Sep 212012
 

Suzanne Kelly reports on the results of some important research presented at the recent Science Festival.

Aberdeen Science Festival had an amazing array of lectures, talks, trips and cabaret events which thousands of visitors enjoyed.

One of the more important issues covered was the very serious subject of second-hand smoke and its effect on children.  I took the  opportunity to talk to Dr Stephen Turner ( pictured ) of Aberdeen University and Rachel O’Donnell of ASH Scotland on a promising initiative to attempt to tackle this complex problem.

You smoke, or your partner smokes; you have a couple of children and a cat.  No harm in smoking around them in the house – just open a window and the smoke can’t bother them.  Can it?

You close the window when you’re done smoking.  You don’t smell much smoke and you can’t see any clouds of smoke at all, so there’s no risk to anyone.

The truth is that ANY smoke residue can definitely harm your children and your pets.  Smoke that you can see and other chemicals in smoke that you can’t see or smell are injuring kids.   About 85% of cigarette smoke is invisible.

You might not believe this to be true, but please remember the old ‘canary in a coal mine’ story.  Miners would take canaries down into the mines and if the bird suddenly died, either the oxygen was running out, or there was something dangerous, but invisible and scentless.  Things you don’t see can indeed hurt you and your children.

REFRESH is an intervention aimed at reducing the exposure children get to second-hand smoke which was presented during the Aberdeen Science Festival.  Dr Stephen Turner and Rachel O’Donnell were available to explain how they worked with smoking families when they did their research.  They were not trying to make parents stop smoking, but instead were making people aware what the consequences can be on children’s lives.  The full details are written in a paper called ‘REFRESH – reducing families’ exposure to second-hand smoke in the home:  a feasibility study.’

Families where young children were living with regular smokers were asked to take part in a study which would measure indoor air quality in their homes.  The personalised air quality data were presented to the smoker, then a motivational interview was held and positive solutions were suggested for cleaner, healthier air for the child.

There were about 60 Aberdonian participants in this study with each receiving four visits.  At the first meeting a questionnaire was filled in to get a picture of the household members and their smoking habits; saliva samples were taken for chemical testing and monitoring equipment was set up.  At the second visit the indoor air quality result was given to half of the households in addition to the motivational interview.

The chart below shows smoke levels in one study household.  

Any quantity over 25 micrograms of smoke in a cubic metre of air space is harmful; the higher the figure, the more harm.

When the smoker was asleep, the levels dropped to non-existent.  When the smoker lit that first cigarette, the levels went up to between 500 and 950 micrograms of smoke in a cubic metre of air.

Throughout the day, the smoke lingered – even when the smoker assumed the room was clear of smoke.

This came as quite a revelation for the smokers.  Here is what some of them had to say:

“Seeing the results made a big difference.  It was like a shock because I didn’t realise.  Like I don’t sit here and smoke in front of my child, I do it in the kitchen, but for the readings to be high like that when I’m not like anywhere near it, if you know what I mean, it’s like a shock factor to realise what it can do.  So I think that’s the best thing that like helped me.”

“I showed them how high it was, and some of them was like – you’re  joking?  And I was like no…”

“For it (monitoring) to be done in your own home and for you to know that the level of smoke is so high and you’re putting your children at risk of asthma, emphysema, all kinds of things, it’s quite shocking.”

One comment in particular shows the strength of the motivational factor provided by caring about children’s health:

“For me I think my son’s health, that’s my priority.  So I would like to think that all mothers would think like that, that their kids come first no matter what.  My bad habits shouldn’t be put onto my child.  Because I can’t stop smoking doesn’t mean he has to suffer.”

After one month the research team revisited the houses, repeated the air quality measurements and, this time, gave all the households their results.  During the month the air quality had not changed in the houses where air quality data was not initially given but air quality had improved by more than one third where the graph was used as part of the initial motivational interview.

  personalised measurements of smoke in the home, while shocking, can also be very motivational

The trial was not large, but its results show that a future, large-scale programme would be beneficial.  Like everything else, budgetary constraints are a factor.  The vast sums that the NHS has to spend treating smoke-related illnesses should be sufficient to show that prevention should be actively pursued as one solution to the smoking issue.

The study has shown that lay people can most definitely engage with science and can understand complex matters when it is presented using clear, audience-appropriate, audience-relevant formats.   Crucially, the personalised measurements of smoke in the home, while shocking, can also be very motivational.  As the paper concludes:

“…in almost all participating households, indoor air (quality) approached a threshold considered unhealthy, suggesting a need to reduce indoor air (quality) in many households across the UK, and that many people would benefit from such an intervention.” 

It seems that this combination of personalised data, positive suggestions and active participation of smokers might be the way to tackle smoke exposure to children.  It is hoped this small study won’t be the end of the matter.  The research goes on but, in the meantime, parents who smoke can create smoke free homes and smoke free cars to protect their children from the harmful effects of second hand smoke.

Smoking is still a social norm for many families but in the same way as drink driving and not wearing a seat belt are no longer acceptable, in future smoking will be considered as not acceptable by society.

