Giving Away Union Terrace Gardens – Part 2

 Aberdeen City, Articles, Community, Environment, Featured, Information, Opinion  Comments Off on Giving Away Union Terrace Gardens – Part 2
Mar 252011

Last week, Mike Shepherd wrote an article on the next steps for the scheme to develop Union Terrace Gardens. Mike gives an update on this week’s events.

A timetable was published containing an item for the council meeting on 27th April when Councillors would vote on approving transfer of a lease for the park to a third party organisation, most likely a limited company or trust. This organisation was designated as a ‘Special Purpose Vehicle’ (SPV).

If approval for leasing the park were to be given, then this would have been about a year in advance of any planning permission being sought for the City Square Project.

This week, I was forwarded an email from the Council Executive stating that Councillors will not now be discussing the lease transfer next month. The following are direct quotes from the email:

“… On a more general point, the basis on which UTG could be available for development still requires to be carefully considered and shall, doubtless, be the subject of considerable legal scrutiny and Elected Member decision before any disposition is finally known.

“From having read your constituent’s comments … it may be the case that your constituent is referring to the “City Gardens Project Plan timetable for key decisions” report approved by Council on 6th October 2010 which highlighted the forthcoming Council meeting of 27th April 2011 as the date when a report would be presented to Council seeking approval, amongst other issues, for lease of land (UTG) to the project’s Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) company.

“As detailed in an Information Bulletin Report to Council of 23rd Feb 2011, a request to Members to approve any lease will first be subject to the approval of a Business Plan by the SPV company prior to Elected Members being asked to take any decision regarding the terms upon which appropriate development rights may be granted to the Special Purpose Vehicle.  In other words, as work on the Business Plan etc is currently ongoing following the recent incorporation of the SPV company, Elected Members will not be asked at Council on 27th April to approve any lease or grant of development rights to the SPV.”

The timetable for progress on the City Square Project will now have to be revised and it is not known if or when the issue of transferring the lease will come up in future.

Last week also saw the appointment of the company to manage the design competition for the city square.

It is expected that the competition will be launched next month and short-listed designs will be made public by the end of September.

The Press and Journal reported on Saturday that the City Garden Project managers were proposing to bid for funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Given that the scheme involves the destruction of the Victorian Union Terrace Gardens, replacing it with a three storey building and a modern roof garden, this did cause a bit of a stir in the city.

One website has suggested how the City Square could ‘display and showcase our history and heritage’.

“Imagine walking under the new space with natural light filtering into an airy space that is bursting with historical documents and artefacts, currently held in the city’s archives, passing by studios and rehearsal rooms where dancers, actors and musicians practise, coming up onto street-level to be faced with displays showcasing physical pieces of our history and telling the story of our rich heritage.”

The vision of replacing heritage with a heritage museum angered a good number of Aberdonians, and emails were sent to the Heritage Lottery Fund in protest.  The head of the fund replied to the effect that they hadn’t received any application as yet, and as such they couldn’t comment. However, they did note the following:

“We expect all applicants for funding to consult with relevant stakeholders, including the local community, in the development of their projects and we consider this as part of our assessment alongside a wide range of factors.”

Much has happened in a week and more is to come next week. The Union Terrace Gardens situation is fast moving, complex and to some extent shrouded in secrecy. It is not easy to follow, or even understand everything that is happening. However, be assured that some Councillors are also starting to lose track of the situation and are making their concerns known.

The Gardens should not be given away to a limited company without time for due diligence on behalf of the elected members and it should most certainly not be railroaded through in the manner that published timetables suggested would be the case. Union Terrace Gardens has a real estate value worth tens of millions of pounds to the city.

To the citizens of Aberdeen they are of course, priceless.


Giving Away Union Terrace Gardens

 Aberdeen City, Articles, Community, Featured, Information, Opinion  Comments Off on Giving Away Union Terrace Gardens
Mar 182011

By Mike Shepherd.

On April 27th, Councillors will be asked to vote to transfer the lease for Union Terrace Gardens to a third party body, either a limited company or a trust.

If the vote is passed, the Council will still nominally own the park, however control of the property will effectively be transferred by this action.

The public will not be aware of this coming up unless they have the skill and patience to dig through the multitude of reports on the Council website and find the appropriate report where this is mentioned. Even then, a subsequent report has only been issued to Councillors.

