Aug 242012
 

By Bob Smith.

Faa’s at bawlin an greetin
Oot ower a UTG balustrade?
It’s Sir Ian an aa his cohorts
Faa hiv aa iss wailin made 

The cooncillors are aa numpties
The Freens o UTG are as weel
Fer nae littin the ACSEF lot
Git awa wi iss dodgy deal

Aiberdeen’s nae a bonnie place
Says yon Dutchman Leo Koot
He’ll be up stakes an leavin
An “TAQA” wi him nae doot

Wee Stewartie wis fair fizzin
His phizog wid hae turn’t milk soor
Tam Smith he’ll be jinin in
In  fair kickin up a stoor

Mike Shepherd o Freens o UTG
Wull be weerin a smile richt big
An aa the fowk faa helpit him
Wull be deein an Aiberdeen Jig

Noo we’ll hae tae git crackin
Wi  a  better scheme fer UTG
An bring the gairdens up tae scratch
So’s  the green oasis we’ll still see

©Bob Smith “The Poetry Mannie” 2012

Aug 242012
 

Divisive an issue as the proposed development of Union Terrace Gardens proved to be, there was always going to be an unfortunately high number of Aberdeen citizens left disappointed – whatever the outcome. One such disappointed citizen shares with  Aberdeen Voice readers her view regarding key decisions taken by Aberdeen City Council on Wednesday 22nd August. Amanda-Jaied McCahery writes:

I have never been one to get involved with politics in the uber-sense of the word.

Obviously I know that every aspect of life in this country is shaped by politics, and of course I vote whenever I get the chance, but unlike some friends it has never been a major talking point in my life…until now.

I live in Aberdeen: a beautiful city filled with gorgeous things to see and do, surrounded by the most stunning countryside that Scotland has to offer.

Just yesterday a few friends and I took a beautiful 16k walk along the gorgeous sandy beaches near the city, just because it was such an amazing day and we didn’t want to waste the views.

We have lovely parks and gardens and even when the rain pours, which is much of the time, the city sparkles and makes you feel lucky to live in such an amazing place. Then the council sticks its nose in and you feel slightly ashamed.

In recent years many people have decided to invest millions of pounds in our city, despite the current economic climate. Plans for bypasses, new football stadiums and city centre civic areas that will bring in more money, jobs and tourists have been the source of huge debate.

The Aberdeen Western Peripheral Bypass Route has been all but buried under tons of red tape, caused by appeal after appeal. This article is about Union Terrace Gardens, however, and a little about Calder Park.

For those of you that don’t live in, or have never visited Aberdeen, and I implore you to come and visit as it is truly a great place to be, Union Terrace Gardens is a 123-year-old sunken garden in the heart of the city.

It was originally a small river valley that has taken on the form of an amphitheatre since the addition of a viaduct at its northern end and the development of the covered remains of the old Denburn Terrace. It is a great place to sit and enjoy the sun, when we get it.

Barney Crockett and his peers weren’t so sure the voting public were clever enough to make this decision

The Bon Accord crest depicted in flowers, beneath the latest addition of the official Diamond Jubilee design is still one of my favourite Facebook pictures and the Gardens are still my first choice when the sun comes out, despite the fact that my back garden looks out onto acres of gorgeous green fields.

However, as with any out of eye-line areas, Union Terrace Gardens does have a seedy reputation.

Famous for harbouring many of the city’s undesirables, and not the safest place in the dark, this setting is largely ignored for most of the year and 52 percent of the people that voted for it think that it is about time that the heart of the city started beating again.

Sir Ian Wood, one of Aberdeen’s and in fact Britain’s richest sons, has been at the forefront of the City Garden Project, pledging millions of his own money to the redevelopment, and bringing in investments from some of the area’s biggest businessmen.

Plans for a number of different ideas for the gardens were shown to the public and a winner was chosen.

The Aberdeen voting public said yes and everyone was wondering when the awesome new centre, filled with cafes, bars, art galleries and a concert area, as well as an outdoor winter ice rink, was going to come to fruition…and then Labour took over the council.

Big man in charge Barney Crockett and his peers weren’t so sure the voting public were clever enough to make this decision. Were they good enough to vote them in, but not good enough to make any other important decisions about our home?

They decided that they were going to decide on the project instead…and today they decided: ‘NO we don’t want to inject new life into the city, NO we don’t want to listen to the very people that put us in our position at the top, NO we don’t want to make the once bustling city centre a better place for future generations, we just want our own way and by Jove we are going to get it.’

Mr Crockett then decided that he didn’t think the Calder Park development was a good idea either

This news came today in the same way that every decision so far has come, surrounded by controversy and debate. 22 members of the council voted to disregard years of design, planning, voting and spending, leaving 20 members and a large part of the city’s population seething and confused as to why we were asked in the first place.

And then to add insult to injury Mr Crockett then decided that he didn’t think the Calder Park development was a good idea either, and that Aberdeen Football Club should continue to play in a stadium that they first used in 1903 and was last renovated 19 years ago.

So Union Terrace Gardens looks set to remain a sunken, largely ignored beauty spot with a bad reputation, and The Dons look set to continue playing atop a 113 year old dung heap.

It seems that Labour aren’t fans of change, but what they need to realise is that the citizens of Aberdeen aren’t fans of being ignored, and I am sure this debate it sure to rage on for years to come.

Unfortunately, for now at least, it seems that the heartbeat of this great metropolis is doomed to plod along with the outdated visions of the men in charge.

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Aug 212012
 

Suzanne Kelly, Chair of campaigning group ‘Democracy Watch’ called upon UK and EU regulatory agencies to investigate details of the proposed City Garden Project today. Citing both past invoices paid by the public worth hundreds of thousands of pounds and the revelation that leading businessmen plan to add £15 million towards the project’s estimated £140 million costs may have conflict of interest issues.  The project is subject to a vote of the Full Aberdeen City Council on Wednesday 22 August.

