Archive for ‘Marischal Square’

June 12, 2017

Aberdeen Music Hall: British Nationalism and the Light Fantastic

Music Hall 1859

Inside the Music Hall 1859

Guest blog by Textor

On April 26 1820 Aberdeen was witness to one of its grandest processions of the early 19th century. With great pomp and even some circumstance around 1500 men (no women) formed orderly lines and marched westward from the heart of the burgh at the Castlegate to Union Bridge above the Denburn and beyond to the site designated for a new Public Hall which would become known as the Music Hall. Laying of the hall’s foundation stone, as it turned out, became an occasion for celebrating local and national pride but first let us establish our historical bearings.

The economic and political disturbances of the wars with France were over. Stability, growth and progress seemed possible and probable with the United Kingdom – Britain (often conceived as England) to the fore. The Public Hall was a sign of this confidence. And where better to show such confidence than on Union Street? Here was a street slowly but surely becoming the grand carriageway for traffic to the city centre and it continued beyond the old town in a semi-rural setting; well away from industry, overcrowding, noise, filth and disease. As one commentator said of the area –

On the whole a more dry, healthy, and eligible situation for Building, is not to be found in the vicinity of the Town.

1828 Plan Union Street

Site of the Music Hall between Golden Square and Union Street 1810

Whether for a new villa or grand public hall the land west of Union Bridge was full of prime sites, ripe for speculative development. As the street was very underdeveloped any impressive new building would stand in near splendid isolation – an emphatic visual sign of confidence and good taste not to mention ostentation.

To note in passing, when the west side of Broad Street was recently cleared to reveal for the first time Marischal College in all its architectural glory (or folly depending on taste) how easy it would have been to emulate the architectural commitment of Georgian Aberdeen but no sooner did we get a tantalising glimpse of what might be than it was snatched away as Willie Young and his Council cohorts spurned the notion of giving the city an iconic architectural facade. Instead they gave Aberdeen the monotony of uninspired glass and steel boxes; like cartoon characters with cash signs in their eyes their vision saw money to be made from the cleared site.

Those private investors in the 1820 hall were also motivated in part by commercial concerns – of what they might make from shares in the enterprise. But they at least recognised that site and architecture mattered. Designs were invited including from Aberdeen’s two foremost architects, Archibald Simpson and John Smith. They were men with established architectural reputations and just as importantly their local work had given them a strong sense of what could and could not be achieved with granite, the local building stone. This is important as the very hardness of the stone and the low-technology available to masons imposed severe limitations on the ornamental styles possible. Granite lent itself to the austere rather than decorative exuberance of freestone architecture. The Aberdeen Journal praised the submitted designs, saying they exhibit a chaste imitation of the simplest style of Grecian Architecture, to which the celebrated Granite of this County is so admirably adapted. Simpson won the commission: local man, local stone, local pride.

And here we are at April 1820. Men assembled, about to march. And not just any men. They were Freemasons. Changed days. Long gone are the times when masons assembled with banners and regalia to march through the town to mark civic occasions or for the funeral of a lodge member. Tradesmen, professionals and aristocrats were proud openly to display their Masonic beliefs. European Freemasons might have been tainted by notions of radicalism and ideas of popular democracy but here in 1820 Aberdeen participants, whether operative members or those drawn from higher social circles were intent in showing loyalty to the Town and to Britain (Crown and Country).

James Duff 4 Earl of Fife (2)

James Duff, 4th Earl of Fife

Heading the Masonic dedication was James Duff 4th Earl of Fife, Depute Grand Master of Scotland. The Earl had fought under Wellington in France; he was a friend of the British King although this did not stop him voting against a Royal tax policy in Parliament. His “liberal” views led him to support Catholic Emancipation and vote for parliamentary reform in 1832. He seems to have been a bit of a loose cannon and far from being in the same reactionary mould of Wellington and his cohorts. But like the Iron Duke he was a staunch patriot.

Duff’s speech to fellow masons was replete with a mixture of calls to patriotism and hinted at concerns particular to his neck of the woods which was Banffshire. With an estimated crowd of 10,000 gathered Rule Britannia was sung, followed by a Masonic blessing of Cornucopia, May the all-bounteous Author of Nature bless this city with an abundance of Corn, Wine, and Oil. The Earl of Fife then got stuck in, telling the multitude, those close enough to hear, how pleased he was at the local initiative and especially happy that the investors had not been obliged to resort to foreign artists to furnish the design for the Public Rooms. Simpson’s work was admirable, he said, as was the industry of Aberdonians, making gems from barren rock, meaning turning brute granite into a material for wealth, utility and beauty.