This came out on the 23rd February and includes a timetable for the City Square Project, the highly-controversial proposal to replace the city centre park with a three storey building and a roof garden. The relevant item concerns the full Council meeting on the 27th April as detailed below. Note that SPV is an acronym for Special Purpose Vehicle, essentially the limited company that will be designated to take the project through to planning permission and beyond.

“Paper to Council seeking approval of the SPV project business plan, approval to lease Council land to the SPV and permission for the SPV to take the project forward, subject to approval of the final detailed design scheme.”

In the next column is the following:

“ACGT will produce a business plan for the operation of the SPV up to the point where planning consent is obtained.”

This is a key sentence; the ACGT referred to here is the Aberdeen City Gardens Trust, a limited company formed in January this year.  Thus it looks as if there is some link between the SPV referred to in the timetable and the Aberdeen City Gardens Trust.

this is an attempt to force the issue on the City Square Project well in advance of planning permission being sought.

Who exactly are the Aberdeen City Gardens Trust? This is a good question as you will find very little in the media about the company. My understanding is that the trust has been formed by the businessmen involved in funding the project as a means of finding extra private funds to finance it and to take on key tasks such as managing the design competition.

Additional information comes from the articles of association for the trust which can be purchased from the Companies House website. These mention two board members, businessman Tom Smith who is also Chairman of ACSEF and Colin Crosby who is President of the Aberdeen Chamber of Commerce. It is not known who else is on the board. However, it is clear that there is as yet no council involvement. The articles mention that the Council have the option at any time to become a special member of the group.

The objects of the company are stated and are as follows:

The urban regeneration of Union Terrace Gardens and the Denburn Valley (the Gardens Site) to create a new civic space and gardens with the aim of creating jobs, investment and improving the quality of life for the citizens of Aberdeen. The civic space and gardens shall:

  • Include at least 5 acres of city square and gardens;
  • Provide improved accessibility to green space by allowing walk on, walk off street level access from all four sides;
  • Create at least 2.5 acres of all-weather covered space beneath the square and gardens at concourse level;
  • Incorporate key aspects of the heritage of the current gardens, including the arches, viaduct and Union Street Bridge at concourse level;
  • Cover the road and railway; and provide easy access to public transport;
  • To promote, operate and maintain the new civic space and gardens for the benefit of the citizens of Aberdeen.


Elsewhere within the articles we read of the powers of the trust. Two of these powers are of note:

– to purchase, take on lease, hire, or otherwise acquire, any property or rights which are suitable for the company’s activities;

– to sell, let, hire out, license, or otherwise dispose of, all or any part of the propertyand rights of the company;

A Press and Journal article provides extra information about the limited company. It has recieved more than £400,000 from Sir Ian Wood’s family trust and has received a grant of £375,000 from Scottish Enterprise through funding available for major infrastructure projects (note that this £375,000 did not come from the Peacock grant as mistakenly reported in a previous P&J article). The company will also be responsible for managing the international design competition which is intended to produce designs for the proposed city square in August.

There are many issues involved; some of these are discussed here:

Control of the Property: If the vote is passed on the 27th April, Councillors will be approving to transfer control of Union Terrace Gardens to an SPV, likely to be a limited company / trust (possibly the City Gardens Trust). I have been told by the Council executive that the likely term of the lease will be 125 years. The Council will nominally own the property although a long term lease will in practice hand over total operational control to the SPV.

The vote to approve transferring the lease in April looks to be premature. The final design is not due to be approved until December this year and planning permission will not be sought until May 2012. By contrast Peacock Visual Arts were given planning permission for their arts centre in the Gardens and only then did the question of transferring the lease arise (they were never granted it). My opinion is that this is an attempt to force the issue on the City Square Project well in advance of planning permission being sought.

Implications for the Design Competition: We are told by the P&J that the City Gardens Trust will run the design competition. This does appear to limit the scope of the competition however. The stated objectives of the Trust are exactly in line with Sir Ian Wood’s strict conditions for the City Square Project, that is – walk on, walk off street level access from all four sides.

This precludes any options that consider decking over the railway line and road but keeping the Gardens substantially intact; or improving the existing Gardens only.  There are plans later this year for an item which the timetable describes as:

“short-listed design proposals subjected to public scrutiny.”

The word consultation has not been used here, although this is what the item appears to allude to. It has already been stated in a Council meeting that option to keep the gardens substantially as they are will not be included at this stage.  Thus the public will only be asked to ‘scrutinise’ between modern designs for Aberdeen city centre.