Sir Ian Wood will ‘give’ £50 million to the City if it agrees to borrow £92 million more via Tax Incremental Funding to build a ‘Granite Web’ over the existing Victorian Union Terrace Gardens.

The subject has been voted down in a previous consultation, but narrowly passed a non-binding referendum exercise.

Labour promised that it came to power it would end the scheme; Labour duly gained a majority in the May elections

In correspondence today to regulatory entities and leading political figures, Kelly writes:-

“I would ask for an investigation into the situation in Aberdeen concerning the potential development of Union Terrace Gardens with regard to procurement issues and potential conflict of interests.

“I am not a legal professional, but it certainly seems to me that people who have or had influential posts on publicly-funded quangos might have used their roles to further their own interests – this should be investigated before any moves to proceed with the ‘City Garden Project’ are approved.  The entire situation needs to be looked at in detail.

“Stewart Milne and Tom Smith have been actively pushing this scheme via their memberships and positions of influence in the publicly-funded Aberdeen City and Shire Economic Future quango, ACSEF.  Milne owns the ‘Triple Kirks’ site next to the proposed area of development.  His land at present would be hard to develop or even access.  If the development of UTG goes ahead, the Triple Kirks area could only increase in value; this is obvious. 

“Milne would therefore likely stand to gain financially.  How he has been permitted to act within his ACSEF role to further a scheme which seems set to enrich him – largely at the taxpayer’s cost – should be investigated.  I did ask ACSEF to comment and they replied it was a matter for his conscience.  When millions of pounds of public money and common good land are at stake, this is not nearly good enough.

“Tom Smith likewise has used his position in ACSEF to further the plan to build a ‘granite web’ over the gardens.  He and Colin Crosby were the original directors of an entity set up named Aberdeen City Gardens Trust.  The Trust would apparently wind up managing the garden development and be in a position to handle millions of pounds – yet Smith has been allowed to pursue a role in ACSEF which directly impacts on his ACGT entity. 

“For reasons unclear to me, this Trust has been granted automatic rights to perform these valuable services without any tender exercise whatsoever being done.  I cannot help but think this is against UK and EU procurement policies and laws.

“In the end, we have a situation where common good land, owned by the people of Aberdeen, is being considered for development simply because Sir Ian Wood will ‘give’ the city £50 million towards a building project there.  He will not let us use this ‘gift’ on another site (the now vacant St Nicholas House would be one alternative); he will not entertain alternatives of any kind. 

“This scheme will take a green park and its 250 year-old trees and turn it into a turfed-over concrete jungle – with an outdoor theatre directly in front of another theatre.  The Aberdeen taxpayer is already subsidising two entertainment venues; using public funds to create a third is unacceptable.  Wood may call this a ‘gift’’ I would personally call it ‘coercion.’

“I would also ask the relevant regulators to look at the various personnel overlaps between public and private sector groups influencing this scheme – a scheme which will still cost the taxpayer £92 million at current estimate – a scheme which does not yet have a timetable, actual budget or scope.”

Kelly campaigned as chair of ‘Democracy Watch’ in the local referendum, and had this to say:-

“Labour were sceptical over agreeing to a referendum; and having participated in the exercise, I see they were right.  There was an unofficial group campaigning for the City Garden Project; and they bombarded the public with literature which I personally found misleading.

“I did try to complain to the Electoral Commission and to Advertising Standards, but neither could intervene in a referendum.   There were glossy brochures, newspapers, print and radio advertising placed by this group which far exceeded the value that the official groups were allowed to spend.  There were problems with the official material as well; the Green Party’s statement was cut off in the paper brochures for instance. 

“But to tell the public that the web would create 6,500 new jobs as this literature did seems highly unlikely.  I am told that some of the people behind this ‘unofficial’ group are also members of ACSEF and/or Aberdeen City Gardens Trust – possibly people who stand to gain financially from the project proceeding.  This makes the entire referendum exercise a mere ‘he who spends the most wins’ exercise.  I would ask the authorities which might look into my other concerns to look into this as well.”

Kelly concludes:-

“The vast sums of public money spent on PR, consultants and advertising to push this scheme could have gone on education and community projects.  This city does not need to borrow £92 million to turn its green park into a construction zone and a potential ‘trams fiasco.’  This city does need its existing buildings occupied and unused brownfield put back into use.  Businesses continue to operate here because of our industry. 

“Unnecessary, grandiose building projects detrimental to the environment seem to me designed to enrich the rich at public expense:  this scheme must be scrapped and the roles and actions of its powerful supporters examined.”

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Aug 212012
 

‘What lies beneath?’ is a question which should be asked about Union Terrace Gardens, not least by those who wish to build underground structures there.  Aside from the roots of 250-year-old trees and rich soil which helps prevent city centre flooding, we have the now underground Den Burn.  Jake Williams shares his thoughts.

The stairs of Rosemount Library in Aberdeen used to be lined with framed pictures, either photos or line drawings, of Aberdeen from bygone times.
The one that I remember was from sometime in the 1800s, showing Union Terrace Gardens before Union Terrace Gardens was there. It was a view looking north from the Union Street bridge, but there was no park, no theatre and no railway line.

Three decades later, the accuracy of my recollection isn’t guaranteed, but I remember looking at a row of cottages on the right where Belmont Street is now, and another row on the left where Union Terrace is now.

The houses all had long thin gardens with drying greens right down to the Den Burn, which flowed straight down the middle of the picture, and there was a hump-backed bridge and a few wee wooden bridges over the burn. Union Bridge was opened in 1805, and the railway was built about 1867, so the picture must have been drawn between these dates. The gardens were laid out about 1879 [I got the dates from Wikipedia].

The name of the Den Burn is perpetuated by the street and the health centre named after it, but the existence of the burn itself is nearly forgotten, having been underground for most of its length for the last 150 years.