PS for animal lovers –  according to Dr Turner, the incidence of feline leukaemia is twice as high in cats that live in a smoker’s home than for cats that live in a smoke free environment.

  •  Comments enabled – see comments box below. Note, all comments will be moderated.
Jun 222012
 

A campaigner against a controversial deer cull has asked the Health & Safety Executive to investigate Aberdeen City Council over its failure to follow its own risk assessment which identified lethal risks to the public and ‘non-target’ species while the shooting took place. With thanks to Suzanne Kelly.

Twenty-three roe deer were culled by Aberdeen City Council earlier this year on Tullos Hill in the south of the city.

The City says the cull was necessary for its ‘Tree for Every Citizen’ scheme, which started life largely as a Liberal Democrat election pledge. Protestors and a variety of animal welfare charities disagree.

Aberdeen City later claimed that the cull was prompted by new deer management legislation (a claim again contested by opponents).

The question is:  did the City endanger people during the shooting operations?

The City created a risk register concerning the cull, which warned of risks including ‘fatal injuries from misuse of / damage to firearms’.  The heavily-redacted risk register was obtained by Aberdeen Voice’s  Suzanne Kelly via a Freedom of Information request.

The risk register noted the ‘possibility of fatal injuries from misuse of / damage to firearms’ to ‘members of the public’.  Some of the risks identified were ‘injury from firearm discharge (either via ‘blocked barrel or obstructed view when shooting deer’ and ‘trajectory of bullets beyond target’.

The Risk Register prescribed that ‘Cautionary notices will be placed at all known access points to the sites where deer management is taking place’.

Kelly and other frequent visitors to the hill during the period the cull was taking place saw no such warning signs.  A Freedom of Information Request concerning the use of signs is now overdue.  Kelly explains:

“We only discovered details of the shooting recently, and many protestors and local residents are alarmed that they saw no warning signs when they visited the hill.  Freedom of Information Requests by Animal Concern Advice Line, myself and other cull opponents have resulted in knowledge of what animals were shot and when, but my specific request on the warning signs is now overdue and unanswered.

“People deliberately visited the hill to look out for any evidence a cull was on; none of my contacts encountered signs at any entrances to say there was cull and a lethal risk if they went further.  It certainly seems people may have been on the hill oblivious to the presence of hunters with rifles killing the deer and posing lethal risk. 

“Bullets can travel a considerable distance – a quarter of a mile is not impossible.   The Council must prove that they informed the public as per their own risk register and safeguarded the public’s welfare, but the evidence suggests this was not the case.”

“I wrote an Aberdeen Voice article which asked whether hunters had been firing weapons while people were on the hill without warning signs being up.  Well, someone from the city contacted me to correct a small part of the story (about who was involved in the shooting) – but absolutely no one to date has come forward to say the City posted the required signs. 

“You would think that if the City acted correctly, they would have immediately called me once the story was published to demand a correction and to supply evidence of compliance.  But this is not the case.”

Kelly acknowledges there was one small sign deep within the grounds of the hill concerning ‘forestry operations’ being carried out.   This however cannot have been the appropriate warning the council’s own documents said was required.

As an example of good practice, during a recent deer cull at Bennachie, a very large sign was posted at the entrance point which clearly stated deer were being culled, shooting was going on, and what the dates and even the times were, so people were aware of danger.  This sign at Bennachie clearly warned people not to be in the area during those times.

Would people have willingly gone onto Tullos Hill when marksmen were shooting animals?  Kelly has her doubts.

“If there were warning signs at the entrances to the hill, then I would never taken a further step (I normally use a main signposted entrance as well as other access points).  I would instead have immediately reported far and wide that this controversial cull was in progress, something the City wanted to keep secret, as evidenced by correspondence between it and the SNH. 

“You have to wonder – did the city’s desire for secrecy lead to sacrificing public safety in order to hide its unpopular cull?  Thank goodness there were no injuries from for instance a shot that had missed its target.  But either Aberdeen Council put up signs (which no one saw as far as I know) or it didn’t. 

“If it didn’t, then it is time to investigate why not, find out who is at fault, and examine this unwanted scheme in detail.  I am not alone in wanting to see the project scaled down and any further culls prevented.”

The shooting took place between 12 March and 9 April 2012 with hunting often conducted in the evening hours.

“I would personally have been present on the hill on several occasions when rifles were being used.  I would go very often after work, and while I saw children, families, people on motorbikes and pets, again – I never saw a single warning sign regarding the danger.  It makes me feel extremely angry and a bit ill to think our safety may have been compromised.  I want to get at the truth.”

“I anticipate being asked to address Aberdeen’s new Housing & Environment Committee when it next meets to discuss lessons learnt and to try and prevent next year’s and future planned culls from taking place for the benefit of this ill-advised tree planting scheme.    

On Wednesday, Aberdeen Press & Journal carried an article confirming the number of animals shot, but which quotes Scottish Natural Heritage guidelines, indicating there is no legal requirement for erecting warning signs.