Local History 010

A more familiar picture of the Music Hall on Union Street now an urban setting

A landowner with a reputation for his willingness to listen to claims or complaints from his tenants on his Banffshire estates James Duff applied himself to their problems and the fact that disparities of wealth were about to be highlighted with the construction of the large neo-classical hall. The granite edifice might well give employment to many quarriers and masons around Aberdeen but at the same time standing on its prestigious site clearly visible from Union Bridge the hall embodied difference and exclusion: its doors were open only to those with wealth and social connections, made more obvious by its countryside setting. James Duff got straight to the point –

…although it was constructed more immediately for the purpose of innocent festivity and
amusement, the wants of the poor and indigent would not be forgot by those within its
walls, who might tread upon the light fantastic toe, and lead the mazy dance; the situation of the public charities of the place would be considered, and liberal contributions made to relieve the distressed . . . and thus prove that, although they [the poor] could not partake of the festivities for which the Building was about to be erected, those who enjoyed them were not unmindful of their privations, but anxious to alleviate them; thereby conveying to them some of the fruits of the social scene, and sweetening as far as is in their power, the bitter cup of their adversity, to receive their blessing in return.

He found in poet James Thomson’s “Four Seasons” moral, patriotic and ideological support for his opinions and the verse from Thomson the Earl chose that day in 1820 included a call for protection of British fishing interests:

nor look on, Shamefully passive, while Batavian fleets
Defraud us of the glittering, finny swarms,
That heave our friths, and croud upon our shore.

British waters for British fishermen. The poem comes from the early 18th century but the message James Duff decided was applicable to the 1820s after seeing off Napoleon the United Kingdom must keep hold of its global maritime power or as Thomson put it, … united Britain make Intire, th’ imperial Mistress of the deep. Maritime freedom was essential as British commercial and industrial might was then in the process of encircling the globe. In the two years following the ceremony Fife backed Banffshire fish curers when they sought relief from the salt tax; similarly he backed local herring fishermen when they asked to be exempt from paying tax on imported European oak staves.

Union Street from South

Union Street from the south

But the Earl was not satisfied simply with being British. He had a double or more complex identity; two nationalities. He was British and also Scottish – from a country with its own traditions and history and this he employed to enthuse and legitimise the 1820s. Having already used the words of one Scotch poet for defence of Britannia he turned to another for fashioning Scottishness: Sir Walter Scott, prolific author and said to be the inventor of the historical novel. With a European-wide readership Scott’s poetry and novels made him amongst the most influential writers of the period. James Duff found the model and images in he sought in the romantic poem “Lord of the Isles”; a work which extols the virtues of initiative and independence as portrayed in the trials, tribulations and victories of the Bruce. Scott’s narrative tells how the would-be King of Scots defeated the foreign foe, the English. Duff drew Aberdeen citizens into the narrative, explaining that the city had played a noble role in the saga when citizens provided a place of safety for Bruce then pursued by enemy forces. “Inventing” a local history for Bruce the Earl imagined the fleeing man dreaming of Liberty at the site of hills. In the Earl’s imagination Bruce has been inspired by landscape and the loyalty of Aberdonians leading to, in Walter Scott’s words, the heartfelt cry –

Oh Scotland! Shall it e’re be mine/ To Wreak thy wrongs in battle-line/ To raise my victor head and see/ Thy hills, thy dales, thy people free.

On the face of it this was a battle-cry for a return to the former glories of an independent country. But no. The Earl told his audience that the days of the Bruce were past; events that happened in “times of Yore”. Romantic visions of medieval kings defeating foes was a great story but he and his fellow masons lived in the world of Hanoverian settlement and post 1707 Union. It was not political independence he called for but the qualities of determination, commitment, initiative and loyalty which he found in the story of Bruce to be used to strengthen the forces of commercial progress and Rule Britannia. Much like Sir Walter Scott who described, dramatised and absorbed Scotland’s distinct and turbulent past Fife’s lesson was that was then this is now and progress henceforward would come in the guise of a new identity albeit one containing the DNA of previous forms.

Union Bridge

Union Bridge complete with washing line

So James Duff 4th Earl of Fife laid the foundation stone and in doing this provided the multitude with a sense of the moral and political lights that should guide them. Finally turning to the assembled spectators he thanked them for their respectable behaviour, for their silence and proprietary of demeanour all a sure sign of the good sense of the citizens of Aberdeen.

