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.”

Apr 062012
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

THIS WAS NOT A FAIR REFERENDUM!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feb 242012
 

By Mike Shepherd.

The polling cards are out for the Union Terrace Gardens referendum and you have until March 1 to vote. The hype means you’ll have been bombarded with leaflets, pamphlets, news items and radio adverts.
If ‘connectivity’, a ‘21st century contemporary garden’, or ‘street-level access’ are key factors in deciding your vote, look no further; vote for the City Garden Project.

If you are undecided or swithering then read these very good reasons for voting to retain Union Terrace Gardens. 

1. Your vote will preserve the look and feel of the Granite City. Union Terrace Gardens are an integral part of the heritage of Aberdeen. Planned by the same architects who designed the Art Gallery and the frontage of Marischal College, they show an architectural harmony in the city centre which would be destroyed by a modernistic City Garden.

2. Your vote will not result in a ghastly modern structure replacing our park. Although described as the City Garden, it is in fact a mixture of buildings, flyovers, underpasses and parkland. The design has a passing resemblance to 1960s-style new town architecture. At one public meeting, someone said that the underpasses in particular were likely to end up as urban no-go areas. I have even heard a supporter of the scheme conceding that it will look dated after about five to ten years.

3. Your vote will stop a multitude of new glass box office blocks being built in the city centre. Council documents show that consideration has been given to plans to build a central business district in the city centre and encourage office block construction. The building of the City Garden Project, “will encourage development in the city centre sooner, and on a bigger scale, than might otherwise be the case without public investment in enabling infrastructure.”

4. Your vote will improve our much-loved park. Jimmy Milne, oilman and MD of Balmoral Group, has said:

“I and many of my business contemporaries, are committed to establishing a fund which will help bring the gardens back to their former glory. Without destroying our heritage, and without putting Aberdeen City further into debt, it would not be difficult to breathe fresh life into the park. Improved access, new planting, cleaning and restoration, park wardens and live events could all be relatively easily and cost effectively achieved.”

5. Your vote will ensure that the mature trees in Union Terrace Gardens will be saved. All 77 trees will be kept, including the twelve elms, some of which are at least 200 years old.

6. Your vote will stop our Council borrowing £70m they can’t afford. Aberdeen City Council, £562m in debt, is being asked to borrow £70m through a risky tax scheme to help fund the City Garden Project. If there is insufficient money to pay back the loan, Council funds will be required to service it.

7. Your vote will avoid significant disruption and pollution in the city centre for the near three years it will take to build the scheme. The technical feasibility study for the project estimates that the equivalent of 3,947 dump trucks of earth and 4,605 dump trucks of granite will be excavated from the Gardens causing ‘large environmental impacts from noise, transport, dust and energy use.’

8. Your vote will avoid the major traffic problems caused by the movement of heavy lifting equipment, dumper trucks and lorries in and out of the city centre. It is estimated that the City Garden will take almost three years to build. It is likely that there will be major traffic problems in the city for much of this time. City centre business will be impacted by this and may never recover.

9. Your vote will avoid much, if not all, of the Council’s cultural activities being displaced to the underground building in the City Garden. The council funds institutions occupying cosy, intimate venues such as the Music Hall, Lemon Tree and Belmont Cinema. A review of council-funded cultural activities will be made with a view to possible relocation to the underground concourse.

10. Your vote will avoid any consideration that the future of the HM Theatre could be in doubt. Two major performance venues will be built in the City Garden only yards from HM Theatre. Councillors have asked if this will have an impact on the future of HM Theatre. No specific assurances have been given.

Aberdeen could change forever if the City Garden is built, and probably not for the better.

We have the chance to keep the leafy, green heart of the Granite City. 

VOTE: RETAIN UNION TERRACE GARDENS

Feb 232012
 

What a week it’s been for Old Susannah. The pizza party that never was,  PR wars and public accusaltion of criminal activity.  Where to start? And where is it all going? By Suzanne Kelly.

According to the Press & Journal of 21 February, Tom Smith of ACSEF claims to be the victim of internet ‘bullying… harassment… intimidation’ and so on.  The nature of the claims are not spelled out, but allegations are made of an ‘objectionable’ image (no, not one of the ‘concept’ drawings of the Granite Web), e-mail hacking and receipt of abusive emails.

Smith has called in the police.  It seems those he accuses of this broad spectrum collection of attacks are the broader spectrum of people opposed to building in Union Terrace Gardens.

Hacking is illegal.  Threatening is illegal.  When it comes to posting threatening remarks on internet sites, the law still applies.   But we are in a democracy which prides itself on centuries of press freedoms. 