Kelly comments:-

“Whether or not there was a legal requirement for warning signs, the City created a risk register which said there was a lethal risk, and that they would erect signs to warn people.  Not to follow their own procedures will have risked public safety – and the public are not going to take this very well at all. 

“I will continue my research, particularly on the cull details, and the precise legal requirements the Council claim to be sticking to about deer overpopulation.  The City knows the deer migrate and are not trapped on the hill; if there is a law demanding that 23 deer in these circumstances be shot, then it should be questioned. 

“These deer were nearly tame, lived in stable numbers for at least 70 years, and initially were targeted by the city strictly to further its tree-planting scheme, against public wishes.  

“Those responsible for this entire situation should not think the matter is closed by any means.  One last point; it is surprising and disappointing that the Press & Journal seem to have concluded that there was no reason to put up warning signs when gunfire was occurring – it may not have been a legal requirement, but the most basic common sense dictates people should not have been endangered – and looking at the shooting times, it certainly seems this was the case.” 

 

STOP PRESS: Further information has just come to light since writing this article concerning how the cull was handled; many questions have arisen.  The City will be asked to clarify some apparently contradictory details released in Freedom of Information requests.  A critique of a report written jointly by the City and ‘CJ Piper & Co’ in support of the deer cull is forthcoming, as is a further review of the project’s finances to date. Anyone with concerns as to safety issues or comments about the cull and the tree scheme is urged to contact their city councillors.

 

May 112012
 

Suzanne Kelly reports on the serious issues raised by the modus operandi of Aberdeen City Council with regard to the recent deer cull.

It is nearly two weeks since the general public were dismayed to learn that 22 of 29 deer were destroyed to further the ‘tree for every citizen’ scheme which was so vigorously promoted by the Liberal Democrats and a handful of City Officials.
As an indicator of how extremely unscientific this entire project is, it seems that only one deer count was done before the shooting started, and it failed to identify the sex of half of the deer it counted.

The shooting secretly started around 18 February (an early start which needed Scottish Natural Heritage approval), and seems to have continued until the end of the official season. 

It is only now that the general public realise that a gunman was on the hill shooting a rifle:  and that the City took a lethal risk to people’s lives to kill the deer.

This article looks at the risks we didn’t know were being taken with our safety, and recommends the entire matter be made the subject of a city council investigation, possibly with impartial, outside agency involvement.

A document entitled ‘Granite City Forest Deer Management – Risk Assessment’ was obtained some time ago under Freedom of Information legislation.

It can be found at http://suzannekelly.yolasite.com/

This document alarmingly acknowledged that hazards identified included:

  •  “Injury from firearm discharge (either via blocked barrel or obstructed view) when shooting deer;
  •  “Uncontrolled access to firearm(s) and ammunition; and
  •  “Trajectory of bullets beyond target (ie living roe deer) impacting on non target species” (ie anything from small birds and mammals to people).

This document acknowledges that ‘who might be harmed’ included not only those involved in destroying the deer, but also the general public.

Having identified the hazards listed above, the document goes on to answer ‘who might be harmed’ and ‘what harm might result’, although its treatment of the issues is superficial at best.  The harm that might have occurred included ‘Possibility of fatal injuries from misuse of / damage to firearms’.

The main reason no one believed any culling was going on was the complete absence of any notices to that effect being put up.

For some inexplicable reason – which needs to be scrutinised along with so many features of this whole sorry saga – is the absence from the report of many other possibilities, including the obvious risk of non-fatal injuries of many kinds to the general public and ‘other species’.

The control measures sited as risk mitigation are almost laughable – but the real issue is the ‘who might have been harmed’ aspect:  the shooting was going on while people were still on the hill.  This is wholly unacceptable.

You may wonder why I am only highlighting this Risk Assessment document now – the answers are very simple.  For starters, the police were asked on several occasions if they knew of any shooting for the deer cull taking place, and the answer was always no.  Councillors who had asked to be informed of any shooting seem not to have been kept in the loop, either.

But the main reason no one believed any culling was going on was the complete absence of any notices to that effect being put up.  The very first ‘Contingency arrangements required to reduce risk’ item listed in the Risk Assessment is this:

“Cautionary notices will be placed at all known access points to the sites where deer management is taking place.”

No one I spoke with, nor anyone I know who visited the hill regularly (and many went with the specific aim of watching out for culling activities) ever saw a sign or notice to this effect whatsoever.  I was keen to visit as often as possible after dusk, and made many trips (only seeing a deer close up once in a gorse thicket which has now been bulldozed).

The question must be asked – did City officials decide not to erect any signs to keep this unpopular cull secret?  If the answer is yes, then our lives and safety were recklessly risked for propaganda purposes.

We now have to wait to find out what days shooting took place, who posted the notices, how big they were, and where they were posted.  I can promise you that I never saw any, and I have been using four different entrance points, including the main entrance where the Loirston Park sign is.

