granite web over a valley, and turn its earth into a stadium, with seating from the destruction of ancient trees.  Yes, that’s quite a strategy.

Well, that’s enough alphabet for now.  I’m going to go celebrate with a Cornish pasty, heated as hot as I can make it.  Oh, and a new BrewDog prototype beer:  American Saison.  This delicious offering is made from leaves and berries (like the Cair No Mohr wines I adore).

Next week:  more of the city’s website alphabet – and some head-scratching over the city’s wiping £26 million of debt off for the AECC.  Hmmm.

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Apr 062012
 

If you are of the opinion that the City Garden Project controversy was all about what flavour of city centre park Aberdeen should have – think again. There seems to have been a much bigger picture involved here, and the politics are murky.  Mike Shepherd writes.

The power of the print media in shaping opinion

The public referendum has been held, and the City Garden Project won by the smallest of margins: 52-48%. Feelings are still poisonous in the city, as it is clear that a marginal result was swung by dubious means.

On the City Garden Project side, unregistered groups spent a disproportionately large sum of money on campaign material, whereas the officially registered groups were restricted to spending about £8,000 only.

Some of the claims made by supporters of the City Garden Project were outrageous and substantially misleading. One newspaper advert is now being investigated by the Advertising Standards Authority.

Even Aberdeen Council were responsible for punting a justification for the City Garden Project with the questionable claim that a new park could create 6,500 new jobs in the city.

The local papers showed a bias in favour of Sir Ian Wood’s project and framed their reports to show one side in a much better light than the other (“Yes, vote for change” or “No, don’t vote for change”). Ludicrous claims were accepted uncritically – such as oil companies leaving Aberdeen if the scheme did not go ahead.

I had been advised by an expert that:

 “Newspapers are very powerful at shaping public opinion”

and:

 “You will need the support of a PR company during the campaign.”

It was very good advice, but in practice not something that a campaign group of limited influence and funds could realistically put in place. Yet, it was clear from canvassing in the street that the combined effort of relentless advertising, the glossy brochures and the press bias was having an effect.
Whereas many would stop and give me a considered analysis of how they would vote, a large minority were reflecting City Garden propaganda back at me, phrases recognizable from glossy brochures or Evening Express headlines.

Our society today is witnessing a battle between democracy and political lobbyists / PR companies. Out of this, democracy is not doing that well. It’s a shock to see this writ large in Aberdeen, but at least the Gardens Referendum result has made this crystal clear to any thinking person in the city.

Local politics

After two years of campaigning to keep the Gardens, I have been able to observe how local politics works. It is clear that the current council administration is very business friendly and they will tend to make decisions that primarily favour business interests. At just about every council meeting you will hear the phrase “Aberdeen is open for business.”

Local democracy commonly involves a conflict between what business wants and what is in the interests of the general public. For example, if Aberdeen Airport is allowed to land flights at night, Dyce residents will get woken up by the noise. The conflict between business and public interests came to the fore after the consultation on Sir Ian Wood’s scheme two years ago. Over 50 local businessmen wrote to the council asking for the result to be ignored:

‘due to misunderstanding of the project among the public’

and an ‘inability’ to appreciate its impact. The council – to their shame – did this. The current Council administration (an SNP / Lib Dem coalition) appears to favour business almost every time.

There are a number of reasons why business gets its own way with the council. Many councillors are instinctively business friendly and will tend to support projects that are favoured by local commercial interests. This is certainly true of the Conservatives on the council and of many councillors from the other parties too.

There is also a powerful business lobby. Businessmen make up two thirds of the Aberdeen City and Shire Economic Forum (ACSEF), a “public-private partnership that drives economic development in the region”. Funded by both Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire Councils, ACSEF is a non-elected body that have been given a significant degree of control over local economic policy. There is no doubt that ACSEF exerts power and influence over the activities of both councils.

  advanced societies work by a system of checks and balances between moneyed interests and the public regard

ACSEF were involved with the City Garden Project in the early days and described it as one of their flagship projects. Two of the board members, including the Chairman Tom Smith, are directors of the Aberdeen City Garden Trust, the group that organised the architectural competition and who hope to take the project forward to completion.

