A small struggle for democracy

The battle over Union Square shows just how far Aberdeen City has drifted away from democratic accountability – and it’s own radical past – argues John Aberdein

It would appear that the citizens of Aberdeen face a crucial struggle with undemocratic forces without being able, perhaps due to the current dereliction of political ideology, to fully articulate the terms and objective nature of that struggle. A Trojan horse has been surreptitiously hauled within the city gates over the last couple of years. The question is posed as to whether elected councillors are going to continue to treat it with awe and wonder, or whether they are prepared to prise open its lofty belly, and expose its contents for what they are.

The Trojan horse goes under the name of ACSEF, Aberdeen City & Shire Economic Future, a largely unelected and self- perpetuating body. In its belly is a proposal from Sir Ian Wood to donate £50 million of his own money to destroy Union Terrace Gardens, the sole green nook and refuge in the centre of the city, and replace it with steel and concrete decking to make a huge street-level City Square. The scheme is very conservatively estimated to cost £140 million in total. Aberdeen City Council has been on its beam ends for the last two years, yet Sir Ian Wood has proposed that they bridge the financial gap for the City Square via TIF, namely funds raised against future rates increases. I have challenged him twice to debate his proposal publicly with me, and he has refused. In the absence of that debate, it is the vaingloriousness of the proposal, and the potential lessons from this assault on the common good, that will form the core of this article.

Firstly I must declare my own provenance and bias. Having been born in the city in 1946, and brought up in a skilled working- class Communist household, helping to sell the Daily Worker up and down tenement stairs before the age of ten, and witnessing, not revolution in the streets, but only the rending of the Party in November 1956 – and the public immolation of the city’s trams shortly after – I had sufficient sense of that era to write Amande’s Bed, a novel which Steve Arnott was kind enough to describe as “The most honest, perceptive and humane description of post-war working-class life I have ever read… sometimes funny, sometimes surreal, often stark, but always with a luminous compassion.” In the wake of that work, I intended a suite of novels, each focussed on a particularly resonant nodal year for the politics of the left. Eventually, since I am a slow worker, the realities of now caught me up, and I determined to write a contemporary dystopia, with the added provision of a novel-within-the-novel set in 1968, and an indicative range of other historical perspectives. Strip the Willow is set in a bankrupt Aberdeen which is taken over by a multi-national leisure giant LeopCorp and transmogrified firstly into Uberdeen, then to Leopardeen. Here is how Lucy, a senior council official at her wit’s end due to the irruption of ludicrous, globally-transmitted, reality-lottery games in Union Street, traces by means of shorthand images the history of her native city (box below):

Dampish settlement at first, Deen, of no account, like its close neighbour, Don. Or rather of which no account. She had searched, she had raked the record, stashed high in a tin-lined room in the Town House.

Rivermouth dwelling opportunities, Deen and Don, scrabbling about in glacial gravel. Lucy imagined calluses beaded across a young girl’s palm, and a rough wooden spade gradually rounding.

Mediaeval burgh next, compact, bijou. Dung-strewn, wooden, a bugger to go on fire. Its leper spital a mile outside. The girl now carrying an expired hen and a cog of yesterday’s milk to leave some distance away, on a cup-marked stone.

Then the seventeenth century spawned its oxymoron: Civil War. She imagined persecution, of the girl, and the girl’s child, caused by lack of imagination of what it is to be another. The girl hiding, failing to hide, up foul alleys, from dragoons.

Lately a city, Greek, neo, of sparkle and severity, washed in the wind. No coal or iron ore, but plenty deep and surface stone, and grass, and near and distant fish. Hand-knitted stockings for the Crimea, mutton pies, horn combs.

Envelopes patented then manufactured athwart the river, from fresh pulp, for bills and billets-doux. She imagined the lass’s tongue, licking a gummed triangle. It was the same girl, harried through history, strolling free a single moment.

Then the whining bombs tumbling home, on Urquhart Road, Cattofield, the stanched mutuality of stretchers.

After that particular war, called the last war for unclear reasons, it was rationing, typhoid, mild depression, oil.

Old shops swingballed, to maximise malls. On the day she learned of her mother’s death, Lucy saw, from the top of a dizzy bus, a lurching iron ball, splattering through the lath and plaster of an outdated draper.