It starts somewhere near Westhill, passes Woodend Hospital, and I believe it still runs through the back gardens of the big houses in Rubislaw Den. Near Queen’s Cross it is in a deep stone-lined channel, visible from some of the streets and lanes around Osborne Place.

One summer about 1980, during a dry spell when there wasn’t much water in the burn, my pal Chris and I went an adventure. We scrambled down into the wee canyon where the burn ran along the side of the Grampian TV studio at  Queen’s Cross and walked downstream in our wellies.

Soon the burn went  underground and we carried on with torches. It was like the films where the heroes are journeying through a city’s Victorian sewers: a tunnel of red bricks arching over our heads, with enough headroom to walk upright.

they must have built the brick tunnel right up to the side of the bridge

Here and there were ladders going up to a heavy steel manhole cover, and we could keek through the keyhole and try to work out where we were, from a limited view of the upper part of some building. We weren’t tempted to try and push up the cover, as we were probably in the middle of the road.

We must have crossed under Rosemount Viaduct and under Spa street and down round the back of the theatre, because we looked out from the keyhole of a manhole and saw trees: we were in between Union Terrace Gardens and the railway.

A little further on there was a bit where the roof of the tunnel was different.  Instead of red bricks, it was old stone masonry. It was the hump-back bridge that was in the picture on the library stairs. When they covered over the burn, they must have built the brick tunnel right up to the side of the bridge, left the bridge as it was, and carried on the tunnel from the other side of the bridge.

We didn’t go much further. The  water was getting deeper and moving faster and we didn’t fancy getting swept off our feet and into a cold wet grave somewhere near the harbour.

I went into the library recently to ask about the old pictures of the Denburn valley. They have a few pictures but not quite like I remember.  One is looking from the north towards Union Street, and it does show a wee stone bridge over the burn, but it looks more graceful than the bridge in  the tunnel, more of a sweeping curve than a hump-back.

Maybe there were two stone bridges? The library’s internet archive www.sivercityvault.org.uk has a few pictures, too.

The proposal to fill-in the gardens for another shopping centre may never come true if they can’t raise the necessary millions, or if there’s a  change of political power in the council. My proposal for improving the gardens is to exhume the Den Burn from its tunnel, and let the old stone  bridge see daylight again.

Reference:

http://www.silvercityvault.org.uk/index.phpa
also photos 691 , 747, 748, 891 from www.silvercityvault.org.uk

Aug 172012
 

As crucial Aberdeen City  Council votes loom large for the future of Union Terrace Gardens, Mike Shepherd considers the TIF business case and finds it lacking.

Just imagine you are the managing director of a big business.  An opportunity has come up to build a new development.

Private investors have promised you £70 million, but it means that you have to borrow £92 million and the government have said they could find £20 million of grant to fund the rest.
Half the shareholders are revolting as they think the venture looks far too risky and the existing company debt is humongous.

The time comes to make a decision on the investment and submit a business case for borrowing to the board of directors.  It turns out that the private investors can only come up with £55 million and now the grant funding has fallen through because the funds never existed in the first place.  

Calamity – the project now has a shortfall of £35 million.  What do you do?  The sensible thing would be to walk away.

Not Aberdeen Council.  I refer of course to the TIF business case written by council officials recommending that the council borrow £92 million for the redevelopment of Union Terrace Gardens and other city centre projects.

The final business case for TIF has been made public and will be voted on at the finance committee on Friday 17th August.
(The agenda for this meeting can be seen at http://committees.aberdeencity.gov.uk/ieListDocuments.aspx?CId=146&MId=2668 )

A critical reading of the report makes one thing obvious – they haven’t got all the money!

Yet, it hasn’t stopped council officials from producing a business case where the critical points are buried in waffle and padded out to 187 pages.

Out of the badly argued case (with assumptions, inconsistencies and dodgy data) emerges this conclusion on page 141:

Underpinning the TIF business case is the requirement for £182 million of investment in enabling infrastructure.  At present the business case shows that there is a commitment for £90 million of investment from the private sector and the need for £92 million of public sector investment.

However, there is a shortfall of £35 million on the public sector funding required for the project.

£70 million is recognised as the private sector investment in the quote above, yet they are £15 million short.  As page 46 notes:

This includes £55 million that has already been pledged to the City Garden Project by private donors and a further £15 million still to be raised.”

So where is this extra £15 million supposed to come from?  Page 50 records that:

“Aberdeen City Garden Trust will provide capital funding, act as developer for the City Garden project …  ACGT have also undertaken to raise a further £15 million of philanthropic donations, to supplement the £55 million already pledged to this project from philanthropic donations.”

The begging bowl is going out for £15 million.  Chaps, you have less than a week to get the money.

The remaining £20 million of, “investment from the private sector” comprises “potentially £20 million of grant funding” for an Art Gallery extension.   But does this money exist?

Further reference to page 50 shows that:

The remaining £20 million of grants is attached to the Aberdeen Art Gallery Project.  Officers will pursue a variety of grants to secure the required funds.”

Note the use of the future tense, “will pursue” here.

Council reports show that officers have yet to apply for any funding and, with the exception of a possible £4 million of Scottish Heritage Lottery funding, no other sources of money appear to have been identified.

So what happens if they don’t get the £20 million grant funding for the Art Gallery?

To page 50 again:

Should there be a funding gap officers will need to consider how additional funds will be attracted, generated or secured via other fiscal arrangements.

Anybody fancy a Monet, Turner or a Cezanne?  Going cheap …

This isn’t a business case, it’s a bankruptcy case.

Last year, in a discussion with a council official, I mentioned the possibility of the City Garden Project proving a financial disaster and bankrupting the council.  I was cheerfully told that a public body can’t, technically, go bankrupt although it can end up in a state that closely resembles it (Greece comes to mind).

But make no mistake, Aberdeen Council are going to get burnt here.  Councillors are being asked to vote on borrowing £92 million for a project where there is a very large shortfall on external funding and no guarantee that any of this money will ever turn up.

