Rejecting Aberdeen gardens plan ‘a blow to democracy’
SIR Ian Wood isn’t saying so but he is clearly apprehensive about the outcome to this week’s vital meeting on the project into which the oil tycoon has poured his heart, his soul and his cash.
On Wednesday, Aberdeen’s council will vote on whether to back the plans to create a new green oasis in the heart of his native city after 45 months of controversy and delay. Although a city-wide referendum earlier this year voted for the plans, the project to transform Victorian Union Terrace Gardens into a futuristic city centre park was thrown back into doubt by the new council after the local elections in May.
On the weekend before the crucial decision, Sir Ian, one of Scotland’s wealthiest businessmen, is clear on the consequences of a No vote.
“Should the vote be against the project, there will be a real sense of dismay and almost a loss of confidence,” he said.
“I think those that voted for the project in the referendum are going to be pretty disillusioned with the whole concept of democracy. I think the business community will be dismayed and the national and international companies in Aberdeen will have a real jolt to their confidence in terms of Aberdeen being a city which has the confidence to invest in its future and a city with vision. I think it will give out a very negative signal.
“And I think those outside, looking to invest in Aberdeen, are going to wonder what on earth is going on. Is Aberdeen really, faced with an opportunity for a major transformational city centre regeneration which wasn’t going to cost its budget and its council taxpayers anything, going to say no to it?”
He continued: “But if the vote is positive, I think there will be an immense sigh of relief in a lot of quarters in the north-east of Scotland.”
The gardens scheme is the biggest planning controversy in the area since US billionaire Donald Trump gained permission to build his new golf course in neighbouring Aberdeenshire. But even seasoned council watchers are struggling with the arithmetic for the 43-strong group of councillors.
The 15-strong opposition SNP group has been leading the fight within the council corridors to make the £140 million “Granite Web” design, by a leading firm of New York architects, a reality. However, the 17-strong Labour group, which has headed the three-way coalition administration – which includes Conservatives and independents – since May, is determined to condemn the transformational scheme to the scrapheap.
Although the SNP is being backed by the three Conservatives, there is continuing uncertainty over how some of the five members of the Liberal Democrat group will vote. The fate of the project may rest with the votes of the three Independent Alliance councillors, headed by Marie Boulton, depute leader of the council.
Sir Ian, who last month announced his intention to retire as chairman of his family’s international energy services firm, the Wood Group, after 45 years with the company, has watched the unfolding events with an increasing sense of frustration.
He has already pledged £50m from the Wood Family Trust to kick-start the creation of the new city centre square above the valley containing Union Terrace Gardens, the Denburn dual-carriageway and the main Aberdeen-Inverness rail line. And he has also said he is willing to put up another £35m to meet any cost overruns in a bid to remove lingering doubts about the financial viability of the project. A No vote, he declared, will be an affront to the democratic process and the majority of the 45,301 Aberdonians – 52 per cent of those who took part – who voted in favour of the Granite Web scheme in an online, postal and telephone poll back in March.
“It will mean that Aberdeen will have a unique cultural centre that doesn’t exist anywhere else,” he said. “The new city gardens will undoubtedly have an impact on Union Street because it will take people back into that central axis. People right now are in Union Square and the other two shopping centres but it will take them back into the heart of the city and help in the regeneration of Union Street.”
Creating an iconic city centre square, he believes, will also help the city to attract new business as the North Sea oil and gas industry, which has transformed the fortunes of Aberdeen over the past 40 years, begins to steadily decline.
“Aberdeen right now is at a real critical mass as far as oil and gas is concerned,” he said. “But the city is very dependent on the North Sea and, as oil and gas depletes, and it gets to a stage when the direct local employment begins to go significantly into reverse, then Aberdeen has to be competitive.
“We have two very fine universities and a beautiful hinterland, but we only have a half-decent city centre.” In May, when Labour regained control of the council, in alliance with the Conservatives and the independents, Barney Crockett, the new leader, announced his party would be calling for the project to be abandoned, in line with their manifesto commitments.
Sir Ian said it was “a matter of great regret” that the project had been politicised. “This is not a political project,” he said. “This is not an issue which should be dividing people along party lines. It’s an issue where councillors in Aberdeen and people in Aberdeen should be voting, based on their assessment of the positive and negative impacts of the scheme.
“And we had a vote of 86,000 – a huge turnout that is more than twice the turnout for the local council elections. And from that, 45,300 voted Yes. My understanding was that would be the end of the matter.”
He will not be attending Wednesday’s vote. He stressed: “It’s never been a vanity project. I would frankly rather have been able to stand much further back from it than I have. The media, as much as anyone else, have made it the ‘Sir Ian Wood project’. But right now there are 45,300 people in Aberdeen who voted for it, and it’s their project.”
He added: “In the danger of being seen as vain, my legacy in Aberdeen is the company called the John Wood Group. I have given my life to that and I have thoroughly enjoyed it and, along with others, built a terrific company.
“The city gardens scheme is an attempt, which I hope will still work, to do something really significant for my home city. I don’t want any benefit or association with it at all. But I would be disappointed and frustrated if it doesn’t happen.”
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Tuesday 18 June 2013
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