April 10, 2016

Edinburgh’s schools are falling down…PFI

Edinburgh’s schools are falling down

Falling down, falling down.

Edinburgh’s schools are falling down

PFI.

Private Finance Initiative aka Public Private Partnerships aka Milking the Public Purse

Surely someone is responsible – who could it possibly be?

Oxgangs Primary

Let me take you back – if you have a moment – to 2001 when the then Scottish Executive signed a contract worth around £360 million with a private consortium to build and maintain schools in the capital. What could possibly go wrong?

Labour was in power back then – I know – it’s hard to believe. The Scottish Executive proudly announced plans to build or refurbish some 110 schools across Scotland at a cost of £2.3 billion. Many of the schools had stood since Victorian times and it was thought a good idea to modernise the sector but the projected figure of £2.3 billion was queried with fears that, one way or another, we the public would end up paying through the nose for the deal.

McConnell makes investment pledge

Jack McConnell with Helen Liddell

Jack McConnell takes delegates’ applause

By BBC News Online’s Brian PonsonbyJack McConnell has committed the Scottish Labour Party to a programme of investment in public services which uses private finance as well as government cash.

The first minister told delegates at the party’s conference in Perth that he intended to “invest to build public services for the 21st century” with “public capital and sometimes with private capital”.

He also promised to build or modernise 100 schools under Public Private Partnerships (PPP) over the next four years.

We’ll work together to sort out how we give people the maximum return for every one of their pounds we are spending

Jack McConnell
First Minister

His commitment sends out a clear message to the trade unions that he will not be deterred from using PPPs to boost public services.

Mr McConnell’s message was delivered just hours after Scottish Labour narrowly escaped a union-led defeat of a policy document which advocates use of private finance. (Sat 23 Feb 2002)

 

PPP/PFI arrangements tie in both parties for decades and it’s not just a case of paying off the initial investment but interest on the investment was added for all the years of the contract, naturally. PPP also meant oversight of public developments were transferred into private hands including scrutiny of standards of construction and bearing in mind profits and rewards for shareholders are always central to private capital institutions that should have raised concerns.

Of course many criticised the policy at the time, fearing for the quality of these PPP schools, but a spokesman for the Scottish Executive insisted:

“PPP is delivering real results for teachers and pupils and they do represent value for money.”

Who was that spokesman? Please get in touch and explain your definition of value for money.

The savings promised by PPP  schemes were illusionary. Edinburgh’s schools are merely the latest evidence that in the end PPPs cost the public purse dear. As well as hidden expenses buried within contracts companies involved in PPPs have not infrequently  been linked to offshore tax havens – for tax efficiency I think is the appropriate technical term.

Why don’t public bodies just borrow to build? You may well ask. I believe there is a limit on local authority borrowing but PPP has shown it was not a suitable alternative although similar schemes are still being undertaken. 

Introduced into the UK by the Tories in 1992 as Private Finance Initiative the scheme was meant to reduce public borrowing and was enthusiastically seized upon by incoming Labour governments starting under the reign of Tony Blair. Despite outrageous claims promoting their benefits PFI/PPP were soon costing tax payers eye-watering amounts to maintain as budgets took on lives of their own and contracts were shown to be not so much written up as stitched up.

mcconnell - Copy

With many PPP project costs spiralling out of control authorities found it a whole lot harder to get out of them than make them in the first place; they had not noticed they had signed away their souls (our souls) to the devil. Anyone guilty of such misuse of public monies should be instantly sacked or jailed. They were not and will not be, of course.

PPP has been adopted world-wide and produced a legacy of unfulfilled contracts which have drained community resources. This is especially despicable in developing countries where promises of improvements to infrastructure fail to materialise at the expense of the poorest and most vulnerable.

