Thursday, 14 January 2010

This is a Design, Not a Concept

It has begun. Public Consultation into Sir Ian Wood's proposed big-budget sequel to Moscow's Red Square, commissioned for ACSEF by ACSEF. The consultation is being reported as "one of the largest public engagement exercises yet mounted", but rather than being in the hands of an architecture or civic design consultancy, the public consultation will be carried out by Weber-Shandwick, the worlds largest PR company. With an agenda consisting of "presentations, exhibitions and displays across Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire, and the public will be invited to have their say by text, Twitter and other social networking sites, as well as more traditional methods", you could be mistaken for thinking this was more of the Daz Doorstep challenge rather than a serious debate about future developments in the city centre. As well as "public" displays in shopping centres and in both universities over the course of the next eight weeks, the Consultation will be dropping into schools, and presiding over "focus groups," invite only representatives from the small businesses, arts and community groups. The exact details of how to get involved with these focus groups, or the formate which they will take remains a mystery.

The City Square Project website, has shed its placeholder and contains all manner of "information" surrounding their proposals including a consultation survey. This survey asks three questions, the first asks you to rank "the most important features to you" from nine options, before going on to ask "what would you like to see in the City Square Project?" again with a ranking system to name your top five out of nine, before asking a simple yes/no question to "do you support the City Square Project?" I personally replied to the second question with "I do not support the City Square Project, therefore I do not want to see anything in it" and answered the third question with the expected "NO." However if you select that you do not support the square, yet want to see "water features", a "conference centre", "specialist retail", "outdoor ice rink" and a "contemporary arts centre" in it, then how will this effect the result. How exactly will these results be collated and reported anyway? Responses to these three questions are wide open to interpretation, and if there's anything PR companies to best that's spin. After all it was Weber Shandwick's CEO Colin Bryne who was Tony Blair's PR adviser at the 1997 and 2001 elections.

This “robust and comprehensive” consultation, in fact "the scheme’s backers have promised will be the “most comprehensive” consultation yet seen in Aberdeen", is so comprehensive that late last year it was reported that the existing proposals with majority funding and full planning for the Northern Light Contemporary Arts Centre would not be included as part of the consultation. ACSEF's Tom Smith claims, paridoxically, that "It would be completely inappropriate to consult on a scheme which already has planning permission", which means that this "comprehensive" consultation into the future of the Denburn Valley is leaving out the only fully realized project for the area, one that Mr Smith claims "If the public don't wish to support our proposal, the option is to go with Peacock’s design." As ACSEF have no funds to speak of, the undisclosed cost of the Public Consultation (With budget enough to employ a freephone line, a text service, employing the World's leading PR agency, full page newspaper adverts, travelling exhibitions, leafleting of all homes in the City, catering at the focus groups and goodness knows what else) is again being paid for by the taxpayer, yet excludes another project which has secured £9.5 Million pounds worth public money and spent another £1 million in their own preparatory work. Prime example on the complete disregard for public funds being shown by ACSEF through the entire process, which will presumably continue along the long and costly road should the result of the consultation come back in their favour.

The track history of the outcome of ACSEF commissioned (and publicly funded) "investigations" does not suggest a fair unbiased outcome. As I have mentioned in previous posts, the Haliday Fraser Munro technical appraisal into the Denburn Valley project not only failed to look into a compromise option of achieving Sir Ian's "vision" but retaining the Gardens and the existing Peacock proposals but dismisses the third option, of the Brisac Gonzalez Art Centre and landscaping of the existing Gardens "will not create any significant economic and social impacts"(Section 8.8), conflicting with the independent financial assessment and two years of groundwork which resulted in Peacock securing full planning permission, public funding from three different sources and a place as one of the ACSEF's strategic priorities for the region. The appraisal also manages to bring the cost within Sir Ian's original estimate, even though the report itself outlines 25 notable exclusions, including the compulsary purchase of “Site acquisition fees/costs. Air rights, rights to light (or any third party compensation settlements), over sailing licences, sale or letting fees/costs”, which the report states could amount to £10 Million, and the question of out of hours working, Network rail has stipulated that they will only allow access “9 hours at weekends and 5 hours during the week." Add to this that Aberdeen City Council has confirmed that the £140 Million estimate is only for the structure itself, any features which "the people of Aberdeen want", Landmark Sculpture, Conference Centre, Landscaped Gardens, Water Features etc would cost extra on top. The actual full costs of the square would likely end up double the estimate, assuming that the construction does not run into any disputes or encounter any other problems during the project, and adding on the expense required with the actual design, planning applications, another public consultation etc which must happen before the project can even think about raising the £90 Million plus required for destroying the Gardens and building the structure.

In the lead up to Monday's launch of the public Consultation ACSEF's PR drip fed news of high profile supporters such as ex-Aberdeen Manager Willy Miller and Hotel Magnate Robert Cook as well as a disability group voicing their concerns about access to the Gardens, an issue which is a part of the Peacock project with their introduction of a lift that can grant access from Union Terrace directly down to the bottom of the Gardens. Perhaps one of the most outrageous move was a full page advert published in Friday's Press and Journal, which has already angered funders at the Scottish Arts Council, who have invested £4.5 Million pounds in Aberdeen, for claims that the Peacock-led Contemporary Arts Centre will be "exclusive", compared to the City Square which will be "inlcusive."


lepeep said...

still reading fraser - but, I'm interested in the whole "how can we see the raw data - and know the report to come out will be honest and truthful?" - well, I'm currently looking at

And I will happily pay the extra money to get the info. I'll let you know how I get on.

simple points - they require simple answers - lets see if we get them. Love that photo of the speech bubbles "huddle together, you can still see the protesters in the background"... ho ho

mike shepherd said...

Excellent stuff Fraser. It was me that had the ad vetoed by the P and J.

Some other tidbits:

The Herald had an article about how the council's car park takings were down by £0.5 Million last year. Apparently less people parking in town and competition from private carparks. Given that the original plans envisage a 490 bay carpark on the bottom two floors (either that or it will be a mushroom farm), then this will make things worse for the council.

Also, The original plans mention that a street level square gives the potential to build a retail frontage on the north side of Union Bridge. Not exactly the concept of 'connectivity' as punted in the PR blurb for the scheme.

I reckon there is fat chance of the scheme getting public money, read in todays Herald about the Edinburgh tram debacle and what that is going to cost the Edinburgh council. Alarmingly ACSEF are talking about several innovative funding mechanisms. I have asked my local councillor if this could involve the sell off, mortgaging or lease-back arrangements for council property. It will be interesting to see if I get a reply.