Following the demise of the Northern Light Contemporary Art Centre Scheme, spearheaded by Peacock Visual Arts, following the decision by Aberdeen City Council on May 19th to accept "in principle" an alternative scheme for Union Terrace Gardens there was a surplus of unused and somewhat unusable £9.5 Million. This at direct contrast with the scheme which had been amber-lighted, oil tycoon Sir Ian Wood's 'vision' for a five-acre, three story plaza to replace the Denburn Valley, which is short by at least £90 Million, ten times the money which had already been raised by the Peacock scheme.
In the months following the fateful council meeting the £9.5 Million which had been pledged to Peacock inevitably began to filter away. The £4.3 Million Scottish Arts Council grant was returned to new cultural body Creative Scotland and redistributed to other projects throughout Scotland. Aberdeen City Council held onto the £3 Million they had pledged, minus a small amount released to keep Peacock's campaign team running in the lead up to the Council Decision. However in the past week doubt has been shed on the future of the £2 Million pledged from Scottish Enterprise.
In January this year, the Press and Journal reported that Gordon McIntosh, director of enterprise, planning and infrastructure, claimed that the Scottish Enterprise grant had been prematurely withdrawn “The information that I was provided with last week was that the £1.6million was handed back last April,” adding that “The council was working under the assumption that the money was there when it wasn’t."
|Gordon McIntosh: "£1.6 Million handed back last April"|
Two of the three documents provided by Scottish Enterprise clearly mention a March 2011 deadline for the re-allocation of the monies, while the third refers to identifying "alternative eligible projects which may meet SE's strategic objectives and conditions." The eligibility and strategic objectives and conditions relating to the grant were spelled out in a legal agreement between Scottish Enterprise and Aberdeen City Council dated 18th March 2009, which had been signed off by the city solicitor on 23rd March 2009, which also mentions a final deadline for allocation of monies by 31st March 2011.
The information provided clearly indicates that should the grant not be re-allocated then it would be returned to the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities in April this year, not last year as Mr McIntosh suggested in January. While at face value, looking at the numerous documents it could appear that mr McIntosh's claims were the result of a simple mistake, that the council officer had simply gotten his dates wrong. It remains to be seen how a council executive with such a large responsibility to the city could make announcements based on a seemingly minor oversight - especially when receiving monthly correspondence from Scottish Enterprise regarding Aberdeen City Council's responsibility to spend the remaining money. It is reckless at best for a local authority with such major and widespread financial problems to simply lose over a million pounds of public funding.
Another interesting note is the apparent discrepancy between the £2 Million awarded from Scottish Enterprise to Aberdeen City Council and the £1.6 Million mentioned in the documents from Scottish Enterprise which was required to be re-allocated or returned. The original legal agreement between SE and ACC "envisaged that £300, 000 of the Contribution was to be advanced by 31st March 2009" in order to "contribute an equitable share towards the advanced design stage of the [Peacock] Project." To this end £226, 000 was awarded to Peacock for "Architect, Design and Project Management fees", but a further £190, 000 was taken from the £2 Million in order to fund the Haliday Fraser Munro technical appraisal into Sir Ian's "vision" on behalf of ACSEF.
While SE ensures that "had the Contemporary Arts Centre project gone ahead SE would have honoured the £2Million grant in line with the legal grant offer", their money was being used to back two conflicting proposals, and the money for both came from a grant offer made to one project which was already in advanced design stages and had received full planning permission. In addition to the £190, 000 used to fund the technical appraisal, the Press and Journal revealed this week that the council had "secured permission to use £375,000 of the grant funding for Sir Ian Wood’s city square scheme" meaning that, in total, £565, 000 of the Scottish Enterprise grant awarded for the Northern Light Centre has been spent on the scheme which caused its collapse. That's over a quarter of the original grant.
The technical appraisal brief states that "the commission must deliver a technical appraisal which will inform an outline cost appraisal for three main options to develop Union Terrace Gardens and the Denburn Valley." The appraisal was to be carried out under a particular framework:
The framework for the options appraisal will fall under the following 3 headings:
1. Full street level decking
2. Partial street level decking
3. Re-design of the existing site without any street level decking
The appraisal must take into account a currently proposed project, with planning consent, to and create a £13.5M Contemporary Arts Centre (3,000 m²) on the West Side of Union Terrace Gardens.option 3, which is quickly and unceremoniously dismissed as it only "would create minor benefits for Aberdeen City and Shire." Option 2, while having the brief to look at partial decking, it is almost indiscernible from Option 1, and bypasses the instruction from the project brief of "incorporating elements from previously appraised/designed schemes where appropriate" and ignoring the Millennium Square scheme (pictured, right)which would fulfill most people's desire to cover the dual carraigeway and railway, leaving the gardens mostly intact. Option 2 inexplicably replicates the first option but only doesn't meet with Belmont Street on the western side.
The technical appraisal, while bringing the costs of the project in embarrassingly light, pushes for the first option - directly facilitating the abandonment of the designed and planned Contemporary Arts Centre for which the grant which paid for it was intended. An odd and consciously contradictory machination which is not wholly unexpected.
In the ten months since The City Square project gained approval in principle, other than a change of name to The City Garden Project, it has made very little progress. The project has as-yet failed to gain Sir Ian's promised £50 Million investment, even though he claims it is now written into his will, a project board has been set up but inexplicably excluding any architects, and the timetable for the scheme is already slipping further back.
|Kevin Stewart: "Surprise." Photo: Evening Express|
“We had every faith that the proposals we put forward were worthy of funding from Scottish Enterprise, met the appropriate criteria, and would have contributed to the cultural life of the city.”
However it is difficult to quantify exactly how "strenuous" these efforts were to draw up proposals for spending the remaining money when just over a month ago SNP Councillor Stewart, who is also convener of the council's finance committee expressed that "It comes as a surprise to me that this money was withdrawn long before we made decisions about Union Terrace Gardens." How could Aberdeen City Council be making strenuous efforts to retain money that apparently wasn't there?
The attempts made to steamroller through this mega-proposal are spreading their debris throughout the city council. It seems that in the haste to chase Sir Ian Wood's yet-to-be guaranteed money for a project which will see him as the shot-calling minority shareholder, due process is being cast aside and Aberdeen City Council are tying themselves up in knots over it. As the Union Terrace Gardens saga continues with breakneck twists and turns, game changing revelations and scant regard for what the general public want to see with this public development, even those who support and champion the development are becoming unsure of what stage the development is actually at. Only once the City Square has succeeded in its inevitable self-inflicted downfall will the true costs of the vainglorious project be apparent to the city of Aberdeen. We can only hope that by that point it is not too late to give Aberdeen the regeneration it deserves.