As the PPP revolution became tarnished as tawdry profiteering other schemes have been set up in a cash and grab culture affecting public services and cash flows. Look no further than what’s happening with the NHS (in England and Wales at least) whereby this valuable asset is seen as ripe for plucking by businesses with an eye on a quick- and long-lasting buck. Contracting out is a massive con and it only requires a cursory glance at former government ministers who have taken up positions on boards of health-related companies to see how much self-serving and unscrupulous greed is at the heart of the UK government.

sky bridge

Twenty years ago was when many of us in Scotland had our eyes opened to this muddying of the roles separating private and public where public services and assets were concerned. In 1995 the Skye bridge was built through a funding arrangement with a North American company. Under the name Skye Bridge Ltd it financed and controlled the bridge which meant it charged people to cross – huge crippling tolls that hammered locals and local businesses who had little choice once the ferry was removed; the most expensive bridge crossing in Europe it was claimed with charges equivalent to £5.70 a mile. Well organised protests led to frequent attendances before the Dingwall sheriff who imposed fines and a few prison sentences in an attempt to damp down resistance. In 2007 under huge pressure from public opinion the Labour-Liberal administration at Holyrood was forced to end this unfair tax on bridge users and the bridge was purchased from Sky Bridge Ltd for £27 million. Given that the initial cost of its construction was a modest £15 million this amount looks steep but then the private financiers were enjoying a cash bonanza from crossing charges to the tune of £33.3 million – that is £33.3 million plus £27 million – and that’s what we know. Not a bad return given their operating costs were estimated at £3.5 million.

new craigs

New Craigs Hospital .

Former Labour health minister Susan Deacon (partner of BBC’s John Boothman) proudly opened a new psychiatric hospital in Inverness in 2000. It cost £14 million. That is £14 million for starters. In fact you and me and just about everyone in the UK, except the mega rich who salt away their cash, ended up paying an eye-watering £106 million for this modest building and the contract agreed by the Scottish Executive had handed over the land it stood on to the financiers until the 22nd century unless NHS Highland coughed up to buy them out. Who could possibly have agreed a contract like that?

I would love to hear Susan Deacon’s opinion on how this was value-for-money for taxpayers.

In 2008 alarm bells rang out when 3i Infrastructure Ltd, registered in Jersey, became a major shareholder in planned refurbishment of schools in the Highlands. As the Herald explained at the time, before we all became experts on the practice, off-shore registered companies pay no UK tax on profits – so – whatever they earned from this school project they would not be contributing to- er, schools and education in this country in quite the way the rest of us do through being taxed at source. As long as we are all clear on that I’ll carry on.

Inverness Airport was another Highland PPP financed project. Agreed in 1998 as a £9.6 million deal it promised a new terminal at no cost to the public purse initially. In this arrangement the private financiers, Inverness Air Terminal, were paid £3.50 for every passenger travelling through the airport. Within six years the cost of the project had been met BUT the contract was not due to end until 2024 – I’ll leave you to calculate how much the remaining contract could have earned them?

Amidst huge criticism Scottish Executive ministers decided to buy back the lease from IAT for what is thought to have been £36 million – and all for a project that was to cost £9.6 million. It was good news for IAT, however, who recouped their initial investment plus £36 million.

You would have thought someone at Labour HQ might have twigged. Ach well, there’s public money to get them out of a jam so what did it matter?

PPP mcconnell

Which brings me back to Edinburgh’s great schools initiative involving Equion, Miller, Bank of Scotland and Quayle Munro. Step up then Edinburgh Labour Council leader Rev Ewan Aitken:

“We have been on a tremendous journey over the past few years and today marks an important milestone for our Smart Schools initiative…

Over the past three years as I’ve visited our new schools, the one thing that strikes you as soon as you walk through the doors is how the pupils, parents and staff have great pride in their new surroundings.”

Sometimes pride is short-lived, Rev.

“This is not just an investment in bricks and mortar but an investment in the future of Edinburgh’s pupils, both current and in generations to come.” he continued.

I suppose future is a moveable feast.

broon

Gordon Brown backed PPP

In old London town in 2002 there was an internal Labour Party spat going on between Gordon Brown, Alastair Darling and then Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone ,who objected to proposed PPP funding of improvements to London transport. It did not take long before the London Underground venture was being described as “one of the great scandals of the decade” – join the queue.

“Dismissing advice from experts and ignoring mounting problems over the contracts Chancellor Gordon Brown insisted they were pushed through because he did not want London Underground to be responsible for the much needed upgrade of the system.” 

darling

“Earlier this month Alistair Darling, the Transport Secretary, effectively blocked a fresh legal challenge from Mr Livingstone by indemnifying the consortia against any effect of any court action.

Under the PPP deal, Mr Darling is due to hand over London Underground to Mr Livingstone’s Transport for London (Tfl) body. But Mr Darling has said he will not do this if any court action was going ahead.

Just before Christmas, Mr Darling told MPs that the start-up costs for PPP, including such items as legal fees, had been around £500 million – a figure that was widely condemned by PPP opponents.

imgres

Mr Darling said today: “I welcome the news that London Underground has completed the deal with Tube Lines.

