Instead the idea has been to wade in with bombastic, sweeping, emotive statements amplifying the rhetoric of the last year and flying in the face of Aberdeen City Council's policies and ACSEF's recognised priorities from a simpler time before Sir Ian's timely benevolence. The ad leads claiming the vision was "the start of a journey to reclaim our city centre and create a safe place for relaxation and recreation for all those who live and work here" before going on to describe which miracles the structure will bring to the city.
JOBS FOR OUR CHILDREN AND GRANDCHILDREN
This section claims that "The City Square will help secure Aberdeen's long-term economic future, creating and safe-guarding jobs for generations to come." Without any demonstratible evidence to directly link the creation of the City Square and actual economic benefits, the ad reverts to a vague statement that "Research shows that attractive, vibrant city centres are key to competitive regions." This point ignores the fact that Aberdeen city centre extends much further than the five acre spread of the Denburn Valley and such expensive, high-risk concentration of funds, resources and planning into this one area will only be at the cost of the surrounding area.
There has been no word of how the £140 million investment in this area will impact on ACC's existing plans for city centre regeneration, such as the Bon Accord Masterplan, The Green redevelopment and the plans for a Civic Square at St Nicholas House, which has been used as the reason behind the Council's £11 Million move to Marischal College. The advert describes the city square as "a unique opportunity to put the city on "must visit" list", which is a tenuous attempt to tie the project into another of ACSEF's priorities: Tourism. Again however there are no reasoning of how this square will attract tourist, as though people are going to take time out to come to Aberdeen to visit a featureless square if not to point and laugh. The City Square will not solve the problems of empty shop units, for sale signs or the general untidyness of Union Street, issues outlined in a report into the City Centre Conservation Area. The idea that a five acre windswept expanse of unused real estate surrounded by badly-cared for buildings, empty units, weeds and 'For Sale' signs will make Aberdeen the "must visit" destination of Northern Europe leaves a lot to be desired, and this is an awfully shaky peg to hang all guarantees of "jobs and economic prosperity" on.
INCLUSIVE NOT EXCLUSIVE
Perhaps one of the most outrageous claims, which has already irked the Scottish Arts Council is that "The Peacock development is exclusive - focused on contemporary arts, City Moves and Whitespace. The City Square is inclusive - providing these and much more in a larger area for cultural activities." While much of the square's reasoning is supposed cultural activities, those behind the project have shown a complete ignorance to what it is Peacock, City Moves and Whitespace actually do.
City Moves is the council's own contemporary dance agency, which runs a number of classes on many areas of dance from ballet to yoga and is available to everyone both in Aberdeen and beyond. Whitespace, again, is Council-run and operates a great many projects with children, community groups, the vulnerable as well as reaching out to Schools and areas outwith the city centre as part of their remit "to remove all obstacles - financial, social, health, geographical or physical to ensure all City residents can access culture in Aberdeen and contribute to the cultural life of the City." Peacock themselves, far from being "focused on contemporary arts" runs a great number of inclusive community projects as part of their aims for "involving people of all ages and abilities in creative activity as a means of empowerment and to increase their understanding and enjoyment of contemporary art through collaborative projects with artists and the provision of learning opportunities." They are currently running the "Creative Identities" scheme which sees the organisation working with children from vulnerable areas to produce artworks, using the proceeds of crime in a positive, incusive manner. This project is the latest in a long line of artists outreach projects to benefit the communities of Aberdeen, including the Partner's scheme which saw artists working with communities in Woodside and Tillydrone between December 2006 and April 2008.
Before Sir Ian's vague vision emerged, this "exclusive" development was listed as a the Sixth Priority project for Aberdeen, fulfilling two of ACSEF's seven aims for 2025, with "High" Strategic Impact in the Strategic Framework Newsletter published by ACC in March 2008, a document which outlines the current status of projects which were to be delivered as part of the ACSEF vision. As well as proudly displaying one of Brisac Gonzales's images of the centre on its cover, the document fails to assess the Denburn Valley as "an unusable gap site" or even describe the area as "the city’s single most strategically important location" and the only hint at a "civic square" is the aforementioned St Nicholas House developments: "release of site for mixed use re-development." The document, in its closing outlines that a major gap in it's plans is that "There are few projects of scale to increase Aberdeen’s profile as a historical and cultural centre" contrary to this the City Square can only go ahead if it destroys and obscures the oldest remaining parts of the city centre.
Returning to the advert, the final paragraph of this section is quick to re-iterate Sir Ian's assurances that this is "not an either or project" as well as more unfounded claims that a Contemporary Art Centre in the City Square would have "better commercial viability as well as significantly lower development costs", even though the cost of the Square as a whole is ten-times that of the Northern Light Centre, and with a shortfall of £90 Million, is a lot more risky. Add to this the imminent dissolving of Peacock's biggest funder and the prospective loss of £4.5 million funding.
