THE offer of a £50 million gift by oil tycoon Sir Ian Wood to help transform the heart of Aberdeen’s city centre is set to be formally rejected at a meeting of the city council this week.
The rejection of the massive donation is expected to finally bring an end to the long running and bitter dispute between the authority’s Labour-led administration and Sir Ian over the potential redevelopment of the city’s Victorian Union Terrace Gardens.
Back in October, in a surprise move, Sir Ian put his offer of a £50 million gift towards the redevelopment of the city centre back on the table - a year after the controversial £140 million scheme to transform the sunken gardens was thrown out by the Labour-led coalition administration.
The billionaire businessman pledged that he would still deliver on his donation towards the regeneration of Europe’s oil capital - provided Aberdeen City Council came up with a new project to transform the heart of the city by the end of the year.
But Councillor Willie Young, the council’s finance convener, claimed today that the “strings” attached to Sir Ian’s offer meant that it would be impossible for the council to meet his demands before the 31 December deadline.
A report, to go before Wednesday’s council meeting, is recommending that the Wood Family Trust should be told that “it is not currently possible for the council to provide the trust with the clear indication it seeks in relation to the design criteria stipulated as part of its proposed funding offer towards the costs of a city centre project.”
Councillor Young claimed: “It has become impossible for the council to meet the terms that Sir Ian Wood put to us. There were certain terms that the council couldn’t accept at this time. This was a gift that had strings attached and those strings attached couldn’t be met by the council.”
He said: “It is impossible for the council to meet the end of year deadline, primarily because we are going out to a masterplan and that masterplan will take a wee bit of time to develop. Had we been offered £50 million - without the strings attached - of course we would have been able to accept the money and would have been able to get on and do the masterplan. However, Sir Ian has been quite specific about what he wants for his £50 million and at this time the council cannot take that forwards.”
Councillor Young continued: “We are doing all the things that Sir Ian Wood has asked to do but it needs to be done via the masterplan. We cannot just say to Sir Ian ‘We will take on your plan’ without going out to the market. We want city regeneration but we cannot meet Sir Ian’s timescale.”
Asked whether the administration would be regarded as fools for rejecting such a generous gift, Councillor Young replied: “I think that when Sir Ian Wood sees our masterplan, and sees that it will fulfil most of his requirements, then I am hoping that he will come back and say it is transformational and something he wants to be involved in. However, if he doesn’t then we as a council need to move forward and deliver it ourselves.
“We have to do this for the good of the city - not for the good of Sir Ian. And, to be fair to Sir Ian, he understands that. We can’t be divided like we were on Union Terrace Gardens. There is a huge opportunity for us to start again and to develop something that all of the city is behind.”
The report to go before Wednesday’s meeting of the council is recommending that up to £750,000 of the cost of the proposed masterplan for the city centre should be underwritten from the City Centre Infrastructure Fund.
It also recommends that funding contributions towards the costs are sought from Scottish Enterprise, the Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen University and from the private sector in the city.
The report further recommends that “officers be requested to discuss development options for the Denburn Valley with Network Rail within the context of a masterplan for the city and that discussions should be undertaken with relevant organisations and companies on the potential for a light transport system for the city; and that officers be requested to confirm to the Wood Family Trust that as a masterplan is to be developed for the city centre as part of the delivery of the Strategic Infrastructure Plan, it is not currently possible for the council to provide the trust with the clear indication it seeks in relation to the design criteria stipulated as part of its proposed funding offer towards the costs of a city centre project.”
Sir Ian said tonight: “It is now clear that there is no hope that the more ambitious transformational project which Wood Family Trust would be prepared to help fund will be supported by the current administration.
“The trust continues to believe the transformational project is very important for Aberdeen’s long term economy and sincerely regrets that, following the positive referendum and availability of significant Government TIF funds, the trust’s offer has not been accepted.”
He added: “We have two significant African projects coming under serious consideration and the trustees decided at our last meeting that it was unreasonable to expect the trust to keep the offer open after the end of this year.”