The City also relied on the expertise of the shooter – but even the best marksmen make errors.  Think of the high-profile American accidental shooting – allegedly by Cabinet Member Dick Cheney of a Mr Whittington.  In the UK, hunting accidents also happen.  Finding reliable statistics is not quite so easy – internet searches for hunting accidents seem to result in the appearance of pro-hunting lobbyists putting up unrelated (and questionable) statistics about damage done by deer.

The Health and Safety Executive seems to lump hunting, forestry and all agricultural accidents into one category – in which there are hundreds of accidents any year.

 These questions need to be answered, and I will be formally calling on authorities to have a comprehensive investigation.

Whatever the numbers are, the presence of a notice of shooting on the hill would have at least let people make an informed judgement as to whether to be on the hill or not.  But just like the consultation on the trees (which deliberately omitted mention of a cull or the cost of the previous failure – or the sheer scale of trees proposed) – someone, somewhere took the information needed for our decision-making out, and hid it.

A sign would not have been much use at dawn or dusk; how could it have been visible? Any sign should have been put up in several languages (Polish and French visitors frequent the hill and a sign in English might have been of no use to such people at all).  But a sign and the requirement for the shooter to be diligent are hardly sufficient mitigation for potential lethal risk.  The shooter is also meant not to hunt ‘…when public, contractors or other ACC operatives are known to be on site’.

This is almost meaningless:  access was not prohibited, the site is massive, and bullets can travel a long, long way.  How could anyone possibly ascertain no people were in the vicinity?

It is one thing to create a Risk Assessment document.  It is quite another for its robustness and completeness to be agreed and for it to be approved.  Who wrote this document?  Who was involved in agreeing it was fit for purpose?  Whose name ultimately went on a document which acknowledged lethal risk?  Were signs used or not?  These questions need to be answered, and I will be formally calling on authorities to have a comprehensive investigation.

A former ghillie I know tells me how very difficult it is to shoot a deer, and in his experience deer were known to be injured severely if not brought down with the first initial shot.  Some wounded deer can completely evade the hunter, and travel great distances before dying in shock and pain of blood loss and internal injury.

Our man from the Aberdeen City Council with a license has been shooting things for over 20 years, according to the risk assessment document; are we to suppose his eyesight has not deteriorated at all in this time period? Statistically if he shot 22 animals, how likely or otherwise is it that each and every animal died instantly where it stood?

  These deer were nearly tame; people who stay in the nearby caravans advise they had fed the deer by hand

Ironically, the deer shooter referred to in the document is also a point of contact between the Scottish SPCA and the city council:  the Scottish SPCA has been opposed to this cull from the idea’s inception.  It is unclear whether the shooter would have been likely to report any bad shots or injured deer he caused to the Scottish SPCA.

The remains of a deer were pointed out to me in an area which had a great deal of tree and plant life – could this deer have not died of natural causes (starvation seemed unlikely amid the sources of food) – but rather could it have been wounded, run away and died of shock, slowly and painfully?  We will have to wait for a FOI request which asked how many shots were fired, and how many animal carcasses were removed.

These deer were nearly tame; people who stay in the nearby caravans advise they had fed the deer by hand and grown food specifically for them.  This makes it even more galling that the Risk Assessment provides for putting the carcasses of these much-loved animals into the food chain.  But that is exactly what happened.  In an almost sarcastic turn, the risk assessment covers the point that the man preparing the animals for food might be at risk of cutting himself on his sharp knives, or sprain a muscle moving the dead animals.

For the record, the level of fatal injury to you or I was calculated to be at the lowest level.

It is likely that Ranger Ian Tallboys, staunch supporter of the cull (although he seems never to have formally proposed a cull before the tree scheme became a political promise) did the shooting and the preparing of the carcasses for meat.  He is about the longest-serving ranger I am aware of, and part of the ‘control measures’ were to have an ‘experienced and competent operative’ perform the shooting.

Tallboy’s current silence on the matter is matched only by his silence over building the football stadium at Loirston in the Special Areas of Conservation area, and the silence of Aileen Malone post election.  Malone was the main proponent of the scheme, often claiming it was ‘cost neutral’ – a claim now completely debunked.

Another person responsible for the whole scheme is Peter Leonard, city council officer, whose original report to the Housing & Environment Committee was the death knell for the deer.  The contents of his report need some urgent investigation; claims of ‘cost neutral’ planting, advice against tree guards, etc. etc. have been shown to be inaccurate if not misleading.

  Only a proper investigation will get to the bottom of the genesis and management of this unwanted, unprofitable, destructive scheme

There are now the correct size tree guards in place – the City initially bought smaller than recommended guards.

Furthermore, the SNH and the City corresponded saying tree guards were unsuitable as they had ‘visual impact’.

What has changed?

Leonard also seems to have had a hand in the disappearance of  Councillor Cooney’s paper on keeping Tullos as a meadowland; Leonard is on record as saying that the meadow would be more expensive than imposing an 89,000 tree forest and killing the deer:  how exactly he reached this conclusion will be interesting to determine; he should be invited to explain how and when his research reached this conclusion, how he reached conclusions in his original report which now seem incorrect, and whether or not he had a hand in Cooney’s paper disappearing from sight.