“This is good news for Londoners, at long last marking the start of the biggest improvement programme the Tube has ever seen.”

Tom Brake, the Liberal Democrat transport spokesman, said: “PPP is a monument to the stubbornness of Gordon Brown who is the only supporter of the part-privatisation of the Tube.”

(Telegraph 31 Dec 2002)

Labour MP Margaret Hodge talked to the Independent about her party’s dalliance with PPP.

The Labour MP acknowledged that many of the worst PFI and PPP cases were negotiated by the Labour government under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, saying:

“I’m afraid we got it wrong. I was a supporter at the time but I have completely gone off the whole concept. We got seduced by PFI.” (Margaret Hodge MP 2014)

And of particular interest post-Panama Papers:

She added that it was especially “scandalous” that many of the funds that are buying up the contracts are based in tax havens. One of the early arguments in favour of PFIs was that taxpayers would benefit from contractors’ profits due to the corporation taxes they would pay. “But now the profits are going offshore and to shareholders,” she said.

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/exclusive-how-private-firms-make-quick-killing-from-pfi-9488351.html

PFI/PPP was another Tory policy Labour couldn’t adopt quickly enough. Building projects made them look like they were doing something – they were – and soon we were all paying for the madness that allowed private investment companies to name a number and get contractors to agree to add on several 000s to boost guaranteed colossal profits before sailing off into the sunset to we know where – some of them at least.

young

Have lessons been learned? Aberdeen Labour-led administration recently signed up to a misbegotten and hugely unpopular Marischal Square (not a square lest you imagine it is) project. It’s complicated so I have copied this description of the scheme from Aberdeen City Council’s website:

The preferred bid as approved at Council was with Muse Developments Limited and AVIVA Investors Realm Commercial Assets LP (Aviva). The overall agreement is made up of a number of parts and separate contracts between the parties. This is a commercial agreement between the Council and other parties and the full details of the scheme are commercially sensitive. However, the general basis of the agreement can be described as follows:-

ACC sold the site (excluding Provost Skene’s House) to Aviva (December 2014).The council has received £1million up front with the balance of £9million payable at completion in two years time

ACC entered into a lease with Aviva for the site, and will pay a rental from the completion of the development for a 35 year period

The Council’s annual rental payment realises a capital sum to undertake the development

Muse is obliged to build the scheme for Aviva to create a range of development space and in turn an income stream to the council

Muse are contracted to identify and tie in a Hotel operator. This is in place with the Hotel element trading as a Marriot Residence Inn

Muse are contracted to let the office, restaurant and additional space within the development on behalf of the Council

The capital sum above pays for the construction costs to build the development, the purchase price paid for the land, a profit account to be shared between the three parties, and a contingency fund to cover vacant periods and other costs. Further monies are set-aside for upgrading works to Provost Skene’s House and public realm works within and outwith the scheme

After the 35 year lease period the Council can choose to buy the development in its entirety (including the land) for £1

The council is liable for the annual rental and will carry the risk should the hotel and development not realise the income projected. The projected income on a fully let scheme is however significantly above the rental payment £100m Cancellation Fee for the ACC/Muse contract.

7.1 How is the £100m penalty/termination cost of cancellation of the contract, as mentioned by Willie Young, calculated?

7.2 Why have we not seen the contract yet Willie Young is able to tweet and disclose details of the contract. Has ACC/Muse authorised him to disclose?

7.3 Is the £100m penalty contingent upon the ownership of the land resting with ACC (i.e. prior to being transferred to Muse)?

There is no penalty or cancellation clause in the contract however as the council has previously stated there would be a loss in income of approximately £100million if the project were not to proceed. In addition, the Council would almost certainly have to pay damages arising from breach of contract. As is standard practice in the public sector such contracts are commercially sensitive and are not published.

7.4 Under planning legislation, ACC can cancel the contract. What is the cost of contract cancellation and how is it calculated? [Loss of profit should not be included.]
The transaction is a commercial transaction. The Council is not aware of any such planning legislation that could allow the cancellation of the contract.

Calculation of the £100m Profit

8.1 How does ACC calculate the claimed £100m profit? Is this £100m profit contingent on a minimum level of occupancy?

The Council will receive £10 million for the site – £1million now and a further £9 million on completion in two years, an equal share of the development profit, the difference between the lease cost to Aviva and the income generated by the development for 35 years and the value of the development in 35 years’ time. Money is also available for works to upgrade Provost Skene’s House, Broad Street and create the gardens and other public areas within the scheme. In all this benefit could be worth more than £100 million.

