The Man Who Sold The World

[Picture courtesy of olaf141 on Flickr]

May continues to be a disappointment. I’m becoming even more disillusioned by things than I had been previously and feel so let down by what I can’t control.
This latest installment of ‘No. Way… What the hell?’ deals with the Aberdeen-centric issue of Union Terrace Gardens. It’s quite difficult knowing where to start with this one…

Union Terrace Gardens (recently more commonly referred to as UTG) is the only green space in the centre of Aberdeen. It was opened in 1879 and is situated below street level, as can be seen from the picture above, and covers one hectare of ground. As it is so far from the road, this allows it to be reasonably quiet and an immensely pleasant place to hang out, especially in the sunshine. It is located next to a railway line, but trains passing by are so infrequent that they cause little disturbance. There are some spectacular views from the garden, for example the above of His Majesty’s Theatre. This being said, as lovely as it is, it could do with a bit more care to it. It has been a while since any proper maintenance jobs have been done on it and there’s always room for improvement; it’s not perfect, but it’s pretty damn close.

Now, in late 2008, Aberdeen City Council began to review plans for a new centre to be put into place in the gardens. Peacock Visual Arts looked set to get the go-ahead to open a contemporary arts centre within the park, securing £9.5million of funding, £3m of which from the council and everyone was happy.
That was until February 2009 when Ian Wood of the Wood Group got involved.

He proposed a new scheme in which the gardens would be transformed into a city square, costing £140m with £50m coming from his own pocket, as opposed to Peacock’s £13m plan with their £9.5m already secured.
Now, as far as I’m aware, this was the first we’d heard of Wood’s interest in the gardens, or more specifically his interest in destroying the gardens. This was quite a blow for Peacock, who up until this point, had been assured that their plans for the gardens would go ahead. It appeared that from out of nowhere, the Aberdeen City and Shire Economic Future (ACSEF) committee were to look into this plan also.

Wood’s plans were vague, but appeared certain of one thing; the gardens would inexplicably be made to street level, leaving Aberdeen with yet another ‘civic square’ as opposed to a one-off beautiful garden. At first, Peacock seemed justifiably bewildered but remained positive and even held a ‘What If?’ exhibition, the details of which can be found here. Soon, however, they realised that they would have to fight for their centre and for the gardens to be saved. The battle began.

Initially, a vote was held to find out what the people (that’s us) wanted. The majority of 55% voted against plans for the concrete square to go ahead. This, coupled with the fact that Peacock already had their plans approved and had 75% of funding, seemed a positive thing for all those who wished to save the gardens. Yet just five days ago, plans for Wood’s ridiculous scheme were okayed by Aberdeen City Council after much debate. Democracy lost out that day and these plans will almost certainly see Aberdeen become a shadow of its former self.
The following extract is taken from David Officer’s well-written and coherent blog entry. You should definitely read the whole thing, but here were some facts taken from it that I found interesting. It highlights the incredible injustice that will be suffered by the people of Aberdeen and the lies that have been told by the capitalists.

It took a marthon debating session and a series of bizarre votes to kill off a wonderful proposal in favour of a bloody awful one.  The point at which the Peacock proposal was killed was a 14-14 split vote with the casting vote from Lord Provost Stephen tipping in ACSEFS favour.  The news reports stating that Peacock were defeated 20-7 are wrong, that was for the final vote as to which version of City Square the council would approve.  They went for the one which would cost us all a lot of money and in doing so have sold out democracy in the north-east, made us a laughing stock nationally and lost all trust they may have had with the creative community here in Aberdeenshire.  The Lord Provost even had the gall to turn up at the Aberdeen Artists do the next night, before retreating after having the error of his ways pointed out to him.

The council meeting was a sham.  Again we were accused of being an orchestrated campaign, spreading misinformation and behaving inappropriatly.  A disgusting tactic from our business and civic leaders.  ACSEF, the Council and Sir Ian Wood are liars, continually saying whatever they can just to gain favour with the public:

  • We are currently being told that there was always a plan for a contemporary arts centre within City Square – LIE! ACSEF took out an advert in the Press and Journal attacking Peacock when they launched the consultation and Sir Ian Wood went on record to say no one was interested in Art, they had no intention of considering an arts centre till they realised people actually wanted it.
  • We were told during the consultation that City Square would be funded by Scottish Government Capital funding – LIE!  They are now looking at changing the law so that they can take out a big loan based on future increases in business rates, which the council would pay the interest on(a mere £150 million over 25 years, if it’s on budget).  So, that’ll be small businesses down the tubes then as well as the council.
  • We were told that the consultation would be open and transparent – LIE!  The question “Do you support City Square Project?” was preanswered with a ‘Yes’ which many people missed.  So those who had left comments clearly opposed to CSP were recorded as a ‘Yes’ vote.  Sneaky eh?
  • We were told that the CSP wouldn’t be a car park or have shops – LIE!  The ACSEF commissioned feasability study states that the underground area would be used for a car park and have retail outlets to complement existing shopping centres.  Sir Ian Wood himself stated the CSP would be like Covent Garden, that popular shopping arcade in London.
  • We were told Sir Ian would walk away if the public did not back his plan – LIE!  55% of the public voted against City Square in a consultation that was heavily weighted towards voting for it, yet he still didn’t take the hint  Instead he took it to council, and they let us down.
  • We have been told that those who oppose CSP have spread misinformation – LIE!  Oddly enough, they’re never too keen to give a specific example because when they do we point out that we got it from their own feasability study.  See their moans about us talking about a concrete square, car parks, shops and the fact it would be bigger than Red Square in Moscow.
  • ACSEF and Sir Ian told us the gardens were dangerous – LIE!  A pro-UTG campaigner obtained the crime statistics for Union Terrace Gardens and found that not one violent crime had been reported there and they were statistically the safest place in the city centre, amazing what you can find out just by actually checking!
  • The gardens are underused – LIE!  They were underused during the consultation, but then so was any outdoor space during the harshest winter we’ve had for years.  It’s a different story this week as temperatures nudge the mid-20’s and sun starved Aberdonians rush to the gardens.

All these lies were reitirated at the full council meeting, by members of ACSEF and councillors.  The Lord Provost himself read out a letter from the head of Oil and Gas UK which repeated the other big lie of the CSP campaign, that Aberdeen is doomed if it doesn’t build City Square.  This kind of scaremongering and emotional blackmail should have no place in a council meeting and to be read out by the Lord Provost himself was disgraceful.

It makes me ashamed to live in a city where the people in charge will ignore democracy and side with those who only wish to make money, rather than those who want to make plans that benefit the city as a whole.

On Saturday, a day that turned out to be one of the hottest of the year so far, I went down to the gardens and was joined by various friends throughout the afternoon. The park was packed with all sorts of people like us who just wanted to enjoy the sunshine in a relaxing and safe environment.

I just cannot see these scenes ever happening on a concrete square, but I am disgusted and terrified that we appear to be losing this war. What happens now?

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