It is said that life is stranger than fiction. Certainly is if you live in Aberdeen.
What appeared wildly exotic fantasy in John Aberdein’s marvellous satire, Strip the Willow has come to pass. Yes, really or should I say, Aye, ken fit I mean, min?
If ever there was a misbegotten name it is surely One Aberdeen so let’s improve on it – how about LeopCorp? Hang on, it’s not a million miles from Aberdeen Pure – the joint venture water bottling plant on top of Brairiach – ‘A Peoples’ Water – Aberdeen Pure’. (STW)
I don’t think so. One Aberdeen. Live in hope dear council. It has been a very long time since the people of Aberdeen were at one with their council. Given the debacle of the consultation and ultimate decision to trample over the views of public feeling and push through the hugely unpopular Union Terrace Gardens programme largely determined by one man, albeit a rich one, Aberdeen citizens know exactly where “their” council stands – on the opposite side of the chasm from them.
Council officials fish about in their in-trays marked ‘panic’ and out drops such crisis coping gems as: close all public parks, all art gallery and museums and as many schools as we can get away with.
Okay council officers are just playing silly buggers so that when the sensational headline proposals are junked there will be a collective sigh of relief when the axe really does fall on services once regarded as essential.
But wait, wait a bit – how then is One Aberdeen still in the reckoning?
It runs along principles along the lines of – Aberdeen City Council is incapable of handling the city’s multi-million pound assets so there will be shared responsibility for developing them by linking up with local businesses. Once there has been a transfer of such property and land to One Aberdeen wave a magic wand say abracadabra and watch money rain down on Aberdeen and what remains from the profits after the private companies had taken their whack will be invested into ‘less affluent’ i.e. poor areas of the city. Land values will rise, Aberdeen will attract outside investment and jobs will be created. That is the sales line.
Among the 14 or so targets of One Aberdeen will include the area surrounding Aberdeen Exhibition and Conference Centre (AECC is losing money hand over fist), the Bon Accord Baths (closed down under great controversy despite being well used), Union Terrace Gardens (even more controversial with its rich man’s vanity project utterly rejected by the people of Aberdeen but steadfastly supported by the Cooncil).
Er, why does the city hold properties and control certain services in the first place? Perhaps something to do with not being able to trust private enterprise to preserve and value them and so they are held in trust by the people for the people. Along comes some whipper-snapper official who thinks a trouble shared is a trouble halved and so big business is in.
Perhaps with a joint holding organisation in charge of public assets it might be expected that the peoples’ representatives will hold the chair and casting vote but, wait again, this is Aberdeen – no, the council is to hand over the final say to the chair- a city businessman – or woman. I can only imagine the Cheshire cat grins on these men’s face as they rub their hands and lick clean their cream-laden whiskers.
The jargon promises maximising the city’s unused assets and promoting regeneration – well blow me down, isn’t that kind of what council’s should have been doing these past years? What’s the matter with these people? What do they get paid for? Anyone out there who can answer that?
Hello, hello, hello what have we here – ah, Kate Dean – why do people smile when they hear that Kate Dean is up for something? So, as convener of the Enterprise, Planning and Infrastructure Committee Ms Dean – is it too intrusive to ask just what have you and your committee been doing for the city? Can’t hear you. Oh, you have nothing to say. Ever have self-doubts? No it’s fine, just a rhetorical question – I’m not that naive. A quote from Councillor Dean, “I welcome this. Moves to create a company like this have been around for a long time. We have assets at the moment which are not working for the people of Aberdeen and that’s not what we are about. We want to make our assets work for the city.”
No, Councillor Dean – this is precisely WHAT you are about – a plan around for a long time, assets not working for the people – this is YOU and the rest of the COUNCIL that has created and sustained this situation – nobody else. Still no self-doubts? Okay, can’t criticise me for trying.
Vice-convener Callum McCaig gets to the nub of the issue. Public private partnerships have been around for some time and not always very successfully but an optimist, McCaig states, “…this is a public private partnership which will actually work for the public, not just for the private sector and I look forward to seeing it moving forward.”