The actions of some of our officers and unelected city employees seem to have fallen unfailingly into the plans of the Liberal Democrats.

Only a proper investigation will get to the bottom of the genesis and management of this unwanted, unprofitable, destructive scheme, and find out who did / did not overstep the bound of their job, and whether any political (or other) pressure was used to bring us to where we are now.

If you care about the future of Tullos Hill, all of its (remaining) creatures and meadow; if you care about a small minority of persons dictating to thousands who oppose their plans; if you care that tens of thousands of pounds have been spent which could have been better used elsewhere – then please write to your councillors and ask for an inquiry to be held.

The deer are dead – and you and your families were possibly put at risk.  The issues thrown up must be investigated so that there is never a repeat performance.

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

Mar 092012
 

The black calendar of Aberdeen’s civic history has a new entry: 2nd March 2012, the day that its citizens, evident sufferers of apathy and myopia, handed both its natural heritage and its economic future to a cabal of businessmen.  Arthur Taylor writes.

The fight to retain and improve Union Terrace Gardens hit the buffers on that day when the public – or rather 27.5% of them – voted to support the plans to destroy this unique piece of the city’s heritage and replace it with a concrete monstrosity – presumably confused by the smoke and mirrors of the PR campaign which branded it “The Granite Web”.

Whether the battle turns into a war, protracting the debate, and driving further wedges between parties already badly divided, remains to be seen, but it is hard to see a rapid healing of the wounds that this process has created.

It is also difficult to stop the passion that fuelled the Retain campaign from dissipating, before all avenues of challenge are exhausted against a process labelled as democratic – but which in reality has been anything but that.

What is clear is that events from 2008 to now should be reviewed and recorded for posterity, so that future generations when looking back can seek to understand a number of things:

  • why we allowed our heritage to be given away to a clique of egoists and nepotists, who deluded the public and maybe even themselves into believing that they were altruists and philanthropists
  • why the local authority whose primary function is to act in the citizenry’s best interest handed control to an unelected quango, immune from public scrutiny
  • and why we allowed the city’s future to be mortgaged on the most questionable of business cases, flagged up as high risk by Audit Scotland in the final days of the campaign – when most votes were already cast.

Not that this was a revelation: Friends of Union Terrace Gardens had identified the risk months before, but their claims were played down in the media.

The last two months have seen a referendum conducted by a returning officer who sought to have the campaigns run to a fair set of rules.

The dominance of the local print media in forming and steering public opinion, and its incestuous relationship with local business, is deeply concerning.

While it appears that the retain groups stayed within their £8000 budgets, the pro groups – aided and abetted by the collaborators in the local media – spent an estimated £1,000,000 to buy the votes of the people of Aberdeen. Their cynical campaign saw radio adverts dressed as public information broadcasts, and a drip-fed daily editorial in the local press, with each day’s evening paper offering more extravagant promises than the last, as part of a fawning hysterical clamour.

That the retain groups, variously composed primarily of grey-haired men, beardies, tree-huggers and an enthusiastic schoolboy, ran the referendum right to the wire, losing by such a slender margin, is testament to their energy, enthusiasm and resourcefulness. That they did this against a campaign co-ordinated by the BIG Partnership, Scotland’s largest PR agency, is little short of a miracle.

The dominance of the local print media in forming and steering public opinion, and its incestuous relationship with local business, is deeply concerning.

The public need a source of true facts rather than propaganda dressed as objective reporting.

That said, there have been two positives to emerge from the press coverage of the campaign: the amusement derived from watching the Evening Express contorting itself like an India-rubber prostitute in a bid to champion the development, while not entirely abandoning its habitual council-baiting; and the emergence of the STV Local site as a place where all parties can present their voice without editorial bias.

It is hard not to see the future of local journalism as lying in hyper-local online spaces, as counterpoint to the shrinking of print to the point of complete insignificance.

the dead-eyed, gape-mouthed novelty-seekers who lurch zombie-like through the malls

Returning to the proposed development itself, it should be remembered that Union Terrace Gardens is the only part of the city where one can see the original topography of the land on which the city is built.

Sadly the local authority in the last century has allowed almost all traces of the city’s history to be erased like some embarrassing legacy instead of retaining and celebrating its character. Compare this with Edinburgh’s old town or York’s centre.

We are now confronted by the effacement of the final part of our history in order to satisfy the dead-eyed, gape-mouthed novelty-seekers who lurch zombie-like through the malls that have brought about the systematic homogenisation of the city centre and obliterated all individuality and character.

If we do not continue to challenge this proposed act of civic vandalism, by:

  • opposing the planning application,
  • challenging the use of Common Good land,
  • exposing the business case as one which will leave the city bankrupt (as it was last in1817)  when the TIF scheme plays out as feared,

then we should at least ensure that we record for posterity the names of the businessmen who proposed this vanity project; note the politicians and faceless unelected quango-ists who eased its path to realisation; and ponder the many, many idiotic consumers who swallowed the hype, without challenge or analysis.

If we do nothing else, we should record those names on the black calendar’s page for 2nd March 2012.