The Involvement of Scottish Enterprise: It is poignant that the Scottish Government body, Scottish Enterprise have given a £375,000 grant to the City Gardens Trust when they also funded the public consultation where the public said no to the project with a sizable majority (1,270).

There are many in Aberdeen that are appalled at the loss of heritage should Union Terrace Gardens be built over with and a modern city square put in its place.  Now it also looks as if public control of the property will be transferred from the Council to a third party organisation about which not a great deal is known. If like me, you are appalled at what has been proposed and the way it is being done, write to your councillors and let them know what you think.

They can be contacted through the website:

Please also consider joining the campaign group the Friends of Union Terrace Gardens on

Oct 082010

The future of Union Terrace Gardens came under intense scrutiny again on Wednesday 6th when a full meeting of the council was asked to vote on a new timetable for they key steps in the project. Although the proposed agenda was described as ‘only indicative’, its adoption would mean that the council were giving the go-ahead to this extremely complex initiative.

The group Friends of Union Terrace Gardens, who are campaigning for a more considered approach towards any development of the site, were allowed to make a submission to the council before the matter was put up for debate. Chairman of the group, Mike Shepherd reports;

I was allowed to give a deputation, which involved giving a ten minute talk to the council. I noted that the City Garden project has already suffered some significant delays. For instance, the item to consult the public on short-listed designs for the square has been delayed by four and a half months and will now start on the 24th August 2011.

One of the results of this is that several key decisions have been placed into the council meeting next April. These include approval of the final funding business case; a statement on the ownership of the gardens; approval of the SPV’s project business plan, approval to lease council land to the SPV and permission for the SPV to take the project forward.  I urged that there is a need for caution on what is a complex financial and legal issue. I argued that to make several key decisions in one day’s council business is far too fast for the council to properly assess the situation and makes it likely that some big mistakes will be made.

The term SPV mentioned above is an acronym for Special Purpose Vehicle. An SPV is a legal entity which is a limited company or a partnership created for a specific purpose separate from the sponsoring organisation (in this case the council). The SPV could be similar to the Aberdeen City Development Company, an organisation currently being formed by the council to act as a joint venture between private enterprise and the council for the purpose of semi-privatising council assets deemed to be ‘market failures’.

A comment was made that having ignored the initial consultation where the public said no to the scheme, we would now be forced to pick the least-worst design

It has been proposed to set up the City Development Company with 12 board members of which only up to four will be from the council. The remaining board members are likely to come from private enterprise and possibly from Scottish Enterprise, a national government organisation.

The SPV would be charged with taking the city square through to completion.

This organisation is not supposed to exist until January 2012, when the council have noted a budget of £900,000 for staffing costs. However, we read in the calendar that the council are now being asked to approve granting the lease for the gardens to the SPV on April 27th 2011, at least a year before a planning submission is likely to be made. We have been told by the Council Executive that the lease would probably be assigned for 125 years. Although the council would nominally own the park, control would pass over to the SPV.

I said the following to the council during my deputation:

“If the lease is assigned early, then what happens if planning permission is not given? Does this mean that the council will have given up control of the park to a third party with no clear idea as to what happens next? How will the council get the lease back; can it get the lease back? What will be the status of UTG as a council-operated park if the lease is assigned 3 years before any construction is anticipated? Will the public be allowed to use the park after April next year?”

I didn’t get any answers to these questions. Surprisingly, the issue of a lease barely come up in the council debate that followed. However, one further controversy arose. Councillor John Stewart, the council leader and supporter of the City Garden Project, was asked if the option to keep the gardens substantially as they are would be one of those given to the public when they were being allowed to comment on the designs for the city square. No was the answer.  A comment was made that having ignored the initial consultation where the public said no to the scheme, we would now be forced to pick the least-worst design.

Councillor John Stewart wrapped up the meeting by supporting what he described as an exciting, new vision for the city centre. He urged the council to approve the calendar going forward as a way to explore a possible future for Aberdeen and to fully assess the risks for the project. The vote went in his favour 21 to 13.

The fate of Union Terrace Gardens will come up again at the full council meeting on the 27th April 2011, a date when control of the gardens could be given away early. By this time, it is likely that that city-centre park will be a major issue in the Scottish parliamentary elections which are to take place eight days later on Thursday 5th May 2011. I have a feeling that the controversy over Union Terrace Gardens will have reached boiling point by then.