Aberdeen: people power won

In quick summary: in November 2008 an oil billionaire, Sir Ian Wood, got an idea for a concrete Italian-style piazza in the centre of Aberdeen, to be achieved by transferring a public park into private ownership. He offered to spend £50M of his own money to part-pay for his stony vision. (He likes concrete and no trees: Union Terrace Gardens has lots of trees.) (Update: apparently some of the trees would have survived.)

Annie Lennox, November 2011:

If Sir Ian Wood wants to invest £50m into the centre of Aberdeen, that is fundamentally good, but I disagree with the way he’s going about it. It is not because I’m a reactionary, it is not because I’m against modernity or change. It is the way that this was done; it is short-termism, it is short-sighted.

From what I am gathering, he is not saying: “I have £50m, I want to talk to you, I want to hear what you guys want.” He’s telling the city this is what he will do with it. I think it’s very imperious. I think it is very, very important to listen to more people, the people who are living there, the citizens of the town.

This offer from Sir Ian Wood interrupted a long-term plan for developing Union Terrace Gardens. A consultation was carried out, which overall rejected Wood’s scheme, and then in November 2011 the SNP-controlled council had the Electoral Commission run a referendum across the whole City – in which Wood’s scheme won by a slight majority.

Suzanne Kelly, Chair of local campaigning group ‘Democracy Watch’, said:

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.”

In the May 2012 elections, the Labour group on the council had promised to scrap Wood’s scheme: and earlier this week, the council (Labour voting with the Independent group) scrapped the Wood scheme and now appear to be planning to return to the plans to develop the city centre prior to Wood’s grand scheme.

ACSEF, described by Friends of Union Terrace Gardens:

“Aberdeen City and Shire Economic Futures”, describe themselves as a “Public-private partership that drives economic development in the region”. Board members include well known local businessmen such as Stewart Milne (Stewart Milne Builders), John Michie (Michie’s Chemist), Stewart Spence (Marcliffe Hotel owner) and Tom Smith (Chairman of Nessco Group Holdings). Two councillors also sit on the board, they are; Callum McCaig and Anne Robertson.

In the 3 years since it’s creation ACSEF has cost over half a million pounds of public money and has yet to receive a penny from the private sector. If you ask them about this they point out that the “members of the board give their time” and we all know time is money don’t we?

This is clearly, whatever else it is, an Aberdonian issue. But the questions it brings up are wider than Aberdeen.

Andy Wightman, Campaign for REAL local government:

Arguments for greater devolution or indeed outright independence reflect an extension of the idea that power should reside as close as possible to the people and that decisions that can be made locally, should be. However, at the same time as Scotland is on a journey to greater autonomy as a nation, the opposite is happening at the local level.

This is the SNP Minister for Environment & Climate Change on Twitter (He’s also the MSP for Banffshire and Buchan Coast: his remit as a constituency MSP is in Aberdeenshire, but does not include the city of Aberdeen.)

You may wonder (I do) why a government minister is getting so worked up about a local project which is not inside his consituency. Especially a government minister who is, in principle, supposed not to be on the side of oil billionaires. Partly it may be the SNP worry about a consultation and an elected local government deciding not to let the results of a small majority in a referendum govern their decisions: the 2014 question.

A good democracy is never simply “majority rule decides”. The question of the development of city park is a strange one to put to a citywide vote. I’m broadly in favour of retaining city parks as green space and trees in public ownership, but in general how a local park is developed and made use of is something best decided by the elected council with input by consulting the people who actually use the park. This Aberdeen Council seem to have decided to do.

The Friends of Union Terrace Gardens are a local group:

Investigating the proposed funding mechanisms such as TIF (Tax Incremental Financing) and the likely impact on the city

Working with a wide variety of groups and organisations to improve the gardens and increase usage. We have held many events, in all seasons. These have included carol singing in the winter, The Big Picnic (2010, 2011) in the summer and a night time candles and acoustic event.

FUTG: We wouldn't but Sir Ian Wood

The SNP Group Leader Callum McCaig said:

For some time I have been a supporter of Sir Ian Wood’s ambitious scheme to transform the centre of my home town; to deliver a modern 21st Century public space, improving the city’s social, economic and cultural connectivity. For a while I had my doubts about this proposal. I wanted to see the designs and I wanted to see the business case. Once I did, I was convinced.

