Sep 232011

Old Susannah looks back at the week that was. By Suzanne Kelly.

Old Susannah is enjoying a glass of ‘Hello… my name is Ingrid’ (a beautiful brew made with cloudberry) at Brewdog, and is reflecting on another busy week in the Deen.
There was the Periurban conference for one thing. This was announced last minute on the City’s website.
It was an international conference on how cities deal with land on the fringes of the urban areas. I guess people from around the world came to see how wonderfully Aberdeen treats Union Terrace Gardens, Tullos Hill, green space at Westhill and Cove, and Loirston Loch.

The two-day conference was opened by the pioneering champion of all things green: Kate Dean.

I sent in an application, and then found myself invited to the second day’s events. For some reason it seemed they didn’t want me on the first day. I heard lots of important speakers, most of whom said urban sprawl is a problem, and we must all use less resources and re-use what we can. Someone even said ‘planting trees is not a solution’ – Cllr HoMalone please take note.

We heard about city centres emptying out if there is too much urban sprawl, with shops closing and crime and social deprivation becoming a problem. I was just surprised no one from Aberdeen explained how our ‘improving’ Union Terrace Gardens into a car park, ‘cosmopolitan cafe’, the hoped-for monorail and building in the greenbelt were going to save the day. I would have loved to have heard it. 

One City Council official kept turning around in their seat to look at me; for some reason they almost looked worried I was there. Could it have been the ‘Save the Tullos Deer’ t-shirt I wore under my suit jacket?

Someone was there from a local green charity, and somehow I brought up the deer cull situation (my t-shirt might have helped). The person had no idea why the Scottish SPCA was against the cull and what the other issues were. I happily explained.

Elsewhere in the Deen, someone has decided to leave a cat in a wheelie bin. Perhaps they want as much media attention as the woman from Coventry got? You may remember Mary Bale who cruelly left a cat in a bin for hours on end and was caught out. Let’s see if we can’t find the Aberdeen copycat cat botherer and do for them what the press did for Bale.

It would likewise be a shame if shamed Banff Brothers David and Colin Reid of 22 Boyndie Street West, Banff, got any bad press for their dogfighting activity conviction and jail sentences.

This is the Scottish SPCA’s first major dogfighting conviction in Aberdeenshire (where officials denied there was a problem, you may recall), and it is cause for celebration.  The Reids must know something about other dog fighters – let’s hope they roll over.  Thankfully, some of the dogs they were abusing have been rescued.

But anyway, here I am in Brewdog wondering what to write about this week.

I am looking at a recent Press & Journal headline which screams in giant letters: ‘IS THIS THE MOST HATED MAN IN SCOTLAND?‘ As I am always happy to follow where the P&J leads, so let’s skip definitions this week and take a look at the most hated man in Scotland instead. 

Imagine one man using the legal system to the maximum for his own self-interested ends. Imagine him standing alone, unwilling to listen to the thousands of people who want him to abandon the battle.

Imagine for a minute how much taxpayer money and court time he is willing to use up.

Yes, Mr Milne may well be the most hated man in Scotland. For openers there is the legal battle which he’s taking all the way to the highest court in the UK. For those who don’t know, Milne bought land from the City Council – 11 acres in Westhill – for some £335,000. (By the way, who do the rest of us have to know to get deals like that? Jane – can you help?). The land is worth millions.

Apparently Milne agreed with the City to pay a portion of any sale/rental profit to the City. In a really sharp, not at all transparent move, the land was sold from one arm of the vast Milne empire to another Milne company. As you’d expect, such a deal cost over £500,000 to do. Or so Milne claims when his companies say there was no profit left after the sale.  Seems pretty clear to me.

Yes, Milne is appealing (but not to most of us).

You’d have thought that our very generous Council wouldn’t go bothering Stew for a mere 1.7 million pounds (goodness knows the City can waste that much with ease), but it seems the City will be trying to claw back the money.

The courts found in the City’s favour – but Milne would rather drag us on through the legal system and cost the taxpayer more money than shell out.