The British Isles may truly be called the birthplace of political satire, a recognised and legitimate weapon of the press, often the only means of attacking people of wealth and power who might otherwise escape scrutiny.

The press has been filled with accounts of the nefarious activities in days not long past at News International.  Police have been bribed; phones of murder victims have been hacked, private correspondence has been intercepted.   The offenses are both shocking and illegal.   Elsewhere online,  threats are issued back and forth; the cloak of anonymity is often mis-used for the benefit of the coward or the manipulative.   As unpleasant as some online banter may be, not all of it is illegal by a wide margin:  the P&J know this extremely well.

If Mr Tom Smith and/or his family have had any bona fide threats (whether electronic or not), or if Mr Smith has been illegally hacked, then I will be the first to defend his rights and demand an enquiry.  (Note:  did you know that council officials can get court orders to snoop on residents for a variety of reasons?  If not, you know now).

However, there are several issues arising from this Press & Journal story which need to be dissected.

From the P&J, the blur between the allegedly illegal and the legal is as blurry as the specific details of the City Garden Project itself.

The timing of this claim comes close to the end of the referendum voting period – Mr Smith seems in the article in question to be making a blanket-bombing attack on all those who oppose the plans to build over Union Terrace Gardens.  I can assure Mr Smith that there was never a looser or more informal federation of people opposed to the City Gardens Project.

Why do he and the P&J feel the need to group political parties, grass-roots movements, students, OAPS, rich and poor into a single entity that is apparently illegally attacking him?

I am keen to hear the specifics of the accusation.  Perhaps Mr Smith is accustomed in his very many roles (1. ACSEF Chairman, 2. City Gardens Project Management Board, 3. City Gardens  Implementation Team Chair,  4. City Gardens Project Advisory Group, and  5. Director of Aberdeen City Gardens Trust) to only being treated with deference.  In social network sites; on newspaper comment pages, there is no automatic right to be treated politely.

Not everyone uses genteel language; one person’s foul language is another’s common vernacular.  What is the specific nature of the abuse(s) being claimed?  From the P&J, the blur between the allegedly illegal and the legal is as blurry as the specific details of the City Garden Project itself.

It is refreshing as well as amusing in the extreme to see the Press & Journal showing such concern to those ‘bullied and/or intimidated’ via internet:  readers of its online comments will be familiar with the abusive, bullying, personal, crude tactics of two of its most prolific, rarely censored anonymous posters, Jock W and the even more notorious Sasha M.

Months ago Sasha M made comments about me which were libellous in my (and my legal advisor’s opinion).  I complained and considered whether or not to sue; the editor of the P&J called me and agreed to take the posts off.  As I reported at the time, the editor told me that since ‘you skate pretty close to the edge yourself, you have to be able to take it as well.’

I reminded him that I write a satirical column, and that if Sasha M writes something about me which appears on a site owned and controlled by the P&J, purporting to be a place for comments on news stories, Sasha’s postings  had better be true. (I suggested ridiculing my overly-large nose; that at least would have a grain of truth in it:  but Sasha had claimed two libels against me which were  published on the Press & Journal’s website as if they were factual.  They were not, and as such I considered them illegal).

But now it is time to look at the Press & Journal. Today’s article is a very odd creature.

I have been sent occasional searing, blistering  emails by those I have satirised.  My satirical subjects have been politicians who have voted to slash benefits, close schools, destroy greenbelt land, and who have been convicted of criminal acts.

I see my small satirical column as my only weapon against a public/private power structure  that, in my opinion, seems to wants to suck as much out of the taxpayer and give them as little in return as possible, while commissioning portraits of themselves, attending concerts and other events.

My writing is certainly not to everyone’s taste – but I am using the legal, accepted, platform called satire.  If I have successfully drawn attention to any injustice and/or incestuous public/private sector overlaps, then I’ve succeeded.  But in any event, I stay within the law, and will continue to write as long as I can find a reader.

But now it is time to look at the Press & Journal. Today’s article is a very odd creature.  It voices Mr Smith’s complaints – but it mixes illegal activity such as hacking and threats with totally legal (if undesired) activity such as online posts.  It stops short of accusing anyone of libel, but it hints at it.  What is the P&J actually trying to say is the subject of the police investigation?  Are the police roping together all internet items which offend Mr Smith – legal and illegal?  The P&J certainly seems to be doing so.

