Aberdeen first city outside central belt to host parliament

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ABERDEEN was chosen yesterday as the first location outside the central belt to host the Scottish parliament, in what was hailed as a major coup for Europe’s oil capital.

The parliament will move to the north-east of Scotland next May when the Assembly Hall on the Mound in Edinburgh is returned to the Church of Scotland for a week to stage the General Assembly.

The parliament has moved only once before - to Glasgow last year - and The Scotsman understands that the final choice to play host to the parliament next year had been narrowed down to Aberdeen and Dumfries, the town at the heart of Dumfries and Galloway, the region hardest hit by the foot-and-mouth outbreak.

It is believed that the superior facilities on offer in Aberdeen tipped the balance in its favour.

The Church of Scotland agreed to hold this year’s assembly at the Usher Hall to allow MSPs to continue meeting at the Mound. However, the Kirk insisted that the Assembly Hall be available for next year’s meeting of commissioners.

The bid to host the Scottish parliament had been jointly championed by Aberdeen City Council and Aberdeen University.

The parliament will be held in the university’s King’s Conference Centre. The city council’s own chamber is too small to accommodate all the MSPs, officials and others who would attend the parliament. The centre’s auditorium has seats for 150 delegates and a gallery that can provide seating for up to 60 members of the public.

The decision to take the parliament to Aberdeen will provide a major economic boost to the city.

Last night, Councillor Len Ironside, the leader of the city council, said: "This is a massive vote of confidence in Aberdeen .

"It not only demonstrates that we have the facilities to stage such a prestigious event, but it restores my faith in devolution."

He added: "We worked together to pull off this feat, and there is a buzz of excitement that it is happening.

"We have just completed Offshore Europe, which was one of the most successful exhibitions for many years. Delegates from throughout the world were full of praise for Aberdeen. This is yet another opportunity to showcase Aberdeen and the north-east."

Professor Duncan Rice, the principal of Aberdeen University, said he was delighted that the city’s bid had succeeded. "The new parliament holds the promise of a new political landscape for Scotland," he said . "The parliament has committed itself to having a presence in every region of the country," he went on.

"I am honoured that the Scottish parliament has agreed to come to the University of Aberdeen, one of Scotland’s great ancient universities with an international profile."

The cost of moving the Scottish parliament to a temporary home in Glasgow for three weeks last year was estimated at 420,000.

However, the one-week shift to Aberdeen is expected to cost considerably more because of the travelling distances involved and the need to find accommodation for the MSPs and their staff.

The decision to switch the parliament away from Edinburgh has been condemned by David McLetchie, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, who described "the travelling parliament" as a monumental waste of public money.

But the decision to converge on Aberdeen was last night defended by Presiding Officer Sir David Steel, who is also chairman of the parliamentary bureau.

Sir David said: "One of the parliament’s key guiding principles is the need for accessibility, and this does not just mean providing public facilities in Edinburgh or the central belt. This is a parliament for the whole of Scotland."

He continued: "Our time in Glasgow in May 2000 was very successful and showed what is possible when the parliament works in close co-operation with a local authority.

"On this occasion, the bureau felt we should go outside the central belt. I am sure Aberdeen, if approved by the parliament, will prove equally popular.

"The fact that our agreement with the Church of Scotland meant we would be required to vacate the Assembly Hall again next May - as we did in 2000 - provides the ideal opportunity to meet outside Edinburgh."

A spokesman for Sir David said the parliamentary bureau’s recommendation would be submitted for approval by MSPs today. He said: "The bureau has decided to recommend that, though the Assembly Hall Chamber is likely to be unavailable for three weeks during the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly, the temporary venue should be used for only one week.

"The parliament is likely to meet for three full days, giving committees the opportunity to meet frequently in the other two weeks that we are out of the Assembly Hall."

Bids to host the parliament had been received from Aberdeen, Dumfries, Dundee, Dunfermline and Glasgow.