Apr 262011

By Mike Shepherd.

The Council have decided to keep Union Terrace Gardens as development opportunity in the new Aberdeen local plan despite hundreds of objections to this.

A report to Council on Wednesday (27th April 2011) lists over 360 objections and only two in support.

Numerous objections are listed in an appendix to the report. These are typical:

“Support retention of public open space other than in exceptional circumstances. Financial incentives by private sector should not count as exceptional circumstances sufficient to outweigh normal polices else planning system simply becomes a question of deep pockets.”

“Union Terrace Gardens could be sympathetically improved by one or more of the following: providing access down, reopening the toilets, covering the railway and dual carriageway and opening shops, cultural facilities and cafes in the archways.”

“In line with the city’s policies, it should be subject to conservation orders, like Duthie Park.”

Union Terrace Gardens is the most obvious remnant of the Denburn the tributary of the Dee that saw the earliest habitation. It is an important topographical feature that also highlights the significant engineering features of the Union Street bridge and Rosemont Viaduct. Without the gardens these features become unintelligible and the centre of Aberdeen‘s history is much the poorer.”

“Add Union Terrace Gardens as a protected site as per Policy D4 – Aberdeen‘s Granite Heritage.”

The Council position is stated as follows:

“Whilst there is clearly a high level of debate regarding the Gardens it is our contention that it is important to identify that options for the redevelopment of the Gardens are currently under consideration. Any development proposal for the Gardens will need to be considered against the Local Development Plan, including the City Centre Development Framework, which sets out criteria for the future of the Gardens. The scale and nature of any improvements will be subject to other consultations and ultimately a planning application.

“In light of the above, the Council does not agree with the suggestion to remove this opportunity site from the Proposed Plan and to remove the Gardens from the opportunity site.”

See: http://committees.aberdeencity.gov.uk/mgConvert2PDF.aspx?ID=13439

Once the local plan has been approved by the Council, the next stage is for the plan to be independently assessed by a reporter. It is to be hoped that this issue is picked up and dealt with by an examination in public, not the least because a quarter of the 1,544 representations received on the plan concerned the Gardens.

The Council seem to be determined not to listen to the public on Union Terrace Gardens. They also ignored the outcome of the public consultation on the city square even though a majority of 1,270 said no to the development of the park.

The comment made above by the Council that:

The scale and nature of any improvements will be subject to other consultations”

… is difficult to take seriously in this regard. The Council appear to be only interested in one outcome and it’s not what the public want.

Apr 222011

By Mike Shepherd.

The design competition for the City Square Project was launched this week. The brief provided by Malcolm Reading Associates follows Sir Ian Wood’s ‘strict parameters’ with walk-on, walk-off access from four sides.

Teams of designers will initially be asked to register an interest in the project by 13th June.
A shortlist of 5 – 7 designers will then be picked to produce seven designs, with the city square board and the Council approving the final design in December.

The public will be allowed to ‘scrutinise’ and comment on the designs but not pick them. The Press and Journal reported on Thursday that there has been world-wide interest in the competition.

But, therein lies the problem. The rest of the world is being asked what the centre of Aberdeen should look like – but not the people in the city.

A year ago, we were consulted on whether we wanted a modern city square. We said no with a majority of 1,270; this was ignored.

I have a big problem with a modern city square in the centre of Aberdeen and this concerns the concept of architectural authenticity. This is the idea that a building or feature should harmonise with its location. The concept is easy to explain using our city. The Victorian Union Terrace Gardens is in harmony with the old granite buildings that surround it, whereas the 1960’s St Nicholas House is obviously out of place in the Granite City. The problem is even recognised in the current Aberdeen local plan:

“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 possible to produce modern buildings with architectural authenticity in sensitive locations; Elphinstone Hall built next to Kings College in 1930 is a good example.

A modern city square in the centre of Aberdeen would not be architecturally authentic and would be jarringly out of place with the older buildings.

It would totally change the character of the city centre and would probably accelerate the current trend whereby there has been piecemeal destruction of old granite buildings to be replaced by soulless modern buildings. This could be exacerbated if TIF funding is approved for a £70m loan.

This loan has to be paid back by capturing new or extra business rates and encouraging new city centre developments would be the main mechanism by which this could happen.