For quite some time P&J editorial staff have been aware of the over-the-top, racist, nationalistic, insulting behaviour (in the opinion of many) of some of its posters.  Mike Shepherd is only one target of Jock, Sasha and their vitriolic crew.  Mike and the others have not gone to the police as far as I know, but by Mr Smith’s standards they certainly would be within their rights to do so.  In reviewing randomly the writing of Jock and Sasha, I’ve come across highly offensive, possibly illegal posts including:-

*  references to ‘incomers’ in less than flattering contexts, which certainly sound nationalistic and insular and to some degree threatening to me

*  references to specific politicians such as Lewis MacDonald which are extremely insulting

* stereotyping of anyone suspected of left-leaning politics

*  a remark from Sasha:  ‘let’s kill off these protestors once and for all…’  not kill off the protest – but the actual people – the protestors.

*  Jock W invokes the Nazis in an insult directed towards Mike Shepherd  – Jock references ‘Goebbels’ and alludes to ‘Chemical Ali’ by way of typing ‘Comical Ali’.

Nazi related insults?  Threats to kill protestors?  What has been allowed on the Press & Journal online editions for all these past months? 

They are surely responsible for posts put on their website.  A feeble addition of links whereby readers can ask for a quote to be ‘reported’ is by no means a substitute for the responsibility the P&J have as the owners of this website.  I have had scores of people tell me they used these links to complain, all to no avail.

Clearly the P&J need to look at their own house.

The real point here though is that the Press & Journal knowingly allows this type of comment to go on, refuses to police its own comments pages, and yet has the gall to support Mr Smith in his complaints that people are being intimidating and bullying to him online, mixing illegal and legal activity in what seems like a very crude attempt to smear anyone who stands up against the City Gardens Project or those who support it.

A kind word to Aberdeen Journals:  things are changing.  Your circulation and profit margin are apparently not what they once were.  People are saying openly that you seem blatantly biased towards any hype the pro CGP teams throw at you.  Have you gone too far this time?  Just a thought.

I welcome any police investigation into any illegal activities – threatening people, hacking and so on.  Our police will be well aware of guidelines protecting free expression, satire and online comments.

One recent complaint I had threatened me with legal action and the Scottish Football Association (!)

If any attempt is made to curb, censor or halt normal rights of the individual, then this small writer through to the NUJ and all responsible news agencies will be there to safeguard our journalistic rights and day-to-day free expression.

In point of fact I am trying to make up my mind:  should I stand up to Sasha M and launch a suit against him and/or the Press & Journal now after all (don’t worry – I still have screen shots of Sasha’s remarks about me – in an item about the Lord Provost giving away expensive gifts which I neither commented on nor had any involvement with whatsoever)?

This could stop any further written threats to ‘kill protestors’ or nationalistic rhetoric about ‘incomers’.  For that matter – I thought the garden ramps project was to encourage newcomers to the area?  With Sasha’s rants against newcomers, this will indeed be hard work.

Back to my legal, online writing.  For every piece of fact I have written about, I can assure my detractors that I will have a source, and that source will be doubly – if not triply – backed up.  I have in the main while writing received many letters of support (for which I am sincerely grateful).

One recent complaint I had threatened me with legal action and the Scottish Football Association (!) if I did not print a retraction of my article.  Instead my source material was reviewed, not only fully vindicating my assertions, but also paving the way to printing further details the complainant may not have wanted publicised.

Finally, here is a nice way to illustrate these points, which I will call The Casablanca Gambit.

Classic Film readers will remember dialogue from the iconic (the word is well used in this case) film, ‘Casablanca’.  The Chief of Police in Casablanca, Captain Renault, has been ordered by Nazis to close Rick’s Cafe by any means.  This is what transpires:

Rick: How can you close me up? On what grounds?
Captain Renault: I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!
[a croupier hands Renault a pile of money]
Croupier: Your winnings, sir.
Captain Renault: [sotto voce] Oh, thank you very much.
Captain Renault: [aloud] Everybody out at once!

I leave it to you to decide who in this current Aberdeen drama are the Nazis, who is Rick, and who is Renault.  (I wonder if the P&J may wish to reconsider its position, or if it will continue to collect its winnings while it can).

Feb 232012
 

Next Friday (March 2nd) we will know the fate of Union Terrace Gardens. The results of the public referendum will be announced then. Will there be wild celebrations in the park itself or will the champagne corks be popping in the boardrooms? writes Mike Shepherd.

The Importance of Union Terrace Gardens 

I agree with the comment that in your mental map of Aberdeen, Union Terrace Gardens is at the centre of it. This observation gets right to the core of the controversy.
I’ve heard Sir Ian Wood dismiss the idea of building a civic square on the St Nicholas site. As far as he is concerned the Denburn is the heart of Aberdeen, and that’s where the civic square / garden should go.