Feb 242012
 

Peter Veritas makes the case for voting “Retain”.

1.  There is a very real danger that the City Garden Project will bankrupt Aberdeen.

The City Garden Project (CGP) is planned for a greenfield site which would require substantial excavation. It is a five acre, five storey, underground construction that would span both a main road and a railway track

It’s roof would be required to hold approximately ninety thousand tons of topsoil, the same weight as the worlds largest aircraft carrier.  It is projected to cost £140M.

Union Square, which is of a similar size, was built on a flat brownfield site with good access. The final cost was £250m.

Marischal College is a much smaller existing building that was recently renovated.  No major construction was performed.  The final cost came to £65M.

Given that context, how can we be expected the believe the estimate for The City Garden Project is realistic? Should the City Garden Project experience a similar scale of overspend to the Scottish Parliament Building or the Edinburgh trams, then the shortfall could conceivably be of the order of £360M.  The city, which is already £560M in debt, would be liable for this overspend.

It could not be rolled up into the existing loan, and would require immediate payment.  Failure to cover the overspend would result in us being left with a dirty hole in our city centre.  The only options open to the council would be to auction off it’s remaining assets, such as the other parks, to property developers, and to increase council tax  massively.  Public services which have already suffered severe cuts would be totally decimated.

2.  Aberdeen has suffered badly from previous developments.

St Nicholas House, the New Market, The Denburn dual carriageway, the Denburn Health Centre, The St Nicholas Centre, and Virginia Street are all universally acknowledged as failures that now blight our urban landscape.  Aberdeen lost many beautiful buildings to clear the way for those developments.

The people who campaigned against those architectural and planning atrocities are also campaigning against The City Garden Project.  They’ve been proven right time and time again. Perhaps it’s time we listened to them?

3.  We already voted against this Project under a different name.

There is something sinister about the City Garden Project.  It was originally conceived as the City Square Project (CSP), and envisioned as a five acre flat concrete piazza.  That proposal only emerged after Peacock Visual Arts were given planning permission to embed an unobtrusive arts centre into the hillside of Union Terrace Gardens.  Sir Ian Wood pledged £50M to build The City Square, but promised to scrap the Project if the public rejected it.

That was then put out to a flawed public consultation, in which the public voted against by a substantial majority, despite the online survey mysteriously defaulting to a “yes” vote.  Sir Ian then reneged on his promise and continued to push the concept, the council ran roughshod over the electorate, and by the casting vote of the Lord Provost, consigned the Peacock plan to the dustbin.

Sir Ian has consistently stated that he will only contribute his £50M to this particular proposal and nothing else, and that if we reject his proposal then he will divert the money to Africa.  His behaviour is baffling.

4.  There has been an air of deception around The City Garden Project.

The City Square Project was rebranded as The City Garden Project.  During the Project’s second coming the public were presented with six designs and invited to vote on them. None Of The Above was not a option.

Aesthetically, the public appeared to favour the Winter Garden design.  From a conceptual perspective The Monolith design was arguably the most cohesive.
The appointed panel then refused to release the outcome of this public vote and instead selected The Granite Web, a design for which very few people acknowledge having voted, and which many people considered to have been among the weakest.

CGP propaganda has continually claimed that Union Terrace Gardens are a dangerous place, but Grampian Police crime figures reveal that they are actually among the safest places in the city centre. Neighbouring Belmont Street, which the plans propose to connect to the Granite Web, is statistically the worst area for street crime.

Under the rules of the referendum, registered campaign groups are limited to £8k spending to maintain a level playing field.  However a mysterious group of anonymous business people has allegedly ploughed £50K into sending pro-CGP propaganda to every home in Aberdeen City.  This is not within the spirit of the referendum and is arguably a breach of the rules.

It has been claimed numerous times that the 250 year old elm trees in Union Terrace Gardens are diseased, but a recent report by a tree surgeon has given them a completely clean bill of heath.  These elms are among the last surviving in Europe, and they flourish both due to their isolation from other elms, and because the pollution of the city prevents Dutch Elm disease from spreading to them.  These trees are all covered by a preservation order.

5.  Those arguing in favour of the City Garden Project are mostly connected to it in some way.

Scotland’s top public relations firm were engaged to promote the Project, which may be why the majority of stories that have appeared in the local press have been fawningly in favour of the CGP.

Those who have argued the merits of the Project, both in the press and on-line, are interconnected people with an as-yet unknown agenda.

In addition to the numerous PR professionals being paid thousands of pounds each day to present the case, there are several property developers, the owners of assorted the premises on Union Street, and various oil company executives.

No fewer than three city councillors, who backed the Project, recently announced that they intend to stand down, and have also revealed that they are planning to leave the city.  Virtually all of those involved are members of Acsef, Scottish Enterprise, the Institute of Directors, and The Chamber of Commerce.  The same dozen people feature time and time again in the groups which have come out publicly in favour of the Project.  The same people wearing different hats.