Extensive networking appears to go on amongst the “great and the good”. Politicians, local businessmen, council officials and senior figures in local organisations turn up and meet at parties, functions, charity events and business meetings. One Freedom of Information request gives an indication of how much hospitality is provided to council officials for instance:
http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/76531/response/199821

To the worldly wise, this will not come as a surprise. However, advanced societies work by a system of checks and balances between moneyed interests and the public regard. This does not appear to be working too well in Aberdeen.

The SNP and the City Garden Project

The SNP have been intimately involved with the City Garden Project since its inception. Alex Salmond was present at the project launch  in 2008.
http://www.eveningexpress.co.uk/Article.aspx/933616

But only recently have both Alex Salmond and Callum McCaig, the SNP leader in the council, explicitly endorsed the City Garden Project.

Yet, the majority of SNP councillors have supported it throughout (the notable exception being Clr. Muriel Jaffray). This is clear from the voting records every time the project has come up for debate in the Council. The SNP support has been instrumental for the progress of the City Garden Project through successive council votes.

  Major businessmen such as David Murray, Brian Souter, Jim McColl and Martin Gilbert have now endorsed the SNP.

The SNP have a reputation for populist politics and it may seem surprising that they have embraced such a controversial project for the city. I believe that there is a much bigger picture here, and one that takes precedent over local politics. The SNP are essentially a single-issue party; they want independence for Scotland. The realpolitik of the SNP is that much of what they do is focussed towards this end.

A key aim for the SNP has been to secure the support of major business figures in Scotland. This is partly financial; the party has no natural source of funds apart from membership fees, but they are also trying to secure influence leading up to and beyond any independence date. Major businessmen such as David Murray, Brian Souter, Jim McColl and Martin Gilbert have now endorsed the SNP.

Sir Brian Souter, founder of the bus company Stagecoach, caused controversy when he donated £500,000 to the SNP in 2007. Shortly afterwards, the SNP dropped an election commitment to bus re-regulation, although they denied that there was any connection to Sir Brian Souter’s donation.

Sir Ian Wood has not given open support to the SNP, yet the SNP continue to court the billionaire’s favour. Not only has Alex Salmond given his own backing to the City Garden Project, the machinery of Government has also been used to bankroll the scheme.

Scottish Enterprise funded the public consultation two years ago and also allowed grant money to be used for the technical feasibility study. Although the public rejected Sir Ian Wood’s project in the consultation, it didn’t stop Scottish Enterprise from giving Aberdeen City Garden Trust £375,000 of public money from its available funds for major infrastructure projects.

Another niggly problem has been the concerns of Audit Scotland

The Scottish Government are keen to provide investment money for the project through TIF funding. Yet it has been established that the initial proposal did not rank very highly by comparison to other investment and infrastructure projects elsewhere in Scotland.

The Scottish Futures Trust, who carried out the ranking, has refused to make their calculations public in spite of Freedom of Information requests to do so. Another niggly problem has been the concerns of Audit Scotland, who have questioned the long term capability of the indebted Aberdeen Council to pay back a risky loan for the project.

The proposed use of valuable investment and infrastructure funds for something as trivial as building a new park is shocking. The business case is dubious and the council can’t afford the risk. Political considerations seem to have taken precedence to a strict business evaluation on the Aberdeen TIF case.

Sir Ian Wood discussed independence recently and gave an indication of what he wants from the Scottish Government:

“The Wood Group will not endorse a Yes or No vote on independence. But Sir Ian added: “What’s key is the extent to which our clients, and to some extent ourselves, anticipate that a Scottish Government would continue with a similar oil and gas policy to the UK.

“The suggestion right now, from the discussions I’ve heard, is that there’s a lot of overlap between the present Scottish Government’s thinking on the development of the oil and gas industry and the UK government’s thinking.”

He went on:

 “What’s important – and I think the First Minister realises this – is that they must provide as much clarity as possible over the next two years towards the vote in 2014, so that we minimise the uncertainty.”
http://www.scotsman.com/captains-of-industry-and-finance-join-clamour-for-clarity

I have no doubt that this will happen.

The SNP are hoping to secure a majority at the council elections on May 3rd. This is possible, but as a one-issue party they tend to do better in national elections than local elections. They are also heavily identified with the Union Terrace Gardens issue and this appeared to have cost them votes in the Scottish elections last year.
https://aberdeenvoice.com/2011/05/the-election-the-utg-effect/

If they do not get a majority, this raises the intriguing possibility of an administration run by a Labour-SNP coalition. The Lib-Dems are likely to see their vote collapse outside the West End of the city. The Labour group are vehemently opposed to the City Garden Project and it could be that a condition for agreeing to form a coalition is that the scheme is dropped.