Yes, Milne is appealing (but not to most of us). Of course if you weigh this against all the associated costs, then there probably won’t be much financial gain. Here’s a clever idea: let’s stop selling our assets at less money than they are worth. Who knows?  We might wind up less than the £50 million in debt we currently are.  But back to Milne.

We come to the subject of the once-beautiful game. Someone’s decided it’s much better to do land deals than try and win matches.

Milne will develop Pittodrie (which could have been rennovated – this has been done elsewhere in the UK) and build in the greenbelt well out of town.  Loirston Loch will be greatly improved by the new stadium. What the remaining wildlife will make of the lack of land, the cars, the additional pollution and inevitable trash is another matter.

I wonder what it’s like to be less popular than the Donald? Will the Dons become the Donalds?

The bottom line is the stadium will glow in the dark (!) and we can have Elton John and Rod Stewart concerts!. (Who cares that two BBC stories this week prove another link between ill health and car exhaust fumes, and Scotland’s wildlife continues to diminish?)

You would have thought that AFC fans would be jumping for joy at the chance to drive/bus/walk to Loirston. Instead, many of them want Milne to jump ship. Things are so desperate that some fans are actively inviting Donald Trump to invest in the club.  Ouch.

I wonder what it’s like to be less popular than the Donald? Will the Dons become the Donalds? Mr Milne might want to stay away from Facebook or AFC fan sites for a wee while, where there is just a hint of dissatisfaction. Such ingratitude – and after all he’s done to us. Sorry – I mean ‘for us’.

Stew’s not very popular in the city centre either. In his proposal for Triple Kirks, he’s promised us more office buildings. Result!

So who’d have thought that putting two glass box buildings next to the Triple Kirk spire (and probably chasing those pesky peregrine falcons away in the process) could make you unpopular? There will be office space – and who wants anything more than more office space?

I’m afraid to say Mr Milne is now as popular with golfers as fox-batterer Forbes would be at an animal rights meeting.

The only problem is parking (not that that is hindering him developing Pittodrie or in creating the stadium – neither has adequate parking in their plans). Where on earth will Stew find any parking solutions close to Triple Kirks? If only there was some empty, under-used space nearby – maybe something that ‘only has grass’ in it. He could have car parking, the offices would go ahead without a hitch, he’d rake in some money.

People would be amazingly grateful: we would get parking, shopping and ‘cosmopolitan cafes’ – where we can sit and drink coffee year round and be, er, cosmopolitan. If only Stew or his pal Ian could think of some solution to the problem, it would mean more money for Milne. There are some people who think the consultation should have been handled by the city with a lengthy consultation, and that the listed status of Triple Kirks carried a bit of weight.  These people were of course wrong.

And let’s face it: Milne could be low on cash.  Am I alone in thinking he’s short?  He’s chasing a mere 1.7 million through the courts (when he’s supposedly worth about 60 million). He’s about to lay off workers up and down Scotland – he says he can’t afford them.

Perhaps he expanded a bit too quickly? Perhaps he thought new building would continue for ever? Well – with our City Council it just might.

It seems a little ironic that the City is giving Milne contracts (some recent ones total over ten million) while he is both dragging the city through the courts and firing Aberdonians in the building trade. But the people who are in charge know best. 

For reasons of space, I’ll limit this to just one more aspect of the man’s popularity. I’m afraid to say Mr Milne is now as popular with golfers as fox-batterer Forbes would be at an animal rights meeting. It seems that the Portlethen community council and those who use Portlethen Golf Club are up in arms over Milne’s plans to build 153 houses so close to the course that there may be a few problems. Safe to say, people are teed off.

There you have it. The Press & Journal had their own front-page suggestion for ‘the most hated man in Scotland.’ Some of us have a different candidate for that title.

Last word: City Council employees: stop criticising your wonderful employers and managers on the Intranet. First: they don’t like it and are drafting all kinds of means to stop your free speech. Second: that’s my job. I understand they may participate in a 24-hour ‘tweeting’ session to say what excellent services they’ve got going. You are cordially uninvited to tweet back.