I was born and brought up in Aberdeen and I am intensely proud of the city. It is the granite buildings and the distinctive architecture that bring such a strong sense of locality and identity.

Once Aberdeen’s heritage starts to disappear on a large scale, the city will lose its unique character and will start to look like everywhere else. We will be denied our unique sense of belonging as Aberdonians.

We will not be given a public referendum on the city square. As it stands, a modern city square is being imposed on us whether we like it or not. We do not have to react to this in a “whatever will be, will be” mood of resignation. We can make sure that our voice is heard!

Join the Friends of Union Terrace Gardens on  www.friendsofutg.org

Apr 082011

By Mike Shepherd.

A proposal was made to discuss Thursday’s special council meeting on Union Terrace Gardens in private.
The reason put forward by the council lawyer was that the motion questioned the ‘validity and veracity’ of a report which led to the council’s approval to progress the City Square Project last May.

See article: http://www.pressandjournal.co.uk/Article.aspx/2205463

The public have every right to be concerned about this move. Too many details about the City Square Project are being withheld. Councillors are being briefed by council officials on the scheme’s progress, yet these briefings are not being made public.

These contain details such as timetables for the project and how the city square design is to be picked (the city square board selects the final design and the council will be asked to approve their choice).

Union Terrace Gardens is on Common Good land and belongs to the people of Aberdeen. It is our park and we have a right to be informed on any proposals for it.

Although the Council will probably retain ‘ownership’ of the land on which the Gardens are located, the building above it and the city square is likely to be owned by a private company in partnership with the council. The building will be about 5/6ths the size of Union Square. What will go into this enormous three-storey concourse given that the remit is that it will be a ‘civic and cultural’ space?

The latest idea is to put a conference centre in there, although this brings into question the fate of the Exhibition Centre at the Bridge of Don with which it would compete. Failure is not an option for the Exhibition Centre as it has been loaned £28m by the council. If the centre closes, then this debt will be transferred to the council budget with immediate and potentially calamitous consequences for the city’s finances.
See article: http://www.pressandjournal.co.uk/Article.aspx/1877056

An interesting perspective on the city square building was provided by an online comment made last week to the Press and Journal’s letters column:

The design process for Union Terrace Gardens will be unlike most design processes. Most conventional designs tend to start with a use, before proceeding to a site and then a brief, and finally designs to enable a scheme to be built. For UTG this will effectively be reversed. This is partly because the scheme is opportunity led, but mostly because of the scale and significance of the expected design. This scheme will be, by its very nature, more akin to designing a new street in the city, than designing a new building.
See article: http://www.pressandjournal.co.uk/Article.aspx/2205094#ixzz1IiidEav9

A limited company has appeared centre stage in the controversy and has been given control of the design competition. This is the Aberdeen City Gardens Trust, about which very little is known. Last week it was revealed that they have approached the council to invite them to be partners in the trust. The council have deferred the decision as they want to know more about the trust,  what they are letting themselves in for and the implications of this.
See article: http://www.pressandjournal.co.uk/Article.aspx/2205463

It is not only the council that needs to find out more about the trust, the public need to be informed about everything to do with this company. Who are they?

Much to do with the way that the proposed development of Union Terrace Gardens has been driven through is highly questionable.

The public were consulted and ignored when they voted no to the scheme. The council meeting last May was informed that the results of the consultation “clearly indicated a wish for change”, when they didn’t. Local businessmen urged the council to ignore the consultation, Acsef minutes for  the 20th April meeting state:

“There is a mandate from the business community to proceed to the next stage”.
See : http://www.acsef.co.uk/uploads/reports/21/13%20April%2010.doc

From then on, the project became ‘opportunity led’ and the public have been progressively ignored as it has progressed. Consultation has become two-way traffic between the project management board and the council; opponents of the scheme have been left scrabbling to find out what is going on.  A modern city square for the centre of Aberdeen is being imposed on us whether we like it or not.

From now on, the possibility of keeping Union Terrace Gardens is not on offer unless the Council votes against the city square, and so far they have not. Even the selection of a final design for the city square is being taken out of our hands. The businessmen and council officials on the project management board will take that choice.

If like me you think this state of affairs is appalling, join the Friends of Union Terrace Gardens through our website www.friendsofutg.org

We are campaigning to keep our city-centre park.


Nov 262010

By Mike Shepherd.