It would of course be sensible to delay the vote until the money does actually appear.  Yet there is an insanely mad rush to progress with this project, even if it doesn’t make any sense to do so.

What is not discussed anywhere is the mechanism by which Aberdeen Council will guarantee the loan

Another problem with the report is that no detailed costings for the various projects are given.  For example, the £140 million cost for the City Garden Project is a nominal cost from the original technical feasibility study written over three years ago. It is certainly not the final costing.

This means that councillors could be committing to a multi-million basket of projects with no clear provision of accurate costs.  I find this situation alarming and hope for our sake that they do so too.

So who takes the risk on the borrowing?  This is made clear on page 50:

“Aberdeen City Council also recognise that the risk sits with them.”

The report mentions that the borrowing would be from the Public Works Loan Board.  What is not discussed anywhere is the mechanism by which Aberdeen Council will guarantee the loan.

The Scottish Futures Trust, operating on behalf of the Scottish Government, have provided guidance as to how a TIF business case should be submitted to them.
See http://www.facebook.com/l/QAQE16FGI/scottishfutures.ehclientsTIF

In Section 4.4 it is stated that:

“Economic assessments to be carried out:

  • By an objective economist with a recognised track-record of economic assessment for public bodies”

On page 72 we find that Aberdeen City Gardens Trust is identified as providing:

“Core expertise to assist in a robust TIF business case in order to support ACC’s efforts.”

Let’s remind ourselves who Aberdeen City Gardens Trust are again by referring to page 46:

“ACGT will provide capital funding, act as developer for the City Garden Project …”

An earlier draft makes it clear that the advisors to the ACGT were also involved in providing critical input on economic uplift that is supposed to result from building the City Garden Project and related schemes.

Thus a private company seeking to take over a lease and operatorship of council property have been allowed to influence a report justifying the case for Aberdeen Council borrowing £70 million to fund a project that the company has a direct interest in.

In a statement published by the Press and Journal last Monday I wrote:

“The Council would most certainly not allow developers to provide direct input into a report recommending planning acceptance; so why is it appropriate to allow developers to provide economic advice to councillors when the outcome could clearly act in their favour?”

I have complained vigorously to the Chief Executive of the Council on this matter.  It is very bad governance.  I have also drawn this matter to the attention of the Council Monitoring Officer and asked her to investigate this.

Councillors will vote on Friday as to whether this business case is approved or not.

It would be sensible to delay the vote until the business case can be proved to be robust.  Aberdeen Council also needs to find an objective economist, someone who is not directly involved in the project, to give advice.

Otherwise madness would lie in approving the business case and exposing Aberdeen Council to financial disaster.

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Aug 172012
 

By Bob Smith.

Noo a hunner business billies
Faa support  City Gairdens Trust
Tae destroy Union Terrace Gairdens
They aa think iss is a must

They’re aa the usual suspects
Faa stan tae mak a killin
An ding doon ony cooncillor
Faa disna show ony willin

Ye hiv the likes o Martin Gilbert
Twa Stewarties, Milne an Spence
An woe betide ony business chiel
Faa micht sit upon the fence

A letter tae oor  toon council
Wis sint wingin on its wye
If ye vote agin the plans
We micht hing ye oot tae dry

Think o the bigger picter here
Is their affa mournfu plea
An Sir Ian he’ll jist waak awa
If oor biddin ye dinna dee

Their PR machine is gearin up
Wi  helpfu freens at the P&J
Faa canna say onything naistie
Advertisin revenue cums intae play

Fit richt hiv aa thae buggers
Tae tell us fit’s best fer oor toon?
An try tae dictate tae oor council
Fit they can or canna vote doon

We wull sin fin oot fit’s fit
The cooncil’s back is tae the wa
Can they haud faist agin the critics
An a hunner “snipers” an aa an aa? 

© Bob Smith “The PoetryMannie” 2012

 

Aug 172012
 

Old Susannah takes a look recent events in the ‘Deen, and tackles tricky terms with a locally topical taste. By Suzanne Kelly.

Tally Ho!  Once again future of our Union Terrace Gardens with its green field, 250-year-old elms, other trees, and wildlife is in the spotlight. The vote of the full council next week on 22 August will be significant to our getting our £140,000,000 granite web, which will fit in situ so naturally that we’ll think the Victorians built it in time.

Sadly, some anti-progress, anti-referendum, nimby tree-huggers are suggesting that the more suitable place for a public square is the St Nicholas site, and our only city centre park should be left as, well, a park. Three independent councillors will suggest an alternative to the web at the 22/8 meeting.

However, Sir Ian has much more money than they do, and will take his ball home if anyone suggests not doing the plan he wants.

We know he’ll give up as he’s said as much four or five times already (but failed to do so).  Sir Ian and Valerie Watts say without a web, we cannot be the City of Culture in 2017!  Well, that’s the argument for the web settled then.  What good are clean air, a healthy environment, heritage, common good land and existing culture when we can try to win an award?

Not surprisingly this issue of Aberdeen Voice will be filled with articles concerning our city’s future, and reasons to keep our common good land out of the hands of the usual suspects (Smith, Crosby, Milne, Wood of course, and the rest of the ACSEF acolytes).  Old Susannah is keen to redress the balance, and ensure that the selfless, apolitical philanthropists behind the £140,000,000 project get the consideration they deserve.

To that end, here are some relevant definitions.

Intellectual property: (modern English phrase) principle that the ownership of an original idea rests with the idea’s creators, and should be protected by law.

Peacock Visual Arts had come up with the original idea of building a new arts centre inside UTG; they were helped by Scottish Enterprise and ACSEF with their original scheme.  This help was kind of like the help that the Fox gave to Jemima Puddleduck.