He goes on to claim:

“Having lost the faith of the public and the business community – and ridden roughshod over the will of the people – Labour’s position is now completely untenable and it’s time for them to do the decent thing – move over and allow a fresh administration to try and rebuild some of the dreadful damage they have inflicted on the city.”

This is perfectly legitimate local-government speak. It’s rather over the top to claim that this is “riding roughshod over the will of the people”: the consultation carried out by the council got a small majority of responses against Wood’s scheme, and the city-wide referendum won for Wood’s scheme by 2% – but everyone understands that it’s frustrating to lose a vote, and Callum McCaig is perfectly entitled to lambaste the Labour Group on Aberdeen council and demand they resign because the SNP lost a vote. (No one need pay attention, but that’s the beauty of free speech.)

Douglas Daniel, Aberdonian and SNP supporter:

To this day, I don’t know what exactly it was that this project was supposed to do that would regenerate the city centre. You don’t add £90million to public debt without a good idea of how it will help things, but no one has ever explained how it would have done so. It seems to have been more about other schemes related to the project, in which case UTG was little more than a sacrificial lamb to get funding for other things. If that was indeed the situation, it would be nice if SOMEONE could have just been honest about it. I refuse to believe SNP councillors (some of whom are now excellent SNP MSPs) were acting against the best interests of the city (wilfully, at least), but none of them have ever satisfactorily explained their reasons for supporting the project. This is why I, for one, have never been able to back it.

But it’s cancelled now, and that should be the end of it – draw a line under it and get on with other projects. But that’s not what’s happening. Today, Twitter has been full of fellow nationalists using this as a stick to beat Labour with – nationalists from all over Scotland. People who have no idea what the full story is, and who are not the ones who would have had to put up with three years of construction, almost certain spiralling costs, and years of needless debt, which would require Aberdeen council making even more cuts than it’s had to make up to now when the supposed increase in business rates takings failed to materialise. This is a local issue for local people (“there’s nothing for you here!”) and I really wish people would recognise that and, in the nicest way possible, keep their noses out.

Suzanne Kelly, Chair of ‘Democracy Watch’ noted the financial benefit to campaigners for Wood’s scheme on 21st August:

“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. “

Aberdeen Central MSP Kevin Stewart called Sir Ian Wood’s conditional offer of £50M to part-pay for his concrete vision “one of the greatest philanthropic gestures ever” and claimed that

“Councillor Boulton’s amendment is an undeliverable fudge, which has rejected the current, sound TIF business case and rejects the substantial private sector contribution. She previously said she could not back a TIF bid because of the risks involved – and now she and her Labour colleagues have backed a plan which is even riskier. This is nothing short of complete financial incompetence.

Councillor Marie Boulton is one of the Independents on Aberdeen City Council: this is a plan to invest in Union Terrace Gardens and the buildings around the square.

Tax Increment Financing (TIF) is

a method to use future gains in taxes to subsidize current improvements, which are projected to create the conditions for said gains. The completion of a public project often results in an increase in the value of surrounding real estate, which generates additional tax revenue. Sales-tax revenue may also increase, and jobs may be added, although these factors and their multipliers usually do not influence the structure of TIF.

I haven’t looked at the business case for TIF in Aberdeen. It seems like a bit of a gamble to me to suppose that concreting over a park to create an Italian-style city square would create ninety million extra in tax revenue. My concern is that it appears that this whole scheme was allowing a very rich man to have much more of a voice in how the centre of Aberdeen should look than any concerned group of locals who didn’t have £50 million on tap.

This is why I don’t think the city of Aberdeen referendum on the future of Union Terrace Gardens is at all comparable to the 2014 referendum, and it’s not just because of scale. Independence for Scotland is not an individual vision by a rich man dumped into the conversation: agree or disagree, it has broadbased grassroots support of long standing, and the SNP had made it clear for two elections that they intend to hold a referendum. SNP nationally getting defensive over the results and consequences of the Aberdeen City referendum in November 2011 does not help their cause.

