Yesterday afternoon members of Aberdeen SSP joined a music session and picnic in Aberdeen’s Union Terrace Gardens. It was a good day out, with some May warmth, music, and some impromptu placard-making. However, the event also had an important purpose and message: to support the I♥UTG campaign to save Aberdeen’s landmark green space from concrete obliteration.
The story starts back in November 2008. Aberdeen’s Peacock Visual Arts centre had secured 75% of the £13.5 million funding needed to build a new contemporary arts centre in UTG, which would complement and regenerate the existing green space, turning the park into a centre of creative expression, artistic exploration, and overall one of the most exciting cultural projects for Scotland in some time, as you can see here.
Then, Sir Ian Wood, one of Scotland’s richest men and chair of multi-million pound energy firm the John Wood group stepped into the fray with Aberdeen City and Shire Economic Future (Acsef) with an alternative proposal: The City Square Project. This £140 million project involves concreting over the gardens entirely, raising them up to street level (the gardens sit in a valley, much like Edinburgh’s Princes St. Gardens) and creating a square bigger than Moscow’s Red Square, surrounding it by shops, and sticking in a parking garage underneath. To sweeten the deal, Wood offered £50m of his own cash, if the taxpayer could pick up the bill for a good chunk of the rest. This is despite the fact that the council is broke, as we complained in our video here, and in the context of the Lib/Lab/Con/SNP spending cuts, will likely be trying to cut services again soon. Needless to say this hasn’t gone down well with a large section of the Aberdonian population, many of whom prefer the idea of an arts centre, as you can see here at compare the square.
Of course, backed by favourable local press coverage and the business community, Wood pressed on with the project, and Acsef organised a public ‘consultation’ to try and get a stamp of legitimacy for their City Square project, saying they wouldn’t go ahead without public support. Despite a skewed proposal whereby the Peacock Arts centre was not included as a future option for the gardens, and the default answer on the online version was ‘yes’ to the City Square project unless someone changed it, out of 12,000 respondents, 55% said they didn’t want Wood’s ‘vision’. As people familiar with the Donald Trump fiasco will not be surprised by, Wood turned round and said that it was actually up to the council whether the project went ahead or not, and if they didn’t back him then he would walk away with his £50m (saving the council a ton of money in the process of course!).
So this Wednesday 19 May the council is set to vote on the project. One idea is for some kind of merger of the two projects, but with the projects being pretty much mutually exclusive, this is unlikely, and so more likely is that it’s going to have be one or the other. In the run up to the vote the I♥UTG campaign have been urging people to write to local councillors and MPs/MSPs to stress their support for the UTG and opposition to the City Square project. There have also been weekly music jams and yesterdays’ picnic to show the council that the gardens are well used and need to be developed further, not buried under tonnes of concrete. While many members of the Aberdeen SSP support I♥UTG, anyone else reading this who wants to do the same can visit here for more information on the campaign, as well as make their views clear to local councillors ahead of Wednesday’s vote.
Public Space and Local Democracy
However, isn’t there something familiar about this? Arrogant millionaire? Local councillors bending over backwards? Determined business community backed by compliant local press? Destroyed green space and common heritage to make way for private development? Local opposition campaign ignored or marginalised? Oh yes, that Trump thing…
In fact, both the Trump affair, the UTG controversy, and several other examples around Aberdeen, allude to a worrying phenomenon which socialists need to be proactive and campaign against. In a society with stark inequality, men or women with millions of pounds can command a far higher clout in decision making and planning in public life than ordinary people do. This is why organising together into mass campaigns is the only way to stop wealthy individuals overriding what is supposed to be a democratic planning process. As has happened in Aberdeen, when the cash is waved, reporters courted, and glossy plans purporting civic benefits produced, local democracy can take the back seat. This is despite the very questionable nature of these largely or wholly private developments in terms of benefiting the population: remember that the companies advocating these developments are ultimately in it for what profit they can get out of it, rather than thinking about what is most suitable for the needs of a local area or population. And in an age where the four main parties are about to massacre the public sector in waves of spending cuts, cash-strapped councils are going to be all the more tempted to grab that offered private cash, as again and again councillors turn a deaf ear to protest and the press prints what is needed to keep that advertising revenue flowing in.
What the grassroots campaigns of Tripping up Trump and I♥UTG point to the importance of is that along with having to defend our public services against cuts and privatisation in the coming years, socialists need to get prepared to defend our public spaces, so they can be enjoyed by all of us, not run for the profit of just a few of us, as is certainly the case for Trump’s elite golf course, and will very likely be the result of Wood’s City Square vision. In getting involved in such community campaigns, not only can we ensure that public and green spaces are kept that way, but we can fight for local participatory democracy. This is essential for creating both a democratic and inclusive planning process, and laying the building blocks for a better society, where members of a super-rich elite and their representatives cannot treat the views of ordinary people and local democracy with such contempt.