Magically, the Peacock idea was hijacked (with Scottish Enterprise help) and transformed into the transformational 8th wonder of the world, The Granite Web.  After all their expense and groundwork, Peacock was left out in the cold, irrespective of their moral right to their intellectual property of putting a cultural venue in UTG.

Just as well this wasn’t going on in America; it would still be being fought in the courts now.

Thankfully, such hijackings of intellectual property concerning UTG are very rare, except for the most recent one.  Common Good Aberdeen, a group of people who simply want the gardens enhanced and protected from developers, recently came up with an original idea which they pitched to the City.

They proposed serving drinks and snacks from a temporary structure inside one of the disused central arches in UTG for a year. ALL profits, if the scheme survives a vote to be held today (17/08), are to be diverted to improving UTG.

Thus volunteers will take an unused space, encourage people to use the gardens, and generate money for the gardens’ improvement.  Obviously, we can’t have this kind of thing going on.

While some of the City’s administration and councillors are supporting this fresh, original scheme, other powers that be (one Mr Gordon McIntosh) has written a report saying that the Council must ensure that it gets ‘Value for Money’ for the disused arch if it is put to use.  Good man!  Mind the pennies, and the hundreds of millions of pounds will take care of themselves.

It is almost as if MacIntosh didn’t want the gardens used for social purposes

Gordon wants to take Common Good’s idea, clearly their intellectual property, and turn it into a commercial bidding exercise (which of course will cost the City money to put out to tender and evaluate incoming bids), and presumably charge whomever would want to rent the empty arch out.

If an organisation has to pay rent on the empty space, it is not that likely that they will plough 100% of their profits into fixing the gardens, which is what Common Good Aberdeen proposed.

It is almost as if MacIntosh didn’t want the gardens used for social purposes or for means to be found to generate UTG improvement funds at no cost to the City.  We have an empty space that is making no money, which volunteers want to use as a means of raising money to fix the gardens, while adding a social amenity to the area at no cost to the city.  If I were as clever as he, it would make sense I’m sure.

Much better that the City spend time and money on a bidding exercise to see if anyone wants to steal CGA’s idea for profit rather than any genuine philanthropy happening.  So, if after we spend taxpayer money on a bid to run a small café, some private company comes along to do so, then it’s profit to them and not the gardens.  Result!

That’s the kind of thinking that got us the city administration we’ve been enjoying these past several years.  If any of the councillors who have a chance to vote on the CGA proposal today are reading this column, I am sure they will do the right thing.

Let’s look at this principle Gordon wants to nobly uphold of ensuring Aberdeen City gets ‘Value for Money’.  Since we’ve seen that we can’t let people use a tiny arch for one year to sell snacks for generating improvement funds for the gardens without proper scrutiny, no doubt this important principle would have to apply to any and all schemes, great and small….

Value for Money:  (mod. English phrase) phrase used in public administration to describe the principle of ensuring that any services or products being sourced by government are obtained by the best qualified suppliers at the lowest possible prices.  European Law also dictates that any public services or goods contracts of substantial value be awarded by fair, open tender processes. 

They might even be expected to give the city a performance bond or guarantee

Let’s imagine just for one moment that a big city, somewhere has a park filled with trees, wildlife, and open spaces for people to enjoy.

Such a space might even be owned by the people outright.

Let’s imagine one step further that after years of mismanagement this hypothetical city wants to make a quick buck or two, and decides to develop this park, despite environmental concerns and public outcry.

The city in question would be expected tofirst write up a tender document, describing what it would want a management company to deliver in the gardens in question.  The tender document would describe in detail exactly what structures were to be created, what activities would take place, what everything would cost, and exactly what the management company’s role would be.

Advertisements asking for bidders with sufficient experience would be placed around the world, and the companies with sufficient experience of project management and venue operations would compete in a tender exercise.  If any would-be management companies had existing personal and business ties with any of the city’s officials or entities (maybe like ACSEF), these would have to be declared and scrutinised:  no one with power over the decision-making process would be permitted to be involved in evaluating tenders or giving work out.

Each bid would be evaluated by the city – without the name of the individual bidders being known – based on the company’s experience, financial health, submitted detailed operation and building budgets and so on.  A shortlist of the best companies would then be evaluated, and the best ‘Value for Money’ bidder would be awarded a contract.

They successful bidder might even be expected to give the city a performance bond or guarantee, and a parent company guarantee to ensure they would not simply disappear or sell the contract on to a third party.

Strict performance benchmarks would be drawn up, and the winning bidder would only be paid for each phase of the detailed project as they successfully delivered it.

Crucially, the entire process would be available for public scrutiny after the sensitive pricing and tendering exercise was completed – before any final contracts were signed.

OR, if the city was Aberdeen….

Members of various interlinked public and/or private entities such as ACSEF would talk to their pals, find out how to make money out of the public’s common good land, ‘transform’ an idea from an arts group into a money-spinner for friends in the construction and development sectors, and use their public and private muscle to get the city leaders to bend to their will.

Some of their number would set up a small private, limited ‘charity’ company, perhaps calling it Aberdeen City Gardens Trust.  This company would automatically be appointed by the city to run the multimillion pound construction scheme without any ‘value for money’ tendering exercise, scrutiny or competition.

Audit Scotland might wonder which companies were paid to carry out the expensive PR / advertising jobs

The newly formed Trust would actively influence decisions such as whether to build theatres next to theatres (Brilliant!),  chop down ancient trees and remove habit for protected EU species which live in said park and promise to plant fir trees (which can’t thrive in a city centre – even more brilliant!).

In the process taxpayer money would be spent to convince the city that building an unspecific project based on a few illogical, unworkable architectural flights of fancy was worth the taxpayer borrowing £90,000,000.

The project would be pushed ahead with this Trust at the head of delivering services, without a project scope defined, without a time frame for construction, and crucially without a budget open to public scrutiny.

It is a very good thing that the EU will never want to look into the manner in which the Granite Web is being foisted on the population or what procurement rules may be being ever so slightly bent.