8.2 Why has the public not been alerted to the potential liability, rather, only the upside (which is not described as potential)?

The project was fully presented to the committee when a decision was made to appoint Muse as preferred bidder. This is a commercial contract. The council or any other organisation would not normally alert any other parties to the liabilities on any transaction. The council has always stated, since the decision was made to appoint Muse that the commercial agreement would include a head lease over the development site.

8.3 Has ACC assumed any value of the Marischal Square buildings as at 2050 when calculating Jenny Laing’s claim of a £100m profit over 35 years? [1]

In assessing bids of this nature it is normal to account for some degree of value in the site at the end of the lease. This would normally be site value or by comparison the value of other similarly aged buildings.

1 “Not only is it right in terms of bringing a much needed hotel and leisure facilities to our city centre it is right in terms of looking after the public purse by raising £100m over 35 years.” Jenny Laing, Evening Express, 5 February 2015

It’s all been done in the best possible taste and it’s all so out-in-the-open. Maybe.

I hope Edinburgh can patch up its schools quickly. Someone will have to bear that financial burden and I wonder who that someone might be? And those old Victorian schools? well most of them are still standing.

_89153569_councilleader

Councillor Andrew Burns (Labour) Edinburgh City Council

Oh, and here’s a handy wee list of who was behind public spending in the relevant years between 1999 and 2007.

Scottish Executive as it was then:
1999 -2003 Labour under Donald Dewar; Henry McLeish; Jack McConnell.
2003 – 2007 Labour under McConnell.

http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/12766277.School_PPP_scheme_a__apos_catastrophe_apos__for_pupils/
http://www.european-services-strategy.org.uk/ppp-database/ppp-equity-database/appendix-4-terminated-uk-ppp-projects.pdf
http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/12767627.Offshore_firm_to_make_tax_free_millions_from_Scottish_schools/

October 21, 2015

Aberdeen City Council is forging ahead with hugely unpopular development

Marischal College is about to be dwarfed and hidden by a hideous commercial development only a handful of planners and councillors and business interests want.

Marischal College is about to be dwarfed and hidden by a hideous commercial development only a handful of planners and councillors and business interests want.

new block

This nasty block development is being built on land the people of Aberdeen wanted as their civic square.

disappearing marischal

Some opposed to this audacious attack on the wishes of the people of Aberdeen have formed a Facebook page as the cranes work away at concealing this masterpiece of civic architecture. The following is from their pages.

Marie Boulton is an independent councillor for Lower Deeside and Depute Leader of the Council and spokesperson for this development.

From Facebook

Marie Boulton – Where are the leases you promised would be signed before you built Marischal Square? We were told that there were 9 interested parties for the restaurants and bars. All Bar One and Lobster Roll have signed, but which others? How many offices are leased? They’re building now, so will you call a halt?

Everything, it seems, is up for sale by this nasty administration, including the 16th century Provost Skene’s House and city museum the public were told would not be touched. skenes
pand j
Jenny Laing is the Labour Party leader of the council perhaps some of you might ask her why she and her party insist on forging ahead with this appalling development.
August 9, 2015