Sir Ian Wood’s reaction:

“I am obviously very disappointed and dismayed by this outcome. The key losers are Aberdeen’s present and future citizens, and I honestly believe future generations, looking back on Aberdeen’s oil era, will wonder why on earth, after years of under investment in our city centre – parts of which are clearly in decline – our city council failed to grasp the opportunity to do something really transformational and enhance their legacy.”…
“Wood Family Trust have now no alternative but to withdraw its offer to significantly support the project.”

As I wrote in my Rights to the Commons post in July, in May 2010 an Aberdonian pensioner, Renee Slater, had donated £10,000 of her redundancy money (she had lost her job at the council in 2009) to Peacock Visual Arts (the arts centre originally planned for Union Terrace Gardens), saying:

“Sir Ian Wood has a nice big park out his back door, but my park is Union Terrace Gardens. “There is a plan for Peacock that will keep the gardens, but there is no clear plan for what Acsef want to do. I’m just an ordinary pensioner and I will not get my money back, that’s how much I believe in it.”

Mark Shields:

Many in the city are now complaining that the city lacks bravery and ambition. This is a legitimate charge, if the project was ambitious – see, there’s nothing about ambition or bravery when it’s to bulldoze a park and build something else there for an astronomical price. That’s not an ambitious project, it’s a plan to take away a wonderful space, and one that needs renovation, and build something the city doesn’t need. A small sum of money would allow for a lot of work to be done on the gardens and the surrounding areas without having years after years of construction work and, in the end, keep the whole point of the gardens – a green space amongst the grey granite.

Annie Lennox again:

What I see in Aberdeen is that there has been a lot of money made, but that money has not trickled through. You see strata of wealth in Aberdeen; there are expensive cars and glitzy restaurants but I don’t see that reflected in the general civic state of the city. I feel the oil industry lives separately to the town.

My father and grandfather worked in the shipyards and shipbuilding industries; people built up wealth and then people who made their money put it back into Aberdeen, building the art gallery, the music hall etc and it served the community very well. It was beautiful. But walking around Union Street today you get a sense of a broken place. It is kind of degraded. It seems to me Aberdeen thinks in terms of a consumerist society, where the solution is: “Well, put more shops in and get more business.” I think it’s a mistake; the same mistake they made back in the 60s.

It’s not just the Minister for the Environment and Climate Change who’s on Ian Wood’s side: Alex Salmond himself says

the councillors who rejected plans to transform the heart of Aberdeen should “hang their heads in shame”.

The first minister claimed the City Garden proposals were scrapped for “petty political purposes” and other communities would have given their “eye teeth” for such an opportunity.

I’m really unsure which communities Alex Salmond is thinking of, who would give their “eye teeth” for the chance to have Sir Ian Wood decide for them what their own city park should look like, on the basis that he will pay £50m towards the costs of his own design and they will pay for the rest.

The campaign for REAL local government:

Yet the trend since local government re-organisation in 1975 has been to concentrate power in fewer and fewer larger units – precisely the opposite of what the Charter advocates. In the course of this, most of Scotland’s 196 burghs have lost all of the governance they enjoyed for (in many cases) 500 years.

The lack of any real local governance represents not simply a democratic deficit but a problem of practical politics. Scotland is replete with a wide variety of definitions of community for a whole host of different purposes. Community Council areas may be the closest we come to a geography of community but coverage is patchy, boundaries unclear and powers non-existent.

BBC, the day after the vote, reported that the ACSEF project

could still be financially supported by businessman Sir Ian Wood if it is resurrected within the next year.

In 2007, Aberdeenshire councillors rejected Donald Trump’s plans for the Menie golf course. In December 2007, the Scottish Government intervened with the local council’s decision and called in Donald Trump’s original planning application. Is this very public and national fuss over Aberdeen Council’s decision an early warning that the government intend to favour Sir Ian Wood as they did Donald Trump?

See Also:

  • Aberdeen’s Common Good is property held in trust for the people of this City. Union Terrace Gardens is a prime example of valuable and precious Common Good Land. We’re campaigning for better stewardship of the Common Good Lands and resources, so that they can truly benefit the citizens of Aberdeen.