Jan 212011

By Suzanne Kelly.

An epic eight plus hour public hearing was held on Friday 14 January at the Town House to discuss the future for the greenbelt land and wildlife at Loirston Loch. Will the wildlife haven  continue to exist or will a 21,000 seat football pitch for Aberdeen Football Club be built?

The Press & Journal covered this matter the next day with two articles on Page Two, and an editorial. No prizes will be given for those who guessed the P&J are fully behind the AFC Stadium scheme.

Before going further I will put my cards on the table:  I am against building in the greenbelt in principle, particularly when such a giant scheme is proposed, which clearly will have a negative effect on the whole area.  I will explain my opinions more later – but they are based on environmental and social concerns.  I do not stand to either gain or lose a cent if it is built or not.  Sadly, there is no hint in the Press & Journal pro-stadium articles that a source of stories as well as advertisements are AFC and Mr Milne, whose homes are often featured or advertised.  You might ask yourself if their support of their advertisers is wholly based on journalistic integrity.

Ms Kate Dean convened the meeting.  At least one Community Council had formally objected to her taking this role (as did I by e-mail).  A list of facts and allegations at the start of the hearing were presented which seemed to imply she would carry a bias towards the planning application going through.

The City (it was alleged) had favoured the Loirston site; City money had been spent towards the proposal’s investigation, a possibility of land ownership conflict may have existed, and Kate’s connection to Cove Bay were all cited as grounds for her not to act as convener or even attend this hearing.

Indeed Ms Dean had declared her interest at a different ACC meeting, and decided on that occasion she would not be able to take part.

At this hearing she merely said she was not and had never been on the Cove Rangers Board (although she did not take the opportunity to clarify her role in the Cove Rangers Supporters’ club).

Having said she would show no bias, how did she do?

At some points Ms Dean allowed questions that called upon the individual objectors to make conclusions. It was clear that most objectors had never been in such a formal situation before.   For instance, community council representatives were asked to explain how they concluded that there was little or no support for the stadium.

this document did not mention that MSP Richard Baker had written in opposition to the plan, or that MP Anne Begg had forwarded correspondence from her constituents against it.

Some of those questioned said that they had asked at their community council meetings for opinions, had canvassed the wider community, and that they had received many comments against and found a solitary comment in favour.  Some mentioned apathy, and were asked to expand on this term.  It was repeated at different points that there exists a view, rightly or wrongly, that Mr Milne seems to get his own way in Aberdeen.

Ms Dean offered that this was untrue.   Well, maybe he doesn’t win 100% of the time with planners – but his goal average so far looks impressive.

One of the points raised by objectors concerned traffic and pedestrian safety.  This issue had also been one of many raised by the police.  Some of the councillors who seemed in favour of the proposal asked whether any objections from statutory consultees had been received.  The answer to this in black and white was no.

The real answer was that the fire services had chosen to abstain from giving an opinion, and that the police had raised at least half a dozen serious safety/policing concerns.  Not saying ‘No’ is not the same as giving approval. Also, the Council document prepared for the hearing stated that MSP Brian Adams had given the project his blessing.  For some reason, this document did not mention that MSP Richard Baker had written in opposition to the plan, or that MP Anne Begg had forwarded correspondence from her constituents against it.

The RSPB was not a statutory consultee.  It wrote to me – which I quoted at the meeting – to say that from an early stage it had been against the Loirston site’s selection.  They used the phrases in writing to me that “no real mitigation was possible” and that “no sensible person” could favour building this stadium on Loirston.

How was this summarised in the Environmental Statement (which taxpayers seem to have contributed to – the Council spent £180K so far on investigating the stadium)?  The RSPB position was summarised as ‘not to build too close to the Loch’.  Ms Dean as convener did not seek to clarify how such a disparity could occur.  Nor did she seek to investigate how the environmental council expert and the environment survey said that there would be no significant air pollution risks.  My speech to the hearing referred to the City’s own data which clearly say that Wellington Road already has air pollution problems.  I asked how getting 21,000 people into 1400 car parking spaces and using 80 buses (the applicant’s estimate of how many buses would be needed) down to the site would result in no increase in pollution.  Ms Dean did not express any interest.