The fate of our park will be highly symbolic for the future of Aberdeen city centre. If you agree to retain the Gardens, it’s a statement that heritage matters in the city centre and there is a will to maintain the historical nature of down-town Aberdeen.

On the other hand by agreeing to build a modern park and structure, this would probably give the green light to extensive development of the city centre. As the TIF business report for the City Garden Project states, the scheme could stimulate the establishment of a central business district and the accelerated construction of city centre office blocks.

The alternative is so much more attractive. With Jimmy Milne’s business fund we could sympathetically restore Union Terrace Gardens at a fraction of the cost. It would be a marker for preserving our city centre heritage.

The Erosion of the Character of the Granite City

My background is geology and I grew up near Rubislaw Quarry.  The geology of Scotland varies so much, it means that each town and city has its own distinctive building stone. This creates a strong sense of place and belonging unique to each part of Scotland.

I was born in Aberdeen and I love the granite buildings with a passion. It breaks my heart when one is pulled down and a concrete and glass box of no redeeming character is put in its place. I would agree with the sentiment expressed in the old Aberdeen City Plan (very tellingly omitted from the new plan that has just been approved):

“The standard of design in new development has been raised as a widespread cause for concern during the preparation of this Local Plan. This is one reason why new development can raise so much hostility amongst the public and this situation must change. The City has such a rich and relatively intact heritage of older buildings that shortcomings of newer ones are all the more obvious. It is necessary to encourage better design.”

The loss of Union Terrace Gardens could be the start of Aberdeen losing its special character as the Granite City. More and more old buildings may be lost, until the city starts to look like everywhere else. This would sadden me immensely.

A Test for Local Democracy

I also see the Union Terrace Gardens as a test case for local democracy. Despite the public referendum, local democracy has failed miserably on the issue. The development of Union Terrace Gardens was imposed on the public from the start with no serious attempt to build consensus. A so-called public consultation was run essentially as a marketing exercise, and when it failed to convince the Aberdeen public, it was conveniently ignored.

The recently held ‘public consultation’ on the design is remarkable in that the results were not even made public. Even the referendum has been lop-sided, with a massive public relations exercise on one side combined with a local press willing to publish anything it gets. There have been some new lows in recent days (see Richard Pelling’s article on the subject).

Will the public assert themselves against the machine? I hope and trust they will. If not, expect much more of the same.

A Waste of Public Money

Recently I received an email from the managing director of an oil service company in Aberdeen. He described the idea of using Central Government funds for the City Garden Project as a terrible waste of investment and infrastructure money. His opinion is that the city centre development will not affect the decision by oil companies and personnel to move to Aberdeen or otherwise.

“Companies invest in Aberdeen because of the fantastic talent pool, the high standard of living, the stable fiscal regime (assuming Osborne doesn’t have any more surprises), the access to West Africa and other merging oil & gas regions which are increasingly supported from Aberdeen.”

I agree. What is calamitous is that if Aberdeen Council was going to apply for TIF funding, they could have found much better projects than Sir Ian Wood’s city garden. How about these:

a. Revamping the Beach area

b. De-bottlenecking Aberdeen’s congested roads

c. Building the AREG renewable energy centre

 – And just about any other project you could think of.

If the City Garden Project goes ahead, we will have replaced a park with a park. Is this what we should be doing with public investment money in Aberdeen? Most certainly not.

If you agree with any of this and you haven’t voted yet; vote Retain Union Terrace Gardens (the option that does not destroy our Granite City).

Feb 032012
 

Mike Shepherd examines the potential for cost over-run on the City Garden Project and asks …

Where’s the money coming from? 

Money’s Too Tight To Mention is the title of a 1980’s Valentine Brothers pop song covered by Simply Red.

It is also thematic of the City Garden Project (CGP), the controversial proposal to develop Union Terrace Gardens.

The nominal costs for the project are £140m, of which it has been proposed that the private sector provides £70m and Aberdeen City Council borrows £70m through a tax scheme to fund the rest.

A commonly-asked question over the last three years has been, “Who pays for any cost over-run if the project runs out of money?” It is a question that has never been properly addressed and it now looks as if the answer is: “there is no obvious source of money should the costs exceed £140m”.

At a public meeting at Cults Academy in May 2010, it was stated that the Council would pay any excess costs. A month later, Sue Bruce, the then chief executive, decreed at a council meeting that the Council would most certainly not pay for any cost over-run and put the responsibility on to the private sector. This has been the understanding ever since.

At this stage, there are no identified funds should costs ramp up.