The Wallace Tower – Not just any banishment but Marks & Spencer banishment

Wallace Tower  Mention the Wallace Tower and some smart Alec’s bound to chip in, it’s nae the Wallace Tower, it’s Benholm’s Lodgings, to which the appropriate response is, aye I ken but it’s bin the Wallace Tower for well over a century so it’s earned the name Wallace Tower. If someone turned up at my house and insisted it was so and sos because they’d lived there a few decades ago I’d tell them where to get off, wouldn’t you? Built for Sir Robert Keith, whose brother the Earl of Marischal founded Marischal College (once a separate university from King’s College) the house was also known as Keith’s Lodgings. Given its long existence – 500 years – it has seen a lot of comings and goings. For most of that time it occupied a prime position the corner of the Netherkirkgate (the lower gate or port into the town – the Upperkirkgate being the higher up gate), above Carnegie’s brae, which came to be known as the Wallace neuk (corner). At one time the area was known as Putachieside. The home of Lord Forbes at Keig by Alford used to be known as Putachie.  Lord Forbes kept a town house in Aberdeen, near Benholm’s Lodgings and  referring to the area by his country house name stuck. It was near where the Aberdeen Market is now… beside Putachie’s house – Putachieside. I hope you’re still following – and one of the streets, which ran from Carnegie’s brae towards what is now Market Street (or as near as damn it) came to be called Putachie. Putachie has gone. The Netherkirkgate has gone. The Wallace nook has gone. The Wallace Tower has gone. The Wallace name was used when a bar of that name occupied part of the building when it was slap bang in the centre of town not in its present location on a grassy knoll at Tillydrone. The low hill it stands on is the remains of a Norman motte. As for the  name it’s possibly a corruption of wally meaning well (a nearby well-house) with the diminutive ie or y wally hoose or well-house for folks uncomfortable with the Doric. This is all a long way from the Wallace Tower’s current abode at Tillydrone. It’s a fine enough site for this fine wee building but for many Aberdonians of a certain vintage – it’s not its home. Home should be, they believe, somewhere close to the vanished Netherkirkgate – maybe close to the Upperkirkgate… maybe it could have occupied pride of place, or second place to Skene’s House in Marischal Square but then there is no longer to be a Marischal Square so it can be added to my banished list.  Putachie has gone. The Netherkirkgate has gone. The Wallace nook has gone. The Wallace Tower has gone. Marischal Square has gone before it’s ever been. Rewind…why did the Wallace Tower go west? Think Marischal Square – what’s driving this corporate carbuncle? the ugly face of capitalism silly. It was a similar situation back in the swinging sixties. Marks & Spencers wanted to expand their store across from the Wallace Tower and councillors sucked on their pencil tips and thought how old fashioned this auld rickle of stanes looked in what could be a modern shopping precinct. What to do? Before you could say pretty fine example of a late 16th early 17th century rubble-built  Scottish tower house it was howked up and trundled on the back of several lorries far enough away from the city centre that those pencil sucking councillors were no longer reminded that Aberdeen did once have some very fine buildings indeed. The M & S extension turned out to be a not-so-very fine a building or even a half-decent building but who cared? This was the 1960s and anything went then, even prefabricated lookalike every other prefabricated buildings that littered every other town’s high streets. Still, as we know when it comes to Aberdeen city centre it’s a case of knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.  Actually I don’t really mind the Tower being at Tillydrone for it is a good enough spot, at the edge of Seaton Park, but look at it – no, really look at it. When did you last see anything of architectural importance in Aberdeen look this bad? Well how about last week – and Westburn House. As far as preserving historically important architecture/introducing high quality contemporary buildings to the city Aberdeen councils would get straight As for corporate delinquency. Here we have boarded up windows to prevent another empty building falling victim to vandalism – the petty kind that ends up in courts and fined not the kind that is carried out on a large scale by local authorities. The original Benholm’s lodging house was constructed as a unique Z-plan tower house that was used as lodgings. In the late 18thC a wing was added and various adaptations have been made. At one time a balcony was built to provide grand views across the south of the area. There have been many plans to get the Wallace Tower back into some kind of useful existence but all fall through. It’s not connected with The Wallace … Aye we ken. Wallace never came this far north… So you say.  Since it is in Tillydrone it would be good if that community could make something of it but everything comes down to having sustainable funding in the end. Given that it is so close to the University it might find a use but not at its loss of it as a public asset (although the Council might question that and presumably regard it as another liability).

You can see the z-plan – or not. Corbelled features. Two round towers. The sculpted knight isn’t Wallace… they insist Aye, we ken, fit exactly IS yer problem, min? Who the rough and ready figure of a knight in a recess is no-one knows. It isn’t Wallace that’s for sure – William Wallace and his dug.  It might be Wallace and Gromit. That is a joke by the way… in case the pedantic echo is still on my case. Some think it came from the nearby St Nicholas graveyard. Whatever’s its provenance it is a rude representation of a Scottish knight with his favourite cur by his feet. He used to hold a sword – the knight not the dug that was made from a bent bit of metal. Definitely not worthy of The Wallace. Who he was we probably shall never know. Wouldn’t it be grand if it turned out his name was actually Wallace. He’s been broken and repaired and painted and broken and painted and repaired and broken.

A remaining armorial panel is not in the finest condition but at least it’s remaining.

Gunport quatrefoil.