BRIGHTER, BETTER AND BIGGER GARDENS
Continuing the legacy of "could"s, "should"s, "may"s and "might"s this section outlines the possibility of "the same, or even more, green space in the heart of the city." An attempt to counter opposition to the destruction of the existing historic Gardens, claims of bigger and better gardens were the first batch of City Square PR this year. However, this has led the exact nature of these "gardens" to be questioned. The great Civic Roof has underneath it a concrete and steel structure, a road, a railway and three levels of real estate so there is very limited scope for landscaping. Yes it could have patches of grass, shrubs and potted plants but as I have said in many posts before: no trees. The images released with the city square projects, of which we are continually reminded that they are a "concept, not a design" shows dense woodland so thick it obscures much of the surrounding area, however in reality this is impossible (unless these are all recreations of the mobile phone mast near Dunblane which is cunningly disguised as a child's drawing of a tree.)
What is missing from the advert is that Union Terrace Gardens was not built on hydaulics allowing it to be "raised" and lowered as crackpot schemes see fit, the Gardens will be removed in their entirety to make way for the construction. “approximately 3,947 dump trucks of earth and 4,605 dump trucks of granite” will be removed from the site, along with 78 Mature trees, all plantlife and all features. The Gardens as they exist currently are a natural ampitheatre and have themselves been used often in the past for outdoor events such as concerts, dances, speigal tents as well as a meeting place, and site of relaxation and recreation. They are also home to a large floral version of Aberdeen's coat of arms, a feature which was partly responsible for Aberdeen winning Britain in Bloom ten times, their sunken nature provides perfect shelter against Aberdeen's stong and harsh winds and shade on those rare hot days in summer. The advert claims that the square will be "built into the natural topography of the area" while in fact it will cover and hide what is left of the natural topography of Aberdeen.
THE FUNDING WILL BE FOUND
ACSEF are now touting the City Square as "the top priority infrastructure project for the region" which is funny as not so long ago, ACSEF's flagship project "Energetica" was the top priority for the region. Energetica is a proposed corridor of energy headquarters between Bridge of Don and Peterhead "to create a concentration of energy technology companies, housing and leisure facilities along a 30-mile corridor from Aberdeen to Peterhead." A project like Energetica is central to ACSEF's Remit which is to "realise the ambition for the future of the Region and to shape delivery of economic development in Aberdeen City and Shire" and, unlike the City Square, has tangible and provable benefits to the region and can easily be equated with jobs and prosperity. However the claims that it will provide "further diversification" are negligible since the project will soley be "building on the solid knowledge, technology and trading base developed around oil and gas."
Proposals for a “Silicon Valley of the north" at Bridge of Don have been launched and highly-controversial plans for the Aberdeen Bypass have been approved by Scottish Ministers, linking Stonehaven and Bridge of Don skirting the Western Periphery of the city. Tom Smith, of ACSEF believes the bypass to be "“absolutely critical” to the region’s long-term economic future" yet this "most welcome" infrastructure project has no funds whatsoever towards it's estimated £395 Million cost and there is no indication of where the money could come from. Given the road's "critical" nature one can only wonder why ACSEF are considering plunging at least £90 million into leveling the Denburn Valley, a project which has yet to provide any reason for go ahead or proof of the benefits, rather than invest in a bypass which has been described as a "linchpin."
Further claims are made in the Ad that on the back of Sir Ian's £50 Million "further private money will be leveraged to make up the principle funds" even though the "plans" have been on the table for over a year now, and several business leaders have spoken out in favour of the Square, there hasn't been a single report of any interest, even speculative in investing in the project. As the text says: "The lack of public sector funding was one of the main factors in previous schemes for this site not going ahead."
Ploughing through on a tide of fantastical yet unsubstantiated promises, the ad goes on to state that "Other funding will come from accessing some of the public sector's long-term capital sources for major infrastructure projects", which is good because it's not the Aberdonian taxpayer who is footing the bill, but the Scottish taxpayer. Funny that ACSEF should lay claim to some of that elusive national pot of money, however Scottish Government funds are pretty stretched as the moment, with a planned rail extension to Glasgow Airport scrapped in the face of a £500 million pound cut to Scottish budgets from Westminster. No matter how often ACSEF can claim "it's our turn!", if the money isn't there there's not much that can be done about it. With Government money supposed to be financing the aforementioned AWPR, and transport links to Glasgow Airport cut, then how exactly does the City Square justify itself in the National portfolio of Infrastructure priorities?
What of other possible funding sources? In the past there has been the suggestion of a Business Improval District (BID) to be introduced to Aberdeen to "develop projects and services that will benefit the trading environment within the boundary of a clearly defined commercial area", or as the ACSEF Newsletter points out: "The money would be ring-fenced and used to fund ACSEF priorities such as the Energetica project...and the £140million Aberdeen civic square at Union Terrace Gardens", essentially increasing rates by at least 1% making the surrounding city centre businesses within the BID district to pay for the square. Another possible source of funding which has been identified is "Tax Increment Financing", which operates not unlike the BID, however the rates levy is not restricted to Businesses along, the entire population of a certain area (presumbably, in this case, Aberdeen City Centre) who's taxes will go up to account for "future gain" at the end of the project. Not only is this a worrying increase to a population already paying the highest Council Tax Rates, but this particular financing method is not legal in Scotland and it's implementation would require legislation to be changed at a National level to allow it to go ahead. Is this City Square Project really worth it?