Local author John Aberdein saw his second novel ‘Strip the Willow’ published in 2009. It is set in the near future in Aberdeen, now renamed Uberdeen. Following the cities bankruptcy, its assets have been sold off  to the sinister and manipulative multinational corporation, LeopCorp.

The novel is of course fantastical, but when I met the book’s author in Union Terrace Gardens earlier this year,  John told me that he was amazed as to how much recent actual events seem to have overtaken the satire in the book. While LeopCorp is fiction, the idea of transferring Council assets to a limited company is not.

Last year the Council agreed to set up an organisation called the Aberdeen City Development Company, essentially as a means to privatise or semi-privatise Council assets deemed to be what they refer to as ’market failures’. A key document describing how the company could be set up is the report of Aberdeen City Council Policy and Strategy committee, dated 9th June 2009. It describes how a City Development Company can allow local authorities to “use their assets to realise long-term investment from the private sector for regeneration projects”. They “provide a route to bringing public and private sectors together to pool finance, land, expertise and powers, allocate risks and returns appropriately, and plan and deliver projects more strategically”.

More information emerged about the company in the report to the Council for the enterprise, planning & infrastructure committee on the 9th November 2010. This also included a partially redacted report from the accountants Ernst & Young on how the city development company will be set up. Some details are missing here and other sources have been used to supplement the material quoted from the document in this article.


The new company is to be called “One Aberdeen”. “It will be governed by a non executive board with up to a maximum of 12 directors. The composition of the board will be split between the public and private sector with 6 directors coming from each sector.”

One Aberdeen is the private sector’s Christmases and birthdays rolled into one

Of the six public sector directors, it is understood that only four board members will be from the Council itself, one will be from Scottish Enterprise and one from the Aberdeen Civic Forum. Later in the document it says:

“The chair will be from the private sector appointees and will have the casting vote, meaning that that there is private sector control at parent board level.”

The intent is to transfer assets into the development company. In an email forwarded from the Council executive I’ve been told “There is no question whatsoever of the Council gifting these assets. A full market value would be realised for the Council. The additional value created – which can be shared with ACC – is derived from development activities which the Council has traditionally never undertaken. It is designed as a way of maximising public benefit of assets in partnership with the private sector.”

Some excerpts from the Ernst & Young document give an idea of how the company will operate: “The transfer agreement will set out the commercial details of the transfer and related obligations of each party, including appropriate clauses for profit share between the Council and One Aberdeen.” …. “The delivery approach to each commercial development will be influenced by the nature of the investment and identified partner. This could involve development through a series of joint ventures or other forms of public-private partnership for example, via a development agreement.”

The minutes of the ASCEF meeting held on Monday the 23rd November 2009 states the following:

“Partners, including ACSEF, would have the opportunity to transfer assets to the CDC, and could fit into the structure as a founder member, associate member, or as part of the advisory panel for the venture.  The Chairman indicated his willingness to discuss this at a future meeting of the Board.” It is not clear what this means; ACSEF is a publically funded economic forum for the Aberdeen area and not a property group, although the board of ACSEF has members from private business. It may be indicating that private companies will also be allowed to transfer assets into the development company.

The Council have identified 59 assets deemed suitable for the development company. Of these, 14 have been short-listed as suitable for development. The Council have not revealed which assets these are. The Council executive informed me that:

“This was a draft list. Discussions are ongoing with asset management. Any short list will not be finalised until the new year for the April 2011 Finance committee.”

In a previous committee report (9th June 2009) the following was stated:

It is widely recognised that the provision of land assets into any development vehicle is key to help “kick-start” the re-development process. As such, external consultants have appraised 12 land assets owned by the Council with a view to demonstrating the development potential available to the Council through its asset base. This, in turn, would then help in the consideration of this development potential being levered via the concept of a city development company vehicle. The example sites considered were agreed within the Council Officer Working Group and were as follows:

1 Aberdeen Exhibition and Conference Centre

2 Bon Accord Baths

3 Chapel Street Car Park

4 Denburn Health Centre and Car Park

5 Granitehill

6 Greenferns

7 Land at Carnie

8 Land at Haudagain roundabout

9 St Nicholas House

10 Summerhill Education Centre

11 Union Terrace gardens

12 Westburn House and Park House/Choices”

It is important to note that item 12 “Westburn House and Park House/Choices” refers to two buildings and does not refer to Westburn Park itself. This list should only be taken as indicative of the assets that are likely to be selected next April.   I have been told that Union Terrace Gardens will not be one of the 14 assets. The development of the Gardens is proposed to be carried out through a separate company or trust to be formed in 2012.