However, the private sector has managed to raise no more than £55m of promised funding for the CGP to date. Assurances have been made to the Council that £70m will be on the table and this sum’s availability is one of the conditions for the CGP progressing to the planning stage.

At last week’s council meeting, the question of potential cost over-run was put to Colin Crosbie of the Aberdeen City Garden Trust, the organisation created to take the CGP through to the construction phase. Colin mentioned that the project costs will be less than the nominal £145m and that this gives a built-in margin. The intention is also to put rigorous project and cost management in place.

There could be a problem in finding funds above the projected £70m private sector input. It appears that local businesses are concerned about public goodwill should they be seen to contribute money for the controversial project.

At this stage, there are no identified funds should costs ramp up. One obvious solution is that Sir Ian Wood could make a guarantee to handle this, but there is no sign of this happening as yet.

Could costs over-run on the City Garden Project?

One group of professionals have expressed severe misgivings about the potential for cost over-run on the City Garden Project. Architects.

Scottish architects met at a convention in 2010, and in a straw poll, almost unanimously rejecting the Aberdeen proposal, stated that:

“The costing is absurdly light, making this proposal both technically extremely difficult and financially potentially draining.”
– See:  http://www.urbanrealm.co.uk …_delegates_unanimously_reject City_Square_plans

Neil Baxter, secretary of the RIAS, the professional body for Scottish architects, has also said:

“A further significant concern is the much-publicised budget for this proposal. You will be well aware that the highest profile architectural competition in Scotland in recent years was that for the Scottish Parliament and the lengthy and difficult process which ensued from the risible budget initially set for that endeavour. Considering that, in recent years, buildings of comparable scale in Aberdeen and elsewhere in Scotland on straightforward urban sites have cost easily twice the quoted budget figure for this particularly problematic and challenging site we would be very concerned about launching a competition based upon such a questionable budget.”
– See: http://fraserdenholm.blogspot.com/2010_05_01_archive.html

I talked to one architect who had concerns about the allocated budget for the scheme. He told me that the project has “cost over-run written all over it”. There are two tricky areas:

  • The project involves a large amount of rock and soil extraction from the site, whilst shoring up both Union Terrace and Rosemount Viaduct.
  • It is not easy to build over an existing railway line.

The latter concern possibly derives from a previous situation in the south of England, where a tunnel built to support a new Tesco store above a railway line collapsed. This caused a five-year delay to the original project.
– See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gerrards_Cross_Tunnel

What would happen if costs massively over-run?

As mentioned, there are no obvious sources of funds identified to handle any cost over-run above £140m. Aberdeen City Council certainly can’t afford it and the private sector is cash-limited at present. Should it occur, the most likely situation is, to save costs, not everything would be built. Failing that, the project would come to a halt if there is no money left to proceed.

In this instance, there could be a half-built steel and concrete shell where Union Terrace Gardens used to be, clearly the worst case scenario. This would also have the unfortunate effect of causing the tax scheme, underpinning the council’s borrowing, to collapse. This is based on the CGP creating new businesses in the city to provide rates to pay off the £70m loan.

Without a completed project, the Council will be left to service a massive loan. This would be a disaster on a horrendous scale.

The ever-present potential for massive cost over-run on the CGP is a major concern and without a clear plan and identified funds to handle excessive costs, the project is far too risky to consider.

Aberdeen City Council could be sleep-walking to disaster if the scheme gets approved.

Jan 272012
 

Aberdeen Youth Council’s former head Sean Press resigned because of ‘a conflict of interest’, citing his involvement with ACSEF the ‘pro-business and development body [which] is fully supportive of the City Garden Project’ per the Press & Journal.  Now Aberdeen City Youth Council, the official voice of young people in the city, has spoken out against the proposed development of Union Terrace Gardens, describing the plans as “unwanted” and “potentially devastating to young people”.

17 year-old office-bearer, Kenneth Watt, comments on the decision:
“It’s not normal for the Youth Council to speak out against the Council like we are doing. However, the decisions made have the potential to be devastating to our generation, and generations to come and we are genuinely worried about the prospect of the City Gardens Project going ahead.”

As a result, the group has registered to submit 300 words in the voter registration pack.

The group also criticised the City Council in its involvement of young people in the decision-making process, after they discovered that only 113 young people from just two schools were consulted with. In the Youth Council’s own consultation 98% of 14-25 year-olds were in favour of retaining the Gardens.

The financial security of the City Gardens Project (CGP) concerns the Youth Council. The Aberdeen City Youth Council (ACYC) are worried by the lack of a plan to cover the possible failure of the risky Tax Increment Funding scheme. After multiple requests for detailed financial information from councillors on the monitoring board were ignored, the group became very apprehensive over the CGP’s feasibility.