The new glassy halls were christened, and post-christened, with propitious names, like St Nicholas, Bon Accord, Sonsy Quines.

Santa Claus, Happy to Meet, Big-Breasted Women.

To attract big cargo. And lo, big cargo came. Tall kirks got converted, into pubs and clubs. Once the folk were Picts and Celts, wild, blue, artistic. Then they fled hell as Papists, Episcopapes, Seceders, Receders, and phlegmatic Protestants.

Finally they were Long Throats, happy in their cups. Now Spectacle––

Within three months of my finishing the draft of the novel the city had gone bankrupt. Dramatically and deliberately, indeed at the 11th hour of the 11th month of 2008, Sir Ian Wood, locally-born oil-based multi-millionaire, flanked by representatives of ACSEF and by Alex Salmond, Scotland’s First Minister, then made the Council an offer, namely a £50 million deposit on a new City Square, that they had to decide whether they could refuse or not. It was stated that a City Square would be transformational and that Aberdeen would become an economic backwater unless it embraced the plan. This instant, unsubstantiated and improbable hype has characterised the project ever since. But this is unsurprising when we consider the nature of ACSEF. ACSEF is an offshoot of Scottish Enterprise, and was formerly known, unexceptionably, as Aberdeen City and Shire Economic Forum. A forum’s role in debating and formulating ideas is accepted and understood. Suddenly in 2008 it changed the final word of its title from Forum to Future. Albeit the word Future does not describe any deliberative or executive body known hitherto, this did not deter ACSEF, who claim themselves to be a “dynamic partnership of the public and private sector committed to delivering new economic opportunities”. My researches currently indicate that ACSEF has no constitution, holds no AGM, but has gone the length of approving a Charter that it has written for itself, while deliberately excluding from its wording the privately-acknowledged truth that their body has no legal entity.

Of the 14 current members of the ACSEF board, 11 are unelected business persons, appointed from fields as diverse as building, hotels and communications, one is a university vice-chancellor sitting ex officio, and two are the leaders of Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire Councils, also ex officio. None are civic planners, environmentalists or trades unionists. The secretariat is provided by and the running costs are met by the public sector, both Scottish Enterprise and the Councils. But, indeed, not only the running costs. ACSEF procured a six figure sum from Scottish Enterprise to run a vast promotion and public consultation on the City Square idea. Disingenuously and disgracefully, a pre-existing much more modest project for Union Terrace Gardens, to incorporate a contemporary multi-arts, dance and education centre in the gardens while retaining their character and most of the the mature trees, was excluded from the choices offered in the consultation. This latter scheme, promulgated by the long-standing Peacock VisualArts, already had planning permission from the council, as well as three-quarters of its £13.5 million capital budget in place, some of it requiring building to have commenced by now.

In the event, and despite massive promotional hype, the City Square project was rejected by the public by a 55 per cent to 44 per cent majority. Sir Ian Wood, who had earlier said that he would remove his £50 million if the people showed that they did not want the project, now stated that he would place his faith instead in ‘the democratic process’. To that end he summoned the four political party leaders of Aberdeen City Council to ACSEF’s offices in late March and said that unless the Council backed ACSEF’s ‘leadership’, his money would disappear. It would not be available for alternative projects to ‘spruce up’ the city. Only Labour, so far, has spoken out publicly against this attempt to bully the city.

I wrote to the Lord Provost in April asking him to explain the structural relationship between the City Council and ACSEF, bearing in mind that the Council already has its own Enterprise, Planning and Infrastructure committee. He thanked me for my interest and said the issues I raised were ‘irrelevant’. It would seem to be a pity if a city that blazed a path in Scotland with representation of the Labour Party in the 1920s, that led the street fight against fascism in the 1930s, flocked to publicly subscribe the building of a major new hospital pre-war, and fostered enlightened social and housing policies post-war, and that has one of the few Trades Councils left operative in Scotland, were to surrender the direction of its development to such a patently undemocratic and unaccountable outfit as ACSEF.

The online resistance organised by ad hoc bodies such as I Heart Union Terrace Gardens has been successful. The people have spoken. Will the councillors listen on May 19th?