Ms Dean described her experience at the Thistle. She said she was there, and a man near her ‘nearly put his  hand up’

On the subject of danger to pedestrians on Wellington Road, Ms Dean asked the objector ‘What is the difference between Wellington Road and King Street – current  home of Aberdeen FC?’  The objector was able to explain the obvious difference in terms of speed limits, road type and presence of HGVs on Wellington Road.

Three community councils jointly held a meeting the previous evening at the Thistle Hotel, Altens.  Everyone was welcome; it was standing room only.  (See Aberdeen voice article published 14th Jan. )

When a show of hands for or against the proposal was asked for, virtually all present voted against it.  When this was brought up at the hearing, Ms Dean described her experience at the Thistle.  She said she was there, and a man near her ‘nearly put his  hand up’.  She said that he seemed to be afraid to do so, and ‘only half put his hand up’.  Dean also felt that there were probably a few more present that likewise felt afraid to vote in favour of the stadium.

I cannot quote her verbatim on this point – but the objective, impartial convener clearly concluded that people were for the stadium in her mind, but afraid to say so.  So – a meeting room filled with hundreds of residents might have had one or two people afraid for some reason to vote in favour – this obviously still shows the majority were against it.  Whether or not you are for or against this proposal, does anyone think that a convener of an important hearing should add her personal conclusions as to how someone might or might not have wanted to vote, which coincidentally favours her perceived bias?

This meeting had many eye-openers.

I for one had taken it for granted that Pittodrie could not possibly have been remodelled or improved: the papers said it, and I made the mistake of believing it.

One of the 23 opponents gave an excellent speech stating how Norwich FC managed to improve its facilities one side at a time.  Why Pittodrie can’t do the same was back as a legitimate question – no one had an answer for it.

Amusingly, along with 80 buses to be supplied by First Bus to whisk people to Loirston, we are apparently given some sketchy parking options – Businesses in Altens take note:  approximately half of the 1400 spaces are promised to club officials and employees.  Since there is not sufficient car parking on the actual site, the plan seems to now include either making Cove and Altens open season for parking and making residents buy parking permits, then having parking spaces for rent at the oil industry sites and sites of other users of Altens Industrial estate.

I do not know how the oil companies will react, but considering the commercial and strategic value of their property, I doubt having concert goers and football fans coming and going at all hours of the weekend will be seen as a security bonus.  No obvious risks to the oil companies there then – just hundreds of happy, well behaved people parking at all hours of the nights and weekends on normally secured oil industry premises.

Yes, I personally don’t want the stadium on Loirston:  I intend to profit instead by having owls, buzzards, osprey, various other birds, protected species such as otters and bats, badgers and wild plants including orchids flourish there instead.  The question is where do your elected representatives sit?  If they are not representing you, then perhaps it is time to get new representatives.

The press is meant to be ‘the fourth estate’ – an impartial witness to what goes on in the branches of government and business.  I have admitted I am partial – but I’ve read both sides and made a conclusion not based on what I can gain from it financially or otherwise.

Did the P&J tell you this development is planned for legally protected greenbelt land?

Did the P&J explain how crowded the Thistle Hotel , Altens meeting was with virtually no supporters for the plan?

Did the article mention the wildlife that depends on the site for food?

Not a bit.

It’s editorial page was only slightly more openly in favour than the ‘articles’ – it accused opponents of the AFC scheme of ‘nimbyism’ – i.e. ‘not in my back yard’ as the reason for the objections.

Those of us at the hearing (and I didn’t see a single person in favour of the development at the hearing in the public gallery of the 20+ people present) do not want the greenbelt destroyed – which is a far cry from ‘nimbyism’.  But when have the P&J let facts get in the way of a good story or indeed of revenue.