The “Union” in Union Terrace Gardens refers to the union of the United Kingdom and Ireland in 1800. Perhaps it is ironic that the park has ostensibly become a pawn in the big game of Scottish independence. It would be immensely sad if this was the case. Aberdeen’s heritage could end up sacrificed for the sake of political wheeling and dealing.

This would not bode well for a future Scotland. As Paul Scofield, playing Thomas More, said in A Man For All Seasons:

“I think that when statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties, they lead their country by a short route to chaos.”

Mar 222012
 

With thanks to Val Sutherland.

Cash In Your Pocket, together with Homestart and the Belmont Cinema, are holding a Free Family Information & Advice Day on Friday 30th March, 9.45-2.30pm, at the Picture House, Belmont Street, Aberdeen.

The day will focus on providing help to families on matters around their finances.

This event is open to everyone with family responsibilities: parents, grandparents, carers and children – there will be something for everyone.

As well as access to advice and information from a wide range of partner organisations taking part on matters such as heating your home, savings options, benefits and keeping healthy…. and more, there will be fun for the family with free bingo, prize draws, soup packs and refreshments, free facepainting, balloons and healthy snacks for children, with the added bonus of cartoons being screened throughout the event.

We would encourage everyone to come along, to join in the fun and pick up tips on how to make the most of your money.

Val Sutherland
Cash In Your Pocket Partnership

Tel: 01224 200221
E- mail: val.sutherland@ciypp.co.uk

Mar 202012
 

With thanks to John F. Robins, Secretary, Animal Concern Advice Line (ACAL).

 

Three Community Councils representing neighbourhoods close to Tullos Hill have issued a last minute appeal asking Aberdeen City Council to call off the deer cull planned for Tullos Hill.
In a strongly worded open letter the Community Councils, which represent over 25,000 Aberdonians, accuse the City Council of using underhand tactics to get backing to plant trees on Tullos Hill as part of their Tree for Every Citizen initiative.

They claim that,

“the public consultation was seriously flawed and made no mention of a deer cull. Community Councils and the general public were given incomplete information, allowing ACC’s intention to cull to remain unchallenged”. 

When the intention to kill the resident roe deer eventually became public knowledge there was an outcry with many Aberdonians telling the City Council that if the Tree for Every Citizen project meant killing the deer they did not want any trees planted for them. The Community Councils say the City Council dismissed local public opinion and have pleaded with the Council to change their mind at the eleventh hour and to,

“Listen to the voices of the people who elected you, cancel the cull and let the Tullos Hill deer live”.

For over a year Animal Concern Advice Line (ACAL) has been supporting local campaigners in the battle to save the Tullos Hill roe deer. John Robins of ACAL welcomed the intervention of the Community Councils. He states;

“This is a severe embarrassment to Aberdeen City Council.

“They can no longer claim that opposition to the deer cull is coming from outwith Aberdeen. Three Community Councils representing over 25,000 Aberdonians have made it perfectly clear that they want this cull stopped. On Sunday of this week the CEO of the National Trust for Scotland admitted on national television that they had made a mistake by undertaking a mass cull of deer on the Mar Lodge Estate. 

“The very same advisors who were behind that cull are the people advising Aberdeen City Council to kill the deer on Tullos Hill. There is still time for Aberdeen City Council to avoid making that same mistake. All they have to do is respect the wishes of the people who elected them and call off the cull.”

  •  The Open Letter signed by Nigg, Torry and, Kincorth & Leggart Community Councils can be viewed here.
Feb 282012
 

A person might think that a chamber of commerce exists to promote local businesses.  Here in Aberdeen this is true as well.  But as Aberdeen Voice’s Suzanne Kelly learns – the taxpayer is funding at least some of the PR work  for the City Gardens  Project – and the Chamber of Commerce and ACSEF seem to be leading the City Council by the nose.

The proposed City Gardens Project/Granite Web is a contentious idea which would see a mix of public and private interests building huge, granite ramps over Union Terrace Gardens.
While this idea may not even get off the ground, it has been a gold mine for some fortunate businesses via the Aberdeen & Grampian Chamber of Commerce – at the taxpayer’s expense.

