Lesley Riddoch: Time for reflection on failed bid

Aberdeen citizens rejected an ambitious �50m privately funded plan to transform Union Street Terrace gardens preferring instead to keep things as they are. Picture: Jane Barlow
Aberdeen citizens rejected an ambitious �50m privately funded plan to transform Union Street Terrace gardens preferring instead to keep things as they are. Picture: Jane Barlow
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Aberdeen must promote its cultural assets more robustly if the city’s ambitions are to be credible, writes Lesley Riddoch

WAs Aberdeen robbed? The city’s finance convener Willie Young certainly thinks so. Judges for the UK City of Culture 2017 said Scotland’s third city failed to reach the shortlist because it lacked coherent vision, passion and a “wow” factor. Its artistic and cultural expertise was also “limited.”

Councillor Young – Labour candidate in the recent Aberdeen Donside by-election – gave a tetchy response: “Aberdeen gets the least money from the Scottish Government of all local authorities, so we are very much driven by the private sector. Dundee gets 80 per cent of their money from the public sector, whereas Aberdeen gets less than 50 per cent. The V&A [Dundee’s £45 million museum project] is all public money, whereas… we are developing our art gallery at a cost of £30 million, of which we are hoping to get £10m from the private sector. The judges obviously decided the V&A had more of a ‘wow’ factor than we had, and the only reason they can develop the V&A is because they are getting money from the public sector and we aren’t.”

Talk about sour grapes.

Thank goodness then for the clear sightedness of Aberdeen’s deputy leader who responded to criticism very differently. Marie Boulton described the report as a reality check: “We have a cultural organisation that runs through this city, but it has always been underground because it has always been overshadowed by the economic development in this city. We want to know where we are going wrong so we can actually get it right.”

Now I must declare an interest as a “Dundee ambassador” with a production company which broadcast from the city until we lost BBC contracts in 2009. So I am biased. But Dundee generally impresses all who visit with its long-standing commitment to the arts and new-found capacity for vision and long term planning. The current waterfront project fits a template agreed at public meetings 15 years ago. It’s been a hard slog but housing is combined with commercial development on the quaysides, the much hated council headquarters Tayside House has just been reduced to rubble and the dual carriageway separating the town and the Tay is currently being removed. The V&A’s commitment to a city once dismissed as a “basket-case” reflects the commitment of Dundonians to restoring their own city.

Marie Boulton’s decision to publish the critical feedback and accept responsibility is the right approach from a civic leader of Aberdeen – because the 2017 snub is just the latest in a series of largely self-made problems.

In 2012 Aberdeen City Council levied the highest average council tax but spent the second least per capita of any Scottish council - partly because five years ago a failure to balance the books almost sent Aberdeen Council into bankruptcy. Last summer Sir Ian Wood withdrew a promised £50m after locals rejected his plans to revamp Union Street Terrace. This year, Union Street was named as one of the ten Scottish streets most badly affected by air pollution but plans to pedestrianise the street were recently shelved. Meanwhile work on a city bypass has finally begun after a decade’s delay caused by local objectors.

Aberdeen has not had its troubles to seek – who knows how many were caused by the Scottish Government’s decision to redistribute the block support grant to help less wealthy areas?

But building a new bypass or even an art gallery will not create cultural confidence. Aberdeenshire is fairly oozing with linguistic treasure, agricultural heritage and an oil industry with its own modern, hard-hat reality but hasn’t developed cultural resources from any of these rich seams.

Some say oil has made the Granite City lazy and unimaginative. And yet Norway’s “Aberdeen” – the oil city of Stavanger – won European City of Culture in 2008 because of its imaginative project to visualise a future beyond the oil era through the medium of the arts.

Aberdeen by contrast has not helped modernise or develop its own great cultural asset – the Mither Tongue. Gaelic got a rejuvenating boost from Runrig, the Feisean Gaelic learning festivals, the Gaelic pre-school play group movement and the BBC’s Eorpa with cutting edge analysis of Scottish and international issues. These initiatives may not have raised numbers but have given Gaelic a more youthful, arts-based feel. By contrast Doric is still overly reliant on the couthy, slightly old-fashioned humour of Scotland The What?

Desperate Fishwives looked set to give a lift to Doric and the Granite City, but after three radio series and a TV pilot in 2010, the hilarious Radio Scotland series disappeared. Happily the talented production team have not – and their website comments on the Aberdeen’s grudging reaction to the 2017 rebuff: “We have a beautiful art gallery, a magnificent theatre, and a beautiful art gallery. It is hard to understand why the jury overlooked these many and varied attractions in favour of a city that has a number of historic ships berthed close to the city centre, a branch of the V&A museum opening in 2015 and which plays host to a thriving Rep theatre. I don’t know what a Rep theatre is, but I find it very hard to believe that it can be as good as a great big muckle granite one.”

Why is someone not doing more with this talented, young Doric team? Some say a BBC stappit fu’ with top Gaels is to blame. But Aberdeen is just as stappit fu’ with private wealth it cannot tap. A recent controversial report revealed 1 in 29 Londoners is a dollar millionaire but Aberdeen has relatively more multi-millionaires. Scottish Government figures show Aberdeen in 2012 had three times fewer lowest-rated Band A homes than Glasgow but a third more Band H homes valued at over £212k.

So Aberdeen is generally rich. But how would we know from the public realm? Many oil firms have international HQs in Aberdeen that resemble DSS offices and local Skean Dhu hotels were apparently built to a functional design in case the oil boom failed and they had to be converted into offices.

It’s time for Aberdeen to get its democratic house in order so it can coax private wealth into the public domain without so many precautionary strings attached – and support Dundee’s 2017 bid out of sheer neighbourliness.

After all, isn’t that what Doric culture is really a’ aboot?