"The City Square cannot take money away from the council's annual revenue budgets and therefore will not impact on key services such as education, housing, social work and roads."This statement is perhaps the greatest diversion from "The Facts", Sir Ian was quick to point out at the fateful "consultation" evening at Tiger Tiger all those months ago that I didn't know the difference between capital or revenue funding, as an answer to questions of how Aberdeen, a City currently in financial dire straights, can afford to undertake this project. A valid question which most people are asking when faced with a price tag of £140 Million pounds, however this patronising attempt to quell public outrage doesn't exactly ring true. The previously mentioned £40, 000 released to ACSEF came from "the Council’s current revenue budget, which would be sufficient contribution for Phase 2."(page 155) which goes to prove that any of the preparatory work: technical appraisals, feasibility studies, public consultation, economic assessments, transport assessments, analysis of delivery vehicles, design, planning application and so on would be funded from revenue spending. Only the costs of building the Square would come from capital sources, and then more costs would need to be suffered from revenue such as greenskeeping, maintenance, cleaning, collecting litter, supervision, Health and Safety issues as well as day to day operations of any features the people of Aberdeen would like to see, such as an outdoor Ice Rink, cafes, concerts, Markets and 'landmark public art'.
WHO ARE ACSEF?
One of the most common question I have come across in the last six months, aside from "where is the money coming from", "Why can't they build over the road and railway and leave the Gardens" and "what is the point?" has been "Who are ACSEF anyway?"
ACSEF, or Aberdeen City and Shire Economic Future, previously Aberdeen City and Shire Economic Forum, formally North East Scotland Economic Forum was established in 2001 in response to a Scottish Government directive. They are a Public-Private sector Partnership, which should not be confused with a Public-Private Partnership (PPP) which is usually an enterprise, such as a school which is built by a private firm and leased back to the Education Authorities, ACSEF is a public-private sector partnership as it includes high profile members of the private sector business community as well as the leaders of Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire Councils and representatives from both Aberdeen and the Robert Gordon Universities.
The National Guidelines for Local Economic Forums point out that the role of forums was "tackling first the streamlining of business development services and thereafter, if they have proved successful, they will move on to consider local delivery mechanisms for lifelong learning, better local labour market co-ordination and other areas such as trade and tourism." ACSEF (NESEF) at the time to streamline economic activities and drive economic growth within the city.
On becoming ACSEF, the role of the Forum remained largely the same but their remit was expanded to an advisory capacity to inform Scottish Enterprise on routes to "maximise the contribution of the region to Scotland's economic growth." Beyond this ACSEF has no actual power or authority over any of it's partners or other forums. Only ACSEF's development manager recieves a wage, and this position is part of a three-year secondment from Aberdeen City Council, ACSEF as an organisation for the year 2009/10 received £80,000 of funding from Scottish Enterprise and £229,000 from Aberdeen City Council (Costs include the Development Manager salary) Both SE and ACC list these costs to cover Development Manager, office costs, events management, communications, and project development support.
Given this, ACSEF seem to have outgrown their all-weather footware. Nowhere within any documents, received with Freedom of Information requests to ACC and SE relating to the establishment and powers of ACSEF, does it mention spearheading huge scale construction projects. They would argue, most likely, that they drive economic development, however as the Advert above and public statements made by members of ACSEF have proven, they can demonstrate no tangible economic benefits to the region from the project. While it would attract £50 Million pounds of investment (the investment which actually started the project), it would require at least twice this amount to go ahead, not to mention the cost to the traffic infrastructure for such a big construction, the tax hikes and destruction of the last of Historic Aberdeen.
In furthering this project, ACSEF are also going against their core remit for promoting economic development, they will scupper an approved plan which will bring in £5 Million annually and expects a footfall of 200,000 as well as regenerationg Union Terrace Gardens without completelly irradicating them, and will, in turn, refuse an investment which has already been promised from central Scottish funds. The future of Peacock is up in the air as well, with this process being dragged out for fifteen months, the lease on PVA's current home gets closer and closer, there is a very real concern that ACSEF may "bleed them dry" and rather than further economic development they would kill off a progressive and internationally respected business which has been around for 35 years.
Please, keep lobbying councillors, find out who at WriteToThem, they may say they are not allowed to make comment because it may come to planning application, however they are only restricted on commenting on LIVE applications and the city square project has a long way to go before it can consider putting in a planning application. Continue to urge others to Sign the I heart UTG petition to Save Union Terrace Gardens and if you are unsure of the costs, scales check out Compare The Square which puts the project in perspective. Actually it highlights how completelly out of perspective the project is.