This article will primarily deal with money that the City Council was invoiced by the Chamber of Commerce for PR-related work.  Before doing so, a little recap of other financial facts will add perspective.

PriceWaterhouse Coopers have come up with some grandiose projections including the creation of some 6,500 permanent jobs and £122 million flowing into Aberdeen every year until c. 2023:  all because of the granite web.  PriceWaterhouse Coopers were first paid £41,000 and change for TIF-related work in March 2010.  Other invoices followed, and so far I have been shown by Scottish Enterprise £71,000 worth of PwC invoices.

These invoices are made out to Scottish Enterprise, and Scottish Enterprise is funded by the taxpayer.  Unfortunately, these projections have been seized upon  by the press and turned into ‘facts’  (The Press & Journal published these and other items in a box entitled ‘facts and figures’ on 19 January next to an article about the PwC projections and the garden’s many projected benefits).

The unelected and free-spending and secretive ‘Vote for the City Gardens Project Group’ have likewise promoted these figures in their literature as being reliable facts as well.  They are projections, and arguably very optimistic ones at that.  Whether or not these glowing projections (that we will have more permanent jobs from our web than London expects from its 2012 Olympics) are based on the fact that PwC is being paid by the side that wants to build the web is something the referendum voters may wish to ponder.

A Freedom of Information request I lodged with Scottish Enterprise some time ago revealed (details of which I have previously published) included:-

Item Description Date Amount
1 Technical Feasibility Study to undertake an engineering, cost and design appraisal of the development options for UTG, each incorporating an arts centre. Jun 2009 £162k
2 Architect, Design & Project management fees for a Contemporary Arts Centre project Feb 09/May 10 £226k
3 Consultation Report – City Square Project.. Mar 2010 £113,915
4 Union Terrace Gardens (TIF)-Tax Increment Financing Mar 10
Oct 10
Nov 10
£71,959.65
5 Scottish Enterprise holds 22 copies of invoices relating to ACSEF approved spend for activities relating to stakeholder engagement, events management, and communcations. [sic] 2009-10
2010-11
£51,766.60
£22,712.72

(source – Scottish Enterprise email exchange with Suzanne Kelly May 2011)

While this £648,000 was being spent, Aberdeen City Council was battling with potential job and service cuts in order to balance its books.  It seems that these costs have largely been paid by the taxpayer via Scottish Enterprise and other vehicles, and I can find nothing to show that the Wood Family Trust, which has offered £50,000,000 to further the project, has paid towards any of these costs.  The PR and promotional invoices referred to at Item 5 have been paid by the Aberdeen City taxpayer.

Before moving on to Item 5, which is the subject of this article, some of these other items are worth a further glance.

At Item 2 you will notice we are now talking about some kind of ‘Contemporary Arts Centre project’ – is Peacock already being edged out of the picture at this point?

Item 4 would seem to correspond to PriceWaterhouse Coopers invoices which I referred to.  How much more money has been spent on PWC since this May 2011 exchange is unknown.

From what I have been subsequently sent by Scottish Enterprise, the bulk of the invoices at Item 5 were from the Aberdeen & Grampian Chamber of Commerce to the City Council.  In the words of Scottish Enterprise:-

  • 9 invoices relate to financial year 2009/10 – these total £51,766.60
  • 16 invoices relate to financial year 2010/11 – these total £36,692.95. This total is higher than the original figure stated due to the invoices received after the date of that response
  • There has been no spend on the City Garden Project from the ACSEF budget during the current financial year  (SK notes – it is only February – there is time)

(source – Scottish Enterprise email to Suzanne Kelly February 2012)

Arguably a mere £88,459 is small change as Aberdeen City contemplates borrowing £92,000,000 (minimum) if the project goes ahead. However, this is money which the City paid from its own budgets – it is taxpayer money.  Should a financially-pressured city use pubic money for propaganda purposes – PR, events and photos designed to promote the City Garden Project?  Is the Wood Family Trust contributing any money towards these expenses yet?  I simply do not know.

A spreadsheet of the expenses comprising Item 5 can be found online at http://oldsusannahsjournal.yolasite.com/  I would recommend looking at these 50 or so items.

If you look at the wording in the table above, ACSEF is apparently approving this expenditure.  ACSEF is a public-private quango, and at the time of writing, Stewart Milne is on its board.  He owns the Triple Kirks land adjacent to Union Terrace Gardens, and he wants to turn this landmark into an office complex which will likely enrich him if it goes ahead in my opinion.