Kenneth Watt, an office-bearer in the ACYC says that:

“Young People have been hit hard by spending cuts to key services already; the prospect of facing more in the future is a risk the Council can’t afford to take.”

“Young people need to be listened to and have their questions answered. We’re the ones that will have to foot the bill when the £96million loan can’t be repaid.”

One of the main sufferers of cuts to public services is Aberdeen’s youth. Northfield has the highest rate of child poverty in the north-east of Scotland and the Council cannot commit to such a financially unstable project when they are closing key services to the youth in many areas.

“It is ridiculous for the Council to commit to a £96million loan when vital community services – such as the Mastrick Young People’s Project – are being cut left, right and centre.”

It was claimed that the CGP would reduce crime rates in the city, which young people are frequently blamed for. Both final designs for the CGP have direct access from Belmont Street and Union Street, home to many pubs and clubs. A £170million project of this nature will not cure the violence and crime that Aberdeen faces.

“Voters need to think seriously about the long-term aspect of the City Gardens Project and the financial burden it could easily leave for generations of Aberdonians to come.”

“Union Terrace Gardens is a space that is unique to our city. Our parents have loved the Gardens, we love the Gardens, and – if retained – our children will love the Gardens too.”

 

Jan 192012
 

By Mike Shepherd.

The final design for the City Garden Project was picked this week.  The proposed plan is to replace Union Terrace Gardens with a futuristic design of curving walkways and grass called the “Granite Web”.
The announcement stoked up even more controversy as it appears that the design was not the first choice amongst those that voted in the exhibition in October last year.

Favoured was the “Winter Garden”, the design with the big greenhouse resembling a giant glass worm.

A letter in the Scotsman gave a typical response to this ‘consultation’:

Pointless poll. Of the six designs submitted for the development of Aberdeen’s Union Terrace Gardens, one emerged as the clear favourite during a protracted public consultation in which the Aberdeen electorate took part.

Yet a panel of judges has selected one of the other designs, and the Aberdeen public is apparently to be given the choice between this one or nothing. What is the point of holding a public consultation and treating the result as if it didn’t exist?

Derrick McClure, Aberdeen
http://www.scotsman.com/news/letters/letter_pointless_poll_1_2061360

It is not the first time that a consultation on the fate of Union Terrace Gardens has been ignored. A public consultation run in 2010 saw a majority of the public rejecting the scheme.

The design itself is also controversial. John Glenday, the editor of the magazine for Scottish architects the Urban Realm, commented:

“Diller Scofidio & Renfro’s ‘granite web’ of interconnected walkways has been sold as a vision of the future for Aberdeen. However the seductive sixties sci-fi vision presented may be out of date before the journey from concept to reality has even begun. In their submission the architects have spun a tale of making Aberdeen “throb” again but the history of elevated walkways and underpasses, as anyone who has ever traversed any concrete New Town will attest, is often dystopian.

“Health and Safety officials are also likely to have a field day with the walkways and platforms as presented, inevitably leading to a compromised design with fencing, signage and other clutter once the demands of building regulations are met.”
http://www.scotsman.com/news/cartoon/analysisagrandschemebutitmayjustbealittletoolate

Others have been more  sceptical. It has been variously likened to a Teletubbies TV set, a skatepark and even  ‘Mounthooly Roundabout on steroids’. The City Garden Project have however reached for their dictionaries to praise the ‘vision’, with press releases abounding with words such as ‘transformative’, ‘vibrant’ and ‘dazzling’. Despite the hype there are very few facts being presented. We still do not know how much it will cost or how long it will take to build.

In another development, Aberdeen City Council are to hold a special council meeting next Wednesday to discuss the City Garden Project.
http://committees.aberdeencity.gov.uk/mgConvert2PDF.aspx?ID=18252

The report for the meeting asks councillors to approve the final City Garden Project design , expects the private sector to commit at least £70 million towards the project and discusses some of the land ownership issues.

There is no discussion in the report as to what happens if the City Garden Project goes into massive cost over-run. In 2009 the then Chief Executive, Sue Bruce,  decreed the private sector would be responsible for any cost over-run. Since then, no procedure has been discussed on ensuring agreement about this. In my opinion, Aberdeen City council are being grossly negligent here.

Councillors are effectively being asked to approve the final City Garden Project design ahead of February’s public referendum.

Yet the report mentions that:

ACGT has produced initial draft proposals in respect of the likely uses of any internal and external space to be created by the proposed development and are currently redrafting these proposals to reflect the space provision within the design recently selected by the Design Competition Jury.”

