I got the latest piece of propaganda about the Project Formerly Known As The Civic Square Project through my door yesterday, and it repeated the same rubbish I've read before. Most pathetic of all was probably the 10 reasons why we should vote for it, with the first one being "you deserve it". Apart from being vomit-inducing, you really have to wonder why anyone would choose to start a list that's supposed to be convincing people of the need to spend millions of pounds to wreck a beautiful garden of Victorian heritage with the most saccharine, empty excuse possible. But this is not the reason why I'll be voting against the project.
Aberdeen has been lied to. Ever since Ian Wood stuck his oar in, waving his £50 million wad of cash in the council's face like a carrot dangling on the end of a stick (which must mean the council are the donkey, scampering along, trying in vain to catch the elusive orange treat), this whole project has been about trying to hoodwink the Aberdonian public, and it continues to this day. It started out as an idea to fill Union Terrace Gardens up with concrete to turn it into a continental-style plaza, the idea being that people are attracted en masse to big concrete squares. The fact that Union Square had only recently been finished - and performed this exact function - was evidently lost on Mr Wood and others (including the slavishly obedient local press, who think their job is not to hold big business to account, but to aid them in subverting local democracy).
But the public - quite rightly - hated this idea. So to assuage fears about the loss of the city centre's sole green space, the idea was modified to include little bits of grass, then a few more bits of grass, until eventually it was decided that there would be more grass than currently exists, and the project was cunningly renamed from "Civic Square" to "City Garden". At this point we still had the Peacock Visual Arts project vying for the garden too (and lest we forget that there was opposition to this project too, although it's role as the least worst option allowed it to look more popular than it truly was), and the council decided to vote on which project should be the path taken. Unsurprisingly, PVA was dumped and the council chose to go with CGP. There was no option to leave the gardens alone. This was despite people voting 55% against the project at a public consultation, which was the first example of democracy being ignored.
So then companies were asked to submit designs for the garden. Like the Holyrood parliament building, this completely missed a trick, as we could have used this as a way to promote Scottish architecture, which may have gotten people like me on board. It seems bizarre that a city with a prominent architecture school is having a major project designed by an American company. But this wasn't dishonest really, the dishonesty came when we were asked to vote on the designs. We were told we had a choice, a say in the decision. Instead, we were over-ruled, because we voted for the "wrong" design, which was the second time democracy was ignored. Personally, I placed the Concrete Web design last on the list, because of how ugly it looked, like a 1960s vision of a dystopian future.
With the "winning" design in place, the propaganda really stepped up a few gears. We've been told the project will create 6,500 jobs. This is a lie, pure and simple. PricewaterhouseCooper's projection of 6,500 jobs is based on other regeneration schemes, schemes which the council hope the UTG project will kick-off. It amazes me that people have actually swallowed this line without any scrutiny - quite apart from the ridiculous notion that 6,500 people are going to be employed because of a garden, the break down of the actual figures doesn't even make much sense. 3,000 jobs in "industry", with 2,300 in "business". Eh? What's the difference? The fact is, the project only intends to have space for a cultural centre of sorts (because Aberdeen is so awash with culture vultures that we need another unused cultural space), so any direct employment will be low-quality jobs like cafe workers and cleaners.
The jobs lie is the thing that annoys me the most, and it's probably the thing that has put me well and truly into the "no" camp. The reality is these other regeneration schemes are not possible under current council funding (due to the Tories decimating public spending), so they need this TIF scheme to fund them (and an email I got from a prominent member of the council a couple of years ago highlighted that this was just part of a wider scheme to totally regenerate the city centre, but failed to explain why this had to be the starting point). But TIF can only be used if there is significant funding from other sources to base the projects on. This, of course, comes in the form of Mr Wood's "generous" £50 million dangling carrot, which is no more a gift than if I told someone I would give them £1 million to spend on decorating their house, "but only if you use it to build a monument to my greatness, rather than on anything useful", which in reality is what Mr Wood effectively wants. Like all rich old men, mortality is starting to creep up on him, and he thinks he deserves to have some sort of "legacy" in his home city so that people in the future will think "wow, he was such a great man," even though all he has really done is generate huge wealth for himself.
People fall for these lies because they see shops lying empty on Union Street, completely oblivious to the fact that these shops lie empty because Union Square has taken a huge chunk of the trade, because online shopping has led to a sharp decrease in the need for things like music shops, and because there's a recession in the UK. Could it even be as simple as the fact that we're not that big a city, that there is only so much shopping we can do, and that the history of failed retail spaces (the beach, the Galleria and the Academy are full of them, and the Bon Accord Centre and St Nicholas Centre are really showing their age) are a testament to this fact? The empty high street with lots of boarded up retail spaces is a picture repeated all across the UK, and it's not going to be reversed by spending money we don't have on a garden. This isn't Field of Dreams, and "they" won't come just because we build "it". Sports Direct moved from the old Virgin Megastore to further down Union Street - that tells me that there are viable businesses, they just aren't attracted to certain places. Perhaps a reduction in rent for these spaces would attract businesses?
There are various other lies and dodgy scenarios that put me off the scheme (the lie currently doing the rounds that every tree in UTG has Dutch Elm disease; the fleeting appearance of a page on Buro Happold's website congratulating themselves on winning the contract to build the garden, even though we've not given consent yet; the much-repeated mantra that UTG is full of junkies and muggers, even though the police have stated it's one of the safest spots in the city), but it's this blatant manipulation that puts me off the most.
I could have been swayed to support this project, but it has been built on a false premise, and right from the word go it has been plagued by dishonesty. It leaves a nasty taste in the mouth, and I'm sorry, but considering how much the public have been ignored up to now, it'll be difficult to truly believe there haven't been some shenanigans going on if the referendum returns a "yes" vote. The only way we can really be sure that there have been no fixes to the referendum is if the result is "NO".
Aberdeen needs regeneration, and it needs a real vision. What it doesn't need is blind optimism based on lies.