6.  The economics have no basis in fact.

Tax Incremental Funding (TIF) is intended to fund the redevelopment of brownfield sites.  Businesses which later setup in and around those sites pay increased business rates which repay the cost of the development in a similar manner to a mortgage.  The business case for this Project bends the rules since the increased rates will not be gathered for the site itself, but from two new industrial estates, located several miles away and for which planning permission has already been granted.

The 6,500 jobs and £122M of projected annual revenue are a product of these new industrial estates working at full capacity. This is almost  guaranteed to occur anyway without The Granite Web.

Furthermore, the paid author of the reports is PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC), which has recently been fined £1.4m for audit failure.  PWC rates the TIF case at Risk Level 3, where 4 is the highest risk.

7.  To save the architecture of the Denburn Valley

None of the Granite Web mockups, artists impressions, or video, have addressed the issue of the rear elevation of Belmont Street.

This is home to some of Aberdeen’s most spectacular architecture, descending right down to the level of Denburn Road.  Architecture which will be obliterated when the CGP connects to it, some five storeys further up.

Most of these buildings are either local businesses or publicly owned concerns, and several of them have picturesque balconies below the finished level of The Granite Web.

8.  To retain our sheltered park.

Union Terrace Gardens lie in the Denburn Valley which offers shelter from the wind and urban pollution.  Raising the area up to street level would turn it into a wind trap.

The wind would howl round the concrete walkways and other architectural features of the granite web, plants would struggle to survive, and people would avoid the area, preferring instead to travel along the relatively sheltered confines of nearby streets. It’s a fallacy to claim that this development would enhance connectivity.

9.  Union Terrace Gardens have been cynically starved of funding – in order to ‘pave the way’ for this redevelopment.

Union Terrace Gardens was the centre piece of Aberdeen’s famous successes in the Britain in Bloom contest.  Over the course of the past eight years the council has cut funding, with the result that the Gardens are no longer maintained at previous award-winning levels

The beautiful Grade A listed public toilets were closed, the famous giant draught boards were ripped out, the winter skating rink was no longer installed and concerts and other public events were discontinued

A modest investment would both regenerate the Gardens, and improve access to them.  There is no need to risk bankrupting the city for what amounts to no additional benefit

10.  The curse of Corbie Haugh.

Back in the seventeenth century, the area where the Gardens now stand was a wood called Corbie Haugh. The ancient Scots word for crow is corbie and the wood was named after the crows which gathered in the grassy valley and within the bank of elm trees. The elm trees in the Gardens date back over 250 years to that eighteenth century wood.

An ancient legend, The Curse of Corbie Haugh, holds that when the crows depart, the city will be ruined. If the elms are chopped down, the crows will indeed depart, and if they city ends up burdened by an additional £360m of debt, then it shall indeed be ruined!

SAVE OUR CITY FROM DISASTER BY VOTING TO RETAIN UNION TERRACE GARDENS.

 

Sep 302011
 

By Mike Shepherd. 

A document has appeared purporting to reveal and counter ‘myths’ about the proposed Union Terrace Gardens development.  It has been posted on the Aberdeen and Grampian Chamber of Commerce (AGCC) website.
Some of the claims are disingenuous and others stretch the idea of a ‘myth’ somewhat.

AGCC: “Fiction: This is Sir Ian Wood’s project. Fact: The City Garden is not and never has been Sir Ian Wood’s project.”

The City Square has always been seen as Sir Ian Wood’s project. Sir Ian announced his proposal at  HM Theatre in November 2008.  The Evening Express reported the launch with the headline;

Options revealed in Sir Ian Wood’s vision for Union Terrace Gardens EE13/11/08

The same article also states:

The businessman wants to raise Aberdeen’s Union Terrace Gardens to street level and create a civic square.”

A media quote picked at random clearly shows that it has invariably been perceived as Sir Ian’s project.

Back my vision for the city or lose £50m, Sir Ian warns P&J 14/04/2010

So exactly whose vision is it then, Sir Ian?

What is referred to as ‘my vision’ is in fact the vision, aspiration and hopes of many, many Aberdonians for the future economic and civic wellbeing of our city and region as North Sea oil winds down.” BBC20/4/10

Excuse me, I don’t think so.

AGCC:  “Fiction: The City Garden Project will destroy the only green space in the city. Fact: It will create new, bigger, greener and more attractive gardens. It is about gardens and open, distinct spaces on different levels, using the natural slopes, for all sorts of activities.”

The development will destroy the existing Gardens and according to the technical feasibility study, all 78 mature trees including the old elms will be chopped down. It is hard to accept that the new “City Garden” could ever support mature trees on the existing scale.

AGCC: “Fiction: It will destroy our history and heritage. Fact: Wherever possible, the project will preserve and enhance our history and heritage.”

This is the most disingenuous of all the ‘myths’ in the document.  The first draft of the design brief for the City Squarecalls for a …

“21st century contemporary garden”

…to be built in place of the Victorian park. Union Terrace Gardens was planned by Alexander Marshall Mackenzie, who also designed many of the surrounding buildings including the Art Gallery. If Union Terrace Gardens feel as if they belong, this is the reason why. The city square WILL destroy a key part of our history and heritage.