It is difficult to see how councillors can approve a project when there is no clear statement as to what the scheme is going to be used for.

The requests to councillors to spend up to £300,000 on legal costs from Council funds will be very controversial. We have been repeatedly told that the City Garden Project will have no impact on Council budgets, yet this is clearly not the case here. Some will ask how such costs can be justified when services and amenities are being drastically cut elsewhere.

Polling cards for the referendum are to be issued to Aberdeen residents on or around the 16th February. We will be asked for a third time – what do we want our city centre to look like?

The public are being treated with disrespect on this issue. Nevertheless, Aberdonians should ensure that they vote in the referendum.  This one counts.

Jan 062012
 

Over three years ago, Sir Ian Wood announced the City Square Project with the intention of replacing Union Terrace Gardens with “a cross between the Grand Italian Piazza and a mini Central Park.” It has since been renamed the City Garden Project. The cost of building the project is nominally £140 million, of which it has been proposed that £70M of this would be borrowed by Aberdeen City Council involving a tax scheme.  Mike Shepherd offers some analysis of current local government trends, the recession, and what it may mean for Aberdeen.

So what is the justification being put forward for this expensive project, a project that has caused so much controversy since it was announced?

The project’s supporters allege the City Garden Project is needed to ensure that Aberdeen is attractive enough to retain energy professionals long term and to ensure Aberdeen’s economy is based on tourism post-oil.

For instance, an advert by ACSEF in the Press and Journal (January 2010) stated that:-

“Creating a new heart for Aberdeen presents a unique opportunity to put the city on the ‘must visit’ list.”

 Aberdeen City Council is £562 million in debt (2010 figure).
See:
http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Publications/2011/02/21143624/4

Last November, Perth and Kinross Council approved demolishing the listed Perth Town Hall to build a Civic Square in its place, a move that has raised much controversy.  The BBC reported:

“The council said many local businesses supported the civic square proposal. And council officers have argued that full demolition and reuse of the site as a public space would provide the most additional value to the local economy.  The cost of scheme is estimated at £4.4m, but the report said an additional 15,000 people per year would extend their stay in the city, with an extra 60,000 coming for events. “This would result in a combined additional spend per person per visit of £23 generating a total gross expenditure of £1.65m per annum,” it added.
See:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-tayside-central-15742937

Perth and Kinross Council is £222 Million in debt (2010 figure).

A similar controversy has been raging in Cork, Ireland, where the struggling Cork Council has been involved in a plan to install the Sky Garden Project. Celebrity TV gardener Diarmuid Gavin’s Irish Sky Garden won the gold medal at the Chelsea Flower Show (It looks like a giant hanging flower basket).

  There is a pattern here. Local governments the world over are in serious debt

The Council agreed to put the garden on permanent display in the city’s Fitzgerald Park at a cost of at least €300,000, with more than €1.7 million given to the project by Fáilte Ireland, the Irish tourism body.

In tones, redolent of the Aberdeen controversy, the Irish Independent wrote:

“THE taxpayer could be hit with a further bill of over €100,000 in costs connected to Diarmuid Gavin’s award-winning garden.

“Workers’ Party councillor Ted Tynan said the council needed to clarify precisely how much the garden cost, and what the council would pay in transport, insurance and operating costs. He also expressed disbelief that the garden — including its 30-metre high floating ‘pod’ and crane — may only open for three months each year.

“I love gardens and flowers and parks, but this is absolutely ridiculous. You’d put a hell of a lot of flower beds around the city for this kind of money. We should keep our feet on the ground not in the clouds with a sky garden’,” Mr Tynan said

“There are 500 boarded-up council houses in Cork and 120 people with various disabilities waiting on home adaptations. But the funding to go to all this has been cut by central government,” he added.

“Last night, the council said support for the “iconic garden” was in line with the policy that led to the creation of successful visitor attractions in the city.”

“This is part of a long-term policy to create a necklace of top tourist attractions that will bring people to Cork, get them to stay longer here and spend more money here,” a council spokesman said.

“Fáilte Ireland insisted that the garden would generate significant tourism earnings.”

See: http://www.independent.ie/national-news/diarmuid-gavinrsquos-euro2m-lsquosky-gardenrsquo-growing-in-cost-2661548.html

There is a pattern here. Local governments the world over are in serious debt. Services and amenities are being cut, yet it doesn’t stop them from spending money on expensive big-ticket items that might bring visitors in.  There is a feedback loop between local government, chambers of commerce and national government that serves to create the syndrome, “if we build it, they will come”.