the Council are more inclined to the interests of big business rather those of the ordinary citizen

Fourteen out of the 59 assets have been short-listed for development. The remaining 45 assets will either be sold or kept on the shelf by the Council. Although the Ernst and Young report does not make this too obvious, it is likely that some of these assets will be sold to fund the company. Again, the Council have not provided any details as to which assets will be sold.

The aim of the company is outlined in the Ernst and Young document:

“It is proposed that the delivery vehicle will be created as a charity with the purpose of positively contributing to the regeneration challenges of the City. An application for charitable status will be made following approval of this business plan by elected members. The vehicle will deliver a sustainable urban regeneration programme that will contribute to, creating local jobs, maximising economic development opportunities, meeting housing demand and tackling the spatial concentration of deprivation in Aberdeen. The geographical focus will be on the priority and at risk areas … “

These are identified as:

Priority neighbourhoods
At risk neighbourhoods

Seaton Stockethill
Tillydrone George Street
Woodside Mastrick
Torry City centre
Middlefield Froghall, Powis and Sunnybank
Cummings Park Garthdee
Northfield Old Aberdeen


The Ernst and Young document also mentions that: “A wholly owned subsidiary will be established (“Property Company”) with the purpose of undertaking riskier and more commercial projects and activities which do not fall within the charitable purposes and objects of One Aberdeen. Any projects which do not meet the charitable objects as defined within the Articles will be conducted through the Property Company.”

Although the aims of One Aberdeen are largely charitable, it has already received considerable criticism.

As has been referred to frequently in articles in the Aberdeen Voice, it has been a long time since the Council and the people of Aberdeen have been in accord. Given the response to the city square consultation, there is widespread distrust of the motives of the Council; a suspicion that the Council are more inclined to the interests of big business rather those of the ordinary citizen. The Ernst and Young report appears to differ: “A failure to consider the opinions of the wider community and halting to gauge public opinion has plagued a number of high profile developments in the North East of Scotland.” One suspects that the wider community referred to here may be the business community.

There is also criticism that control of Council assets will be surrendered to private business. One online blogger made the comment that “One Aberdeen is the private sector’s Christmases and birthdays rolled into one providing them with access and influence over empty buildings and land which will result in ‘surplus’ public assets being sold off for private development.” http://lenathehyena.wordpress.com/2010/11/15/one-aberdeen-pure-piche/

it has been a long time since the Council and the people of Aberdeen have been in accord

The Council’s dealings with private business has proved less than impressive to date. The Press and Journal reported last month that the Stewart Milne Group (SMG) had lost an appeal in court after disputing a land deal with the Council. The Council had sold 11 acres of land at Westhill for £365,000, having made  the condition that it would share any profit made by the SMG selling or leasing the land at a future date. The land was then sold to a linked company, Stewart Milne Westhill, for £483,020, who then stated that there was no money in the deal for the city Council because the sale had cost them £559,696. The Council then later argued in court that the land was worth £5.6 Million, eventually being awarded £1.7 Million.  http://www.pressandjournal.co.uk/Article.aspx/1964641

It is also possible that the money generated by the company could be used for purposes other than for regenerating the priority areas of the city. I heard one councillor state at a public meeting recently that he thought it would be a good idea that any profits could be used to fund the Exhibition Centre, a very early example of potential ‘mission creep’ for the development company. The Exhibition Centre owes the Council £28 Million and has been heavily subsidised by the Council in recent years. http://www.pressandjournal.co.uk/Article.aspx/1994339

Aberdeen One is likely to be set up in April next year, at which time it should be known which assets are to be transferred in the company. April should prove to be a highly fraught month for local politics. On April 27th the full Council meets to discuss the business case for the company intended to take the highly-controversial City Square project forward. They will also vote to approve assigning a lease for Union Terrace Gardens to the company even though it will not be a legal entity until 2012.  The Scottish Parliamentary elections take place the week after on the 5th of May. Interesting times as the Chinese would say.