Similarly, Audit Scotland would never decide to look at precisely how ACSEF and Scottish Enterprise ordered tens of thousands of pounds worth of PR, advertising, and ’stakeholder’ events’, then had the Chamber of Commerce submit invoices to the City Council to pay with public funds.

Audit Scotland will not wonder which companies were paid to carry out the expensive PR / advertising jobs – and why these companies did not get named on the Chamber of Commerce invoices, which cover several years. If that happened, then the elected councillors might start to question whether the entire proceedings were valid, examine the role of ACSEF and its members, and whether the EU, UK or Scottish regulatory agencies would come around asking questions.

Other firms with relevant project delivery experience might get slightly cross at the absence of a tender exercise for such a aluable public project; some of these companies might even know as much about multimillion pound schemes and public amenities as Tom Smith does.   It could all get just a little awkward, sticky, embarrassing and litigious.

I’d best keep these potential problems to myself.  I would hate it if any councillor having doubts about the project were to worry unduly about supporting the web on my account.

Final: (Eng adjective) The last of something; the end of something.

Old Susannah is so old that she went to The Who’s ‘farewell’ concert at Shea Stadium, NY, with the Clash as opening act (was it 1981?  Wish I could see The Clash again especially). The Who played, said it was their final tour, and that was that.  Since then, The Who have had about 57 other final tours.

ACGT were given custody of the ballot papers, even though the taxpayer had paid for the vote.

Sir Ian seems to be a fan of finality as well.  Those of us with memories longer than a goldfish’s will remember the first ‘consultation’ – you know, the one in which the voters rejected the garden scheme.  Sir Ian was going to go walk away then if the concept failed to win the public’s hearts and minds.

Well, we did say ‘no’ but as is often the case, ‘no’ must have really meant ‘yes’.  The official line was that those who were against the scheme simply didn’t understand it.  Fair enough.  So Ian didn’t say ‘farewell’ after all, and resurrected the scheme.

The public were going to be given a chance to vote against developing the gardens when the shortlisted 6 were on view.  This option was what councillors on some of the ‘City Garden Project’ committees had asked for.  However, in the end Gerry Brough is quoted in meeting minutes as saying this was not after all ‘appropriate’ during the design show after all.

People most definitely used the exhibition to write on the ballot papers they wanted no part of destroying UTG, which was very naughty of them indeed.

Thankfully, to avoid any embarrassment for Sir Ian, Tom Smith and Colin Crosby of ACGT were given custody of the ballot papers, even though the taxpayer had paid for the vote.

Campaign groups demanded sight of the papers; but brave ACGT held fast.  We will never know for certain what the real public vote was during the shortlist as to scrapping the scheme or not.  We do know however that the giant glass worm, the public’s choice, was turned down by Wood.

When things started looking bad for the scheme yet again, Wood churned out press releases saying he would draw a final line under the project, and walk away and give his £50,000,000 to the third world instead.

When the three independent councillors said they were working on an alternative idea, Wood said he would not compromise.  And that is his final word.  Well, for this week anyway.

Word arrives that early next week Sir Ian will AGAIN meet with individual councillors to make his ‘final’ plea.  Old Susannah is starting to get deja vu.  I do wonder though why Sir Ian gets to make continued visits to the councillors, sit in the ‘press’ box when he attends council meetings and so on.  Anyone would think he were rich or something.  Thankfully this is a democracy.  Word also reaches me that these continuous pleas from Sir Ian are beginning to grate on more than a few councillors’ patience.

What Woody will do if the vote goes against the scheme will be, of course, to make a final farewell, take his money and spend it in Africa….

And if you believe that….

Next week:  a look at who voted how, what’s next, and if common sense and Common Good Aberdeen prevail, lots of Champagne and lots of BrewDog.

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Aug 162012
 

The growing coalition of groups opposed to the development of Union Terrace Gardens and the associated borrowing continues to grow; Kenneth Watt tells Aberdeen Voice about the young people of Aberdeen, who ultimatley will have to live with – and potentially pay for – the Granite Web, should it proceed.

A group of young people who are under 25 and live, work or are educated in Aberdeen handed an open letter on Wednesday 15 August 2012 to ACC leader Barney Crockett in an attempt to convince councillors to vote against the proposed £140,000,000 ‘Granite Web’ development on the grounds of an unsound financial case.

The group who formed over social media towards the end of last week are concerned about the £92m loan and use past cuts to education, social care and youth services as examples of why they believe Aberdeen City Council cannot afford this “financial gamble.”

Leading the group is Kenneth Watt, a youth councillor in the city. Kenneth says:

“We are making it clear to our elected members that there are significant numbers of young people who do not want to see our generation exposed to yet more cuts to services which we all rely on.”

“Last week’s reports of businesses in favour of the development turned out to be fictional and we are trying to show the people of Aberdeen that real young people will not sit back and watch the council gamble away our futures.”

“The £20m Art Gallery Grant in the business case, for instance, does not appear to exist. This would involve the council spending over £20m plugging the gap. That’s enough to rebuild a school, yet money is being invested in a project that is not needed.”

“We are urging councillors to say no to the City Garden Project and be realistic about finances. Our generation should not have to suffer more.”

“The simple message is this: the City Garden Project is too big a risk. Councillors need to put young people first.”

Read the content sof the letter here.

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Aug 092012
 

Hall Harper looks at what ‘listing’ a building really means.  Photographs Sarah Lynn.

In 1990, the Civic Trust of Scotland first inaugurated an Open Doors Day in Glasgow and Ayr as part of that year’s European City of Culture celebrations. Since then, the number of participating towns and cities has increased until now almost every area in Scotland has an Open Doors Day during which free access is allowed to various public buildings.

To decide which buildings will be included each year, the CTS invites the general public to nominate those buildings that they would be interested in seeing, with each local programme being created and managed by the Area Co-ordinator.