Well it’s a point of view but not a guarantee Mr McCaig. You recognise that not all PPPs work but assure the people of Aberdeen this one will – and not just for the private sector – is there an inference there that in the past that’s what PPPs have done? Just pause a moment Mr McCaig – what if it turns out like the rest of them? What happens then?
It is not only Aberdeen facing this type of quandary and more councils will be looking at PPPs as the economic climate continues its downward spiral. There will be many more moves to use public assets to attract private finance for regeneration programmes.
“…concern has been exacerbated by the structures being classified by Treasury as “novel, contentious and repercussive”. There we have it – chances are all the optimistic talk is just that. What happens when reality sets in?
Whatever the name adopted by this type of joint venture arrangements between public and private sectors, PFI/ PPP/LSP, they aim to reap rewards but the risks are substantial.
While there are recorded successes for such partnerships that is not the whole story. Yes shareholders and mangers of private companies involved may see higher profits but public assets are often sold off for less than their full value and public services fail to reach required standards.
“Far from constituting partnerships in any meaningful sense, PPPs provide for the contracting parties to pursue their separate, diverse and potentially conflicting public and private interests.”
PPPs – It’s time to take the PIIS by Christopher Sheil – http://evatt.labor.net.au/
PPPs emerged as a result of the economic crisis of the 1970s when major cuts in public spending were being introduced by successive UK governments and investment in the public sector dropped significantly. Interestingly this was during the period when many private fortunes were being made with North Sea oil and gas extraction at its peak.
One Aberdeen has materialised from a council incapable of running its own services, a council devoid of imagination and ability. There is an expectation that private sector managers will be able to do better than the ranks of officials on salaries ranging from just under £50K to well in excess of £100K. If PPP is the extent of their combined deliberations then shouldn’t they all be offering themselves up as sacrifices for the sorry mess they have made of governing the city? But perhaps it may be a crumb of comfort to these fat-cat officials that when private is mixed with public such as hospital cleaning, the results have been a decline in standards and no-one needs reminding of the current dire state of our hospitals with regards infections. The private sector will squeeze and squeeze profit from joint projects, cutting staff – cutting service.
Where there are partnerships between a public body and the private sector where does the latter influence stop? What level of responsibility does the private sector carry, e.g. for dirty hospitals? What influence will private investors have on the running of schools, allocation of resources, teachers employed when their money is being spent on building and refurbishing them?
One Aberdeen is the private sector’s Christmases and birthdays rolled into one providing them with access and influence over empty buildings and land which will result in ‘surplus’ public assets being sold off for private development.
Lack of democratic accountability
When councillors mismanage they can be rejected by the electorate at elections, oh alright this does not apply to the mediocrity that is often the council officer but what about the accountability of the business partners represented in One Aberdeen? Who do you think they will be more accountable to – the amorphous mass of Aberdonians or their shareholders and company boards?
Which officer from the council will turn out to be Guy Bord? (STW)
‘UberStreet’s hitherto hidden quality as a street, said Guy, as a long street, a long and very straight street, was it aptitude as a giant ball alley.’ (STW)
Public and private interests very often clash
‘Planning controls will need to be more imaginative, agreed Swink.’ (STW)
Commercial confidentiality is vital to private companies who are hot on protecting their intellectual property rights. How does this tie in with public accountability? Will there be limited public accountability because of the strictures applied by private business interests in One Aberdeen. You can bet your bottom dollar there will be.
100% retained by the public or lost assets?
According to HM Treasury in 1999, PFI/PPP assets should revert to public ownership at the end of the contract where it is in the public interest and when there is no alternative use for the assets. So there you have it – assets ‘should’ revert, ‘if in the public interest’ – who determines that? ‘When there is not alternative use’ – if a private company cannot see a profit in them. Not many guarantees there then. And what will be the state of public finances at the end of the period One Aberdeen will be set up for? Will the city then be ready to take back and run these public assets or will it have to continue down the road of another similar scheme? Like the Kaimhill ski centre, this is a slippery slope leading straight to the bargain basement box of ‘public assets clearance sale’.
One Aberdeen as with LeopCorp’s Aberdeen Pure is unadulterated Pîche.