Update, 25th August

Speaking of Donald Trump – I know, I don’t like to do it either – it seems he’s in favour of the oil billionaire’s scheme:

“It is very sad that Aberdeen City Council rejected Sir Ian Wood’s wonderful offer. The outcome of the public referendum was positive and the current vote of the city council is shocking. While Sir Ian has many other places where he can make such generous donations, the city’s residents will now suffer the consequences of a small-minded group of politicians who ignored the will of their ­constituents. They blew a great opportunity. Sir Ian is a wonderful man who has been treated shabbily and with total disrespect.”

Oh well, that’s the kiss of death, then.

Isn’t it?

Union Terrace Gardens – What Happens Now? Part 1

Update: I let Stewart Stevenson and Mark McDonald know they’d been cited in my blog, and when Stevenson responded: People’s vote overturned by Labour Councillors we had the following exchange:

I don’t see any further point in getting involved in discussion, but note that neither of the tweets merely “reported facts” and again, while Stevenson is local to Aberdeenshire, his constituency does not include Union Terrace Gardens or indeed any part of the city of Aberdeen: those constituencies are Aberdeen Central, Aberdeen Donside, and Aberdeen South and North Kincardine. Also, Stewart Stevenson is a government Minister. Just saying.

Well, but then:

Now I’m interested! And I’ve asked Stewart Stevenson, but if not there should be other ways to discover: How many of his constituents in Banffshire and Buchan Coast have really expressed a view to him about Union Terrace Gardens in Aberdeen?

Slightly later update:

(I was confused and assumed he was answering my question, but he wasn’t)

Note, 17:45
: Stewart Stevenson has now deleted all of his tweets in this discussion.
FOI request it is, then. I presume his office keeps track of questions from his constituents?


Filed under Oil, Scottish Culture, Scottish Politics

6 responses to “Aberdeen: people power won

  1. Hireton

    “My concern is that it appears that this whole scheme was allowing a very rich man to have much more of a voice in how the centre of Aberdeen should look than any concerned group of locals who didn’t have £50 million on tap.”

    Except there are plenty of locals (like me) who know that something imaginative and radical needs to be done to revitalise Aberdeen city centre and voted in favour of the UTG proposal. It is very patronising of you to maintain that somehow the 45,000 people who did are naive and simple pawns of big business.

    The Labour Administration have now ended any realistic prospect of a major project in the city centre; ended the plans to develop a new site for AFC and shared sports facilities with the likelihood that AFC will re-locate to Aberdeenshire; and cancelled the much needed new Don river crossing.

    Still never mind they are doing alright personally. One of the new Labour administration’s first acts after taking control of the Council was to award their leading members who chair committees a 5% pay rise. Says a lot about their priorities.

    • I consider how a local park is redeveloped to be a matter for the local council in consultation with the people who use the park.

      If something imaginative and radical needs to be done to revitalise Aberdeen city centre, why should Sir Ian Wood be the main man to get to decide what that is? Who elected him?

      • Hireton

        I agree.

        The people of Aberdeen voted in a referendum in favour of the CGP project following public consultation on design options. The Labour Party decided to ignore that result. They got 17,000 votes in the city elections (less than the SNP) and have had to form a coalition with the Tories in order to govern; 45,000 people voted in favour of the CGP.

        We are now left with a small, dark, dank hole in the ground (Union Terrace Gardens) in the centre of Aberdeen used by hardly anybody and the main idea of the Friends of UTG to bring some sort of life back to them is to return the draughts sets. No prospect of TIF funding, no £50m donation and no vision from the Labour Party which is clearly anti-development of any sort.

        • The people of Aberdeen voted in a referendum in favour of the CGP project following public consultation on design options.

          According to Aberdonians who took part in the consultation – many of whom are SNP supporters, this isn’t a party issue – that doesn’t quite describe what happened.

          no £50m donation

          Yes, it’s a pity Sir Ian Wood’s generosity does not extend to any plan but his own.

  2. Dear All, I enjoyed this summary of the history of this bizarre wrangle, and thought readers might like to know that people power is still prevailing. An initiative by Common Good Aberdeen (a non-political group of volunteers) has raised nearly £15,000 for a childrens’ play area for the park, which seems to have the relevant park manager / councillor blessing. It is time this city centre park had the amenities you would expect to find in any normal city centre park – play area, decent restrooms, and a snack/coffee provider (which is the subject of another Common Good Aberdeen initiative). I do love a happy ending, and a happy beginning. Sincerely, Suzanne Kelly

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