This year a number of people suggested that the Open Doors Day in September should include the Aberdeen City Council (ACC) owned, Category B listed, Victorian toilets in Union Terrace Gardens; a site that, according to CTS’s Project Co-ordinator, Abigail Daly, was one in which there was a lot of interest.  Despite this, however, she last week contacted those who had proposed the toilets to tell them that they are not being included in this year’s programme.

In her email she advised that CTS had asked the local co-ordinator, who is an employee of ACC, to make enquiries regarding the condition of the building and whether access would be possible, but that:

“Unfortunately we didn’t hear back in time for the inclusion of the site into this year’s programme, although we know there is a lot of enthusiasm and interest from members of the public.” 

Following this, Sarah Lynn, a concerned member of the public, found last weekend that it was possible to simply walk into the ladies toilets in Union Terrace Gardens as they had been left open, apparently to allow traders from the International Market to access water.  What she saw there was, she said, disgusting “… and made me want to cry, to be honest.”

She was also able to take some photographs in order that others can be made aware of the distressing state of this listed building.

Hearing this and seeing the pictures that Sarah had taken, got me thinking about what ‘listing’ a building actually means, so I had a look at Historic Scotland’s Guide to the Protection of Scotland’s Listed Buildings.

This publication covers a number of areas including listed building consent, planning permission, repairs and the Buildings at Risk Register.

Reading through the document, however, it appears that ‘listing’ is more about owners having to get permission before making changes to a listed building rather than placing any obligation on them to maintain and repair it.

Owners must, therefore:

“check with the planning authority whether listed building consent is required before [they] carry out any internal or external alterations to a listed building.”

And subsequently:

“If the proposed work is considered to have an adverse affect on the character of the building, the change may be discouraged and listed building consent may be refused by the planning authority.”

They will also be required to seek both planning permission and listed buildings consent if they, “wish to alter or extend a listed building in any way which would affect its character and [the] proposed alteration is included in development for which planning permission is required.”

When it comes to maintenance and repair, however, owners of listed buildings are only, “ encouraged to repair and maintain their property, just like the owners of any other buildings.”

The document goes on to record that:

“The legislation makes no express requirement for an owner to repair or maintain their property.  However, if an owner fails to keep a listed building in a reasonable state of repair, the planning authority may serve a Repairs Notice.  If an owner fails to comply with this notice, the planning authority, with the consent of Scottish Ministers, may be entitled to buy it by compulsory purchase.”

But in the case of the UTG toilets, the owner who has failed to keep the listed building in a reasonable state of repair also happens to be the planning authority – so I suspect there is little chance of any action being taken under this provision.

Turning to the section on the Buildings at Risk Register it notes that the Register:

“… has been in operation in Scotland since 1990 in response to a concern at the growing number of listed buildings and buildings in Conservation Areas, that were vacant and had fallen into a state of disrepair.”

A promising start.  But further reading of this section quickly dispels any hope that there might be some action possible as the register is really only a means to record buildings which are at risk, not one that will actually provide a level of authority that could require the owner to do something to reverse the situation.

As the document itself says:

“The Register acts as a valuable resource for initiatives aimed at helping to reduce the number of listed and historic buildings at risk and is one way to market a property to potential retailers at a price reflecting its condition.”

In other words, being on the register might result in a building’s purchase price being reduced to a level where a benefactor might be encouraged to buy and save it – but on the other hand …

Like most things these days, the Register is available online, and it is consequently extremely easy to check out which buildings in your area are ‘at risk’.  I had a look to see what was recorded for Aberdeen and noted that there are a total of 26 ‘at risk’ buildings registered in the city, 16 of which are parts of the category A listed Broadford Works in Maberley Street.

There are 26 ‘at risk’ buildings registered in the city

Yes, that’s right, the same Broadford Works in respect of which ACC recently served the owner with a Dangerous Buildings Notice that requires him carry out repair work and, if he doesn’t, the Council can carry out the work on his behalf and send him the bill.

Another case of don’t do as I do, do as I say?

So to sum up, it appears that we have a number of official organisations in place to keep records of old and valuable buildings, but no legislation in place that obliges their owners to preserve them.  Perhaps, given this situation, we can be forgiven for asking whether our heritage is safe in the hands of the bureaucrats, or whether the time has come for us to demand more of our public servants.

Jun 282012
 

Old Susannah watches the latest developments in the ‘Deen and the wider world and helps Voice readers to get their whites right. By Suzanne Kelly.

One of the best events in recent memory?  The Party in the Park held by Common Good Aberdeen last Saturday was fantastic, despite the rains.  Nearly 4,000 people visited over the course of the day, all of the thousands of home bakes Mrs B created over a course of weeks disappeared long before the day ended, and the shelter of the marquee made the rain a minor inconvenience rather than a show-stopper.

And what a show it was.  Gerry Jablonsiki and the Electric Band opened the entertainment, and played an extraordinary set (I must say the solos Gerry comes out with are riveting, but you can’t play like that without a solid rhythm section.

The big surprise for many was the unique, creative duo ‘The Pounding’ whose electronic compositions went over a storm.

The final act of the day were the school choirs performing ‘Sing’.  The audience went wild as they danced to Danse MacCabre’s ceildh music.

I was honoured to have been asked to do a speech of thanks at the end; it was a privilege to thank the many volunteers who made the day a success, and Mrs B in particular, without whom this would not have been realised.  All around the gardens people commented ‘there should be more events like this’, ‘we don’t need to build anything here, just hold events’ and ‘get me some more of this delicious cake!’

Marie Boulton, Depute ACC Leader, made a brief but wonderful speech; many politicians came out to have fun and talk to their constituents.  Everyone was pleased in particular that Dame Anne Begg MP was there, proving that the gardens are accessible.  They could be made more accessible it is true – but access does exist, despite odd claims to the contrary.