Despite several emails, no one in a position of power has the slightest qualm with Mr Milne potentially having a conflict of interest.    Why precisely ACSEF is allowed to commission and recommend for payment invoices to the City Council is a matter I personally find worrying.

Virtually none of the invoices from the Chamber to the City specify who / what company actually performed the services in question.  What company got all the PR work?  Who took the photos?  I do note that Zoe Corsi of the BIG Partnership is on the Chamber’s Board of Directors – as are other key players such as Tom Smith, one of the two directors of the private entity, Aberdeen City Gardens Trust.  This company seems to be in the thick of the decision-making processes; it is apparently the company which is holding onto the results of the design finalist public vote – which it refuses to release at present.

The taxpayer apparently paid for that exhibition and the public vote – and yet a private company seems to be withholding the results.  The argument has been put forth that it is no longer relevant.  Many people took the opportunity to write on the voting papers that they were against all the schemes and wanted the gardens retained and improved.

The public should have had this ‘no’ option at the final selection vote, but it seems councillors who asked for a ‘no’ option were outmoded by the Project Management Board (note – see the website listed previously for details of how all these companies and entities have interesting personnel overlaps).

It may be of interest to accountants that the party which actually performed the work not specified on these invoices, and with only a rare exception is VAT ever charged.  It would be interesting to know whether or not the Chamber of Commerce adds any fees or commission charges to the work it is invoicing the City for.

Highlights of the list of invoices include:-

  • £180 paid for a photograph showing ‘inaccessibility of Union Terrace Gardens’
  • over  £25,000 paid for ‘Stakeholder engagement’ events and so on since October 2009 to August 2010
  • £3500 paid to ‘Comedia’ for Charles Landry to attend event / speak
  • Redacted line items and handwritten notes adorn several of the invoices
  • One invoice – No. 42407 shows only one line relating to ‘coach hire’ – this is £246.  However, the total shown on this one page invoice is for £7444 – what has happened?
  • A January 2010 Advertising bill from Aberdeen Press & Journals for £ 2,820 ( See: http://fraserdenholm.blogspot)
  • £11,000 in February 2010 charged from the Chamber to the City for “Development of images, movie, powerpoint and exhibition material for City Square Project as per attached sheets”

As to the redacted text on the invoices, redacted text has started showing up in Project Monitoring  Board minutes and reports again, despite Councillor McCaig’s previous intervention to cease this practice.  One company which has had its name redacted from recent documentation is Brodies.

The value of three Brodies invoices which I received copies of is around £12,000.  One of these invoices from April 2011 is for:

“City Gardens Project – Development Constraints Report (Legal  [sic] To fee for professional services in connection with the preparation of a development constraints report relating to the title of Union Terrace Gardens, Aberdeen, and surrounding land.”

I suppose our City’s in-house legal department cannot be expected to know whether or not it has free title to Union Terrace Gardens.   Happily, experts have demonstrated the land is Common Good Land.  As such, whether any of these garden projects can or should be legitimately carried out will be a big question in the future.

Earlier we saw how ACSEF was allowed to recommend these expenditures; we have seen how the Chamber of Commerce invoices the City for ACSEF-approved costs.  If we were to put in some of the over-lapping names from ACSEF and the Chamber of Commerce into the equation, we would be able to see that:

ACSEF [including Stewart Milne, Jennifer Craw (of Wood Family Trust), Tom Smith (Director, Aberdeen City Gardens Trust), Colin Crosby (Director, Aberdeen City Gardens Trust), Callum McCaig (ACC) ]

approved invoices generated by the Aberdeen & Grampian Chamber of Commerce [Colin Crosby; Zoe Corsi (BIG Partnership) , former director Tom Smith]

for the City Council [Callum McCaig]

to approve to further the aims of the Garden Project (CGP entity members include John Michie, Colin Crosby, Jennifer Craw).

Given the above, I suggest that the time is right for an entire re-think of how this project has been allowed to develop, and a full investigation into the demise of the Peacock plan and an investigation into the genesis of the current state of affairs might not be a bad idea as well.

While this is going on, a local care home has announced it will no longer provide 24/7 on-site staff as there is not enough money.  Residents were told to drink less fluids at night time.