AGCC:  “Fiction: Aberdeen City Council is selling off public land for this project. Fact: The land involved will remain in public ownership.”

This is misleading as it doesn’t explain the whole picture. The land will most likely remain with the Council for the time being. However, the ground will probably be leased for a long period, 125 years has been suggested. A lease-hold on this time-scale while technically not ownership, is nevertheless a significant property deal.  Any structure on the land, including the so-called City Garden, will not be publically owned. This will belong to the private company or trust if they get planning permission.

AGCC: “Fiction: Aberdeen City Council is spending money it cannot afford on this project, money that could be better spent elsewhere. Fact: Aberdeen City Council has not allocated any revenue expenditure to the City Garden Project, over the past year.”

We know that considerable Council officer time has been allocated to work spent on the project. We do not know if the City Garden Project intends to reimburse the Council for this or not. ACC minutes show that the Council lawyers have not yet signed  off the relevant project agreement that would allow this to happen.

AGCC: “Fiction: The City will be taking on-board future liabilities relating to the construction and operation of the City Garden.  Fact: The City has agreed to consider a TIF scheme to provide public sector funding for the project. This will involve the City borrowing funds to invest in the project. The project will stimulate new business investment and generate additional extra economic activity in the area, resulting in an increase in the amount of business rates collected in future years. This will be used to repay the loan plus the interest charges.”

Doh! – “Fiction: The City will be taking on-board future liabilities” but then we are told “This will involve the City borrowing funds to invest in the project”.

The Council are £562M in debt and cannot afford any more borrowing for anything. As has been explained on these pages before by Mick Miller, the version of TIF suggested for the City Square Project involves major financial risk. If the amount of business rates does not increase sufficiently to pay back the loan, then the Council get left holding the baby.

AGCC: “Fiction: The majority of Aberdeen public has voted against redeveloping Union Terrace Gardens. Fact: 11,000 people (less than 10% of the population) participated in the public consultation which revealed that just over half were against the proposal. Many of those were basing their decision on misinformation. The majority indicated a need for change and for the location to be more attractive and accessible.”

This is probably the most outrageous of the so-called myths. A public consultation was held, the public voted No by a significant majority and it was ignored. The public were told that their votes would count. Even Sir Ian Wood acknowledged this in an interview as can be seen on an STV located on Youtube.

“”The citizens of Aberdeen…  will have the right to choose. There will be full consultation, it’s coming to the end of it now and they will decide. And that’s democracy in operation. That’s great.”
http://video.stv.tv/bc/news-l2-gardens-190210/?redirect=no

The scale of participation in the consultation was significant. ACSEF, who helped set up the consultation, noted:

“11,943 people went on to submit formal responses that have been recorded in the statistics.  This is a huge response rate when compared to similar style consultations. For example, the Edinburgh Tram consultation had just under 3,500 direct responses.”

When, later ACSEF discussed the results of the consultation at a board meeting onthe 22d March 2010, they discussed how to frame the result of the consultation as a favourable outcome for the city square in spite of the No vote:

“If views are roughly split there is an opportunity to say that although the public has spoken this is only in relatively small numbers.  Those wishing to see the status quo are in the minority compared to those who wish to see change such as updating and modernising the gardens.”
http://www.acsef.co.uk/uploads/reports/21/22%20March%2010.doc

The statement that the majority indicated a need for change is misleading, the majority said no to the City Square Project and did not endorse it.

If the public were misled during the consultation, who was responsible for the misinformation?  Where did these myths come from?

It is now acknowledged by all involved that the absence of a reference design was a fundamental flaw in the consultation. The consultation asked if people supported the project or not but the common perception was that the conceptual illustrations, based on the technical study, represented a final design. Many based their decision on not liking what they believed was a final design.”
http://thecitygardenproject.com/background.asp

The proponents of the City Square do not accept that they lost the consultation fairly. They cannot believe that the public cogently preferred either the Peacock scheme or the preservation of the existing gardens to a modern city square. But this is what happened.

AGCC: “Fiction: It will be a flat, concrete square. Fact: This is not the case. The design teams have been given a very clear brief that new gardens and space which will have street level access from all four sides will use the existing topography of the site to provide a unique, dramatic and creatively landscaped setting to better reveal and blend with the surrounding historic architecture.”

OK guys, explain to me how you can ”raise the level of the Gardens to that of the surrounding streets” (the Council’s words not mine) and use the existing topography to any significant extent?  So where did the idea of a unique and dramatic setting come from?

Here is the description of the existing Gardens as noted in the City Centre Development Framework:

They have a “topography which provides a unique and dramatic setting for the surrounding historic townscape and bridges and an essential component of the identity of the City Centre. “

I suspect that this is just the start of a large PR campaign to sell the concept of the “City Garden Project” to the Aberdeen Public. It will have only a limited impact. Aberdonians are highly educated and can think for themselves. They can make their own mind up about what they want the city centre to look like, whether it is the existing Gardens or a city square at street level. They are smart enough to see what is plausible and what isn’t.