  While a worthy cause, this has caused controversy as the annual budget will be part-funded by the city’s Common Good Fund

Where local economies have failed as in Cork for example, tourism may be the last throw of the dice to engender outside income.  There will be much competition for the dwindling number of international tourists as the recession bites. Recent reports suggest that countries such as Greece and Spain will focus relentlessly on promoting tourism as the last glimmer of light in their busted economies.

Aberdeen has caught up on the trend of pushing long-term tourism. The local chamber of commerce have been promoting a new destination marketing organisation for the city called ‘Visit Aberdeen’.

While a worthy cause, this has caused controversy as the annual budget will be part-funded by the city’s Common Good Fund; £107,000 for 2011 / 2012 and potentially for the next six years also. Arguably this is more ‘commerce good’ than ‘common good’.

The draft business plan recognises the future of the City Garden Project / Union Terrace Gardens as a primary issue. It is to be hoped that an organisation part-funded by Common Good money will not be promoting the controversial development of a public park that lies on Common Good land.
See: http://committees.aberdeencity.gov.uk/mgConvert2PDF.aspx?ID=15678

Are the citizens of Aberdeen willing to support the allocation of scarce resources to “a build it and they might come” vision for the city, allowing a public park to be developed for the sake of possible future tourists? Or is this all pie in the sky stuff that will use up money desperately needed elsewhere and will result in the appearance of the Granite City changing forever?

You have the chance to decide yourself.  The referendum on the fate of Union Terrace Gardens will be held in February.

 

 

 

 

 

Dec 292011
 

By Mike Shepherd.

The jury for the City Garden Project will announce the final scheme for the proposed development of Union Terrace Gardens sometime in January.  The choice will be between two designs, one with a web-based motif and the other with a big glass building in the middle which looks like a giant worm.

It is clear from both designs that most of the existing trees will be removed to build the new ‘garden’, whichever is built. 

New trees could of course be planted, but it would be decades before these grew to a comparable size, and this may not even be possible in those areas with a shallow concrete substrate. There will be claims that some of the smaller trees could be replanted, although the practicalities of this are obvious.

The big trees are particularly important as they absorb carbon and filter more pollution from the air compared to smaller trees. One study concluded that for this purpose:

“Big trees, the ones the Victorians planted for us, are what we need to maintain, but they are few and far between.”
See: http://www.theecologist.org

This week saw the shocking news that people living in Scottish cities are being exposed to dangerously high levels of pollutants. A WWF Scotland report identified three pollution hotspots in Aberdeen; Union Street, Market Street, and Wellington Road. These show  levels that are in breach of EU targets intended to protect human health. The main problem is the high levels of nitrogen dioxide caused by traffic fumes.
See: http://www.pressandjournal.co.uk

Aberdeen has a highly-polluted city centre. The solution to the problem would be to reduce the level of traffic in the city centre; pedestrianising Union Street has been suggested as an option.

It is also clear that we need to maintain the tree population of the city centre to help absorb the pollution. The key areas are Bon Accord Gardens, St. Nicholas churchyard and Union Terrace Gardens itself. Otherwise, Aberdeen city centre can hardly be described as awash with trees.

Yet, the proposed City Garden Project will remove a population of mature trees from the city centre. The problem is acknowledged in the Technical Feasibility Study for the project.

“Removal of mature trees and existing ecological habitat; 78 mature trees would be lost including 17 number mature Elm trees. The ecological value of these trees would take decades to replace as many of the trees are up to 200 years old.”

The City Garden Project will itself be a major source of pollution while it is being built (for the duration of almost two and a half years according to the same study).

“Excavation of rock/earth; It is anticipated that 30,000m3 of earth and 35,000m3 of granite will need to be removed from site. This which will cause large environmental impacts from noise, dust, transport and energy use. The removal of this volume of material is equivalent to approximately 3,947 dump trucks of earth and 4,605 dump trucks or more of granite to be removed from site or re-used where possible on site. This would have large environmental and social impacts on the local area and community surrounding the gardens.”
See:  
http://www.acsef.co.uk

It is clear from this, that the ecological downside of building the City Garden Project is substantial. The construction phase will see a protracted period of dirt and pollution in the city centre. By contrast, it is no exaggeration to describe Union Terrace Gardens as the green, living heart of the Granite City; its big trees acting as a natural washing machine, helping to keep us healthy by removing noxious pollution.

Those living in Aberdeen City will receive a postal ballot in mid February allowing them to decide between retaining Union Terrace Gardens or sanctioning the construction of the City Garden Project.

I will vote to retain Union Terrace Gardens.