People power puts £140m Aberdeen civic square deal in doubt

AMBITIOUS proposals to create a new civic square in the heart of Aberdeen look unlikely to come to fruition after a public consultation indicated most residents in the region opposed the plan.

• An artist's impression of the City Square plan to which Sir Ian Wood, inset, has pledged 50m; he now says he will withdraw the offer if Aberdeen City Council votes against it

Results of the consultation showed 55 per cent of 11,943 formal submissions received were against the City Square project, with 44 per cent supporting it.

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Proposals for the 140 million development came with a pledge of 50m in funding from businessman Sir Ian Wood.

But Sir Ian said he was now "less than hopeful" the project could proceed and he has said he will withdraw his substantial offer of support if the council rejects the scheme.

The future of the gardens will now be decided at a meeting of Aberdeen City Council on 19 May when the local authority will debate the city square proposals as part of wider plans to regenerate the city centre.

The development has been hugely controversial ever since Sir Ian, Scotland's second-richest man, backed the plan to create a "beating heart" for the Granite City above the fading Victorian splendour of Union Terrace Gardens.

It has divided the city and some of its famous former residents, including pop star Annie Lennox and legendary Dons manager Sir Alex Ferguson.

Fifty five per cent of those who took part in the consultation objected to the scheme – which is led by Aberdeen City and Shire Economic Future (Acsef), the local economic forum – with only 44 per cent voting in favour.

Instead, they said the most popular facility they wanted to see was formal gardens, with a contemporary arts centre as their second choice – almost identical to the rival Peacock Visual Arts scheme which has already secured planning approval to a build a new 13.5 million contemporary arts centre in the existing gardens.

Reacting to the news, Sir Ian said: "Unless Aberdeen City Council at that meeting decide that the project should proceed with their backing, and that they will step in and take a key leadership role along with Acsef, my financial offer will be withdrawn."

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Sir Ian, who is head of the Wood Group, said: "I'm obviously disappointed, but, with all the misinformation, not surprised at the failure to register majority approval for the transformational city centre proposal from those who have participated." He admitted: "I am now less than hopeful this project can go ahead."

Tom Smith, the chairman of Acsef, confirmed that Sir Ian's 50m would remain on the table until the crucial meeting of the council next month.

He refuted suggestions the public vote had sounded the death knell for the scheme. But he stressed it was now up to the city council to take the leadership on the project.

Mr Smith said: "It is absolutely not dead in the water. Both the people who voted 'yes' and the people who voted 'no' want change and the characteristics of that change are pretty uniform. Aberdeen City Council are now going to discuss this, but in the wider context of the city centre.

"If people are looking for a transformational scheme which also offers a contemporary arts centre as part of it, then that is what the Acsef scheme offers."

And he warned: "If we let this window close on us, the clear message will be that we do not have the ambition or the foresight to prevent a downward spiral that will see a serious decline in our economy, the gradual loss of businesses and consequently jobs and quality of life."

Elly Rothnie, the campaign director for Peacock, welcomed the results of the public feedback.

She said: "This can easily be seen as a vote for what we are trying to achieve. We are delighted to see that all of the major elements that people want to see – greater accessibility, green space and cultural facilities – will be delivered in Peacock's existing plans for Union Terrace Gardens at a fraction of the cost to the public purse and the environment.

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"We hope that the go ahead will now be given for the creation for Peacock's major new cultural centre which will regenerate the existing Gardens and give the people of Aberdeen what they have asked for."