I would like to apologise for not getting to have proper chats with a number of people, but I was charged with getting the acts on and off stage according to a strict timetable. Neale Bothwell and I did a fair job of it, I think.  Don’t wait for someone to throw another event, but when we next do get a dry, sunny day, use your gardens – they are common good land, and you own them.

Another event of this past week was Aberdeen Voice’s 2nd anniversary drinks held in Ma Cameron’s, where the idea for AV was launched.

Members of local band Toxik Ephex had been talking about the need for an independent  newspaper, and two years later Fred Wilkinson and a host of volunteers are keeping AV going.

People came and went over the course of the night; we were pleased to see some of the Aberdeen cyclists, a member of the Silver City Surfers, and in particular Anthony Baxter.   Baxter has a new version of ‘You’ve Been Trumped’ about to start a UK and North American tour (details elsewhere in Aberdeen Voice) with new footage of The Donald.

All of these positive developments are enough to sap a girl of any sarcasm.  Thankfully, there are always a few banking, tax, trident, deer cull scandals to keep me on track.  So, without further hesitation, here are a few definitions.

White Cliffs of Dover: (noun, Eng. geography) A steep, dramatic chalk cliff face on the South of England.

The iconic White Cliffs of Dover are in the news this past week; some NIMBYS are objecting to a proposed housing development near them.

The Cliffs also have some problems with erosion, but the main issue of course is that they are not accessible.  There is no access for the  able-bodied, let alone people with any mobility issues, and to be honest, the connectivity is just not there.

If the cliffs could just be raised (or would that be lowered?) to street level, and a bosque, theatre  and parking be thrown in, they might just be onto something there.  As to refusing a housing development, well, that would mean that England is not open for business.

Craig Whyte: (Proper Noun, possibly Improper noun) – a colourful character.

Oh dear, could it be that Craig Whyte is not whiter than white?  The would-be king of Rangers has had one or two previous problems in the boardroom.  This would-be white knight  sadly no longer looks set to take over Rangers.  Private Eye magazine unkindly suggests that someone with a failed directorship or two is not a fit person for the Rangers role.

Indeed they are correct; Whyte’s considerable talents would be used to best advantage in central government.

To add to this week’s colour theme, it would seem that Green owns the club, but Brown is trying to make the fans see  red, and opt for a buyout.  Will Rangers ever be in the black again?  It is currently a bit of grey area.

Whitewash: (verb, mod English) to cover up bad news, dilute the truth, gloss over facts for political, personal or monetary gain.

Aberdonians and UK taxpayers will be most unfamiliar with this term, and Old Susannah thought you might like to know more about it.  It will be difficult, but I shall try and find some examples.

On the national level, there have been one or two little Inquiries which have unjustly been described as being whitewashes.

There was the Hutton Inquiry into the small matter of how a bland dossier about Iraq was magically transformed into a document proving Sadam Hussein was about to use his Weapons of Mass Destruction on the UK, and would only need 45 minutes to wipe us  out.  This Inquiry found that changing a report into a justification for waging war was a bit naughty, but was fair enough.

No less a person than Alasdair Campbell said he defended ‘every word’ of the ‘sexed-up’ dossier.  Why bother to have an Inquiry at all I wonder?  If the man who wrote the thing for his boss Tony Blair says it’s above-board, then who are we to question it?

We’ve also had the Levenson Inquiry, a great spectacle for the whole family.  One frail little old pensioner, a Mr R Murdoch is cruelly being asked questions about newspaper reporters hacking into phonecalls and emails.  The poor Australian gent keeps telling the investigators he can’t remember anything, but they keep asking him questions.

Just because he and his family own the newspapers which carried out the illegal spying is no reason to think he’d know about it or be in any way responsible for it.

Are there any whitewashes going on here in the Deen?  Let’s think.  The city has been totally transparent over the Tullos Hill deer cull; they pride themselves on their transparency and consultation with the people; quite good of them really.

Freedom of Information requests are answered immediately and clearly.  It’s not as if the FOI officers are waiting until the last moment to supply information, or that the information they supply contradicts information they’ve previously released.   Surely they have nothing to hide?

Were the city in the right to have guns blazing on a hill used by families, motorcyclists, animals and indeed the occasional free-range arsonist without giving warning?  The mainstream press quoted a ‘council spokesperson’ as saying ‘there was no legal requirement’ for any warning signs.  Has this whitewash covered the matter sufficiently?  We shall see what the public and the authorities think.

White Collar Crime: (Modern English phrase)  to commit a non-violent, financial criminal offense.

WE must pause to think of those in our society who are being asked to go without, who are being forced to justify their dependence on State handouts.  Yes, I am worried about our banking sector.

We clearly did not give them enough of a bail-out, in fact, they can’t even afford decent IT systems, and some financial institutions are  experiencing problems with their electronic banking and cash machines.  I do hope none of the bankers will be terribly inconvenienced by people demanding money.

Sometimes however, when forced to the wall, a banker will have no alternative but to turn to crime.  It is because we do not have a caring mentality, and because we do not yet have ‘The Big Society’ (whatever that is) which Cameron wants that poor Barclays was forced to what certainly looks like white collar crime.

Unkind authorities are asking for £290,000,000 from the Barclays group for a wee matter of its fixing interest rates.  What’s the problem?  I thought we wanted fixed interest rates?  Unfortunately the bank seems to have given false information about rates it was borrowing money at.  Firstly, £290,000,000 is really small change, in fact, it would only get you two granite webs at today’s rates.  Secondly, how is a poor bank like Barclay’s going to get its hands on this kind of money?

I think the taxpayer should voluntarily help this poor bank out.  After all, if we don’t do so voluntarily, no doubt the treasury will just give them our money anyway.  I believe there used to be a commercial with Mr Bean with the repeating phrase ‘Well, thank you BARCLAYCARD!’.  Barclays, thank you indeed.

Old Susannah is going to have to cut it there, as she is in Edinburgh – and the sun is out.

Next week:  A look at some of the little arguments within Council Chambers.

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