The walls had originally been harled and presumable painted in the old Scots tradition. As of March this year planning permission for a change of use from residential dwelling to mixed use as a community cafe and office was being sought. The Wallace Tower which has undergone so many guises including lodging house, bar, tobacconist, snuff merchants was once upon a time a council house, gadzooks, rented out, controversially, to someone who would later become a councillor and Provost. It surprised some Aberdonians that the rent for such a unique cooncil hoose was the same as for ‘any other three-bedroomed council house in the city.‘ (The Herald 3 Oct 1996) but when this tenant vacated the Tower no-one else was given the chance to rent it but we were into the era of selling off council homes so the council did well to avoid falling into that trap with the Wallace Tower. http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/12023249.Convoluted_background_to_portrait_of_provost_who_had_listed_council_house/ I’ve been inside the Wallace Tower once or twice and it wasn’t particularly attractive as a home – stairs to everywhere and fitted out in 1970s drab but that is just decoration and doesn’t detract from its importance as a medieval tower-house. There is no question the Wallace Tower is a ‘lost gem’. It lies forlorn and unused. Largely ignored. Unwanted or rather unaffordable for those who would love to bring it back to life.

July 31, 2015

Westburn House is Falling Down

Westburn House

Westburn House

Old buildings can cost money to keep but where they are the responsibility of a local authority then it is incumbent upon that local authority to carry out its duty. You would have thought.

Westburn House  portico and Doric columns

Westburn House
portico and Doric columns

As you can see Aberdeen City Council is guilty of abandoning a category A-listed building to such an extent it looks to a casual observer like me that the Council is hoping one day Westburn House will simply topple down. One less worry for the Council. Frankly the state of this building is a disgrace. All we get from the Council is mealy-mouthed meaningless froth about caring about the city’s heritage  yet the evidence throws up a contrary view.

We will improve the quality and impact of arts, culture and heritage provision across the city

Westburn House  July 2015

Westburn House
July 2015

Then doesn’t .

We will protect and enhance our high-quality natural and built environment through support of initiatives including open space

Blah de blah de blah. Every so often it offers up a Master Plan signifying nothing. Master Plan, Mister Plan, Mistress Plan, Misconceived Plan, Missed Plan – all words and picture projections amounting to sweet f.a.. Aberdeen’s principal architect, Archibald Simpson, designed Westburn House for the Chalmers family who owned the forerunner of the Press & Journal, the Aberdeen Journal, in the 19th century. The Westburn estate comprised large grounds and the house. When the estate was broken up it was bought over by the then Town Council in 1901 and the house converted into a restaurant with some of the acres of land becoming the Westburn Park, including bowling greens and tennis courts in the formal walled garden. Part of the estate houses Cornhill Hospital. The house has been used for a variety of functions since, including a nursery and by community arts. There’s been no shortage of ideas for using Westburn House – a registry office, a council training centre, wedding venue. There were hopes that the building would become a museum for the City’s vast costume collection but nothing came of these plans either, just like nothing has come of all sorts of other noises about setting up museums in the city. The reason? Money stupid. And indifference. It is Aberdeen we’re talking about here so it’s always easier just to let the building decay and fall down than actually see such plans materialise. Aberdeen Council is that aspirational. The building is built of stuccoed brick with a portico with Doric columns and pediment on the western side and a lovely cast iron veranda facing south (added later). Being of brick is very unusual in granite Aberdeen. The Westburn (Gilcomston burn) runs through the park, through the guitar-shaped paddling pool but here too the decay has spread. Look at the state of it. Broken sections and filthy mud add to the evidence of an authority that has lost all sense of pride in the city it purports to look after. Another time, same place… …before this kind of neglect   I don’t think preventing bathing is the most important issue in Westburn Park. This is the flower garden at Westburn House.   The roof and ceilings at Westburn House are falling in, timbers are rotting, grass has blocked up the gutters leading to water seeping through the building. What should be a fine example of Simpson architecture is in ruin. It’s in a worse condition than the abandoned Wallace Tower but that’s a tale for another time.

PS Would it not be feasible for colleges or private businesses who train people in building skills to work with councils on properties such as Westburn House in order to preserve them at little to no cost and to provide practical training at the same time?

Are council employees too locked into their tiny cut-off areas of responsibilities when a wider vision and inclusiveness in the wider community be advantageous to all of us?

There is definitely a man with a clip-board mentality. The man says no.

March 23, 2015

Master Planning in the Granite City

P1030506

How Aberdeen’s ring road was once envisaged, intersecting with the beach boulevard.

In the foreground an assembly hall and theatre.

That was in 1949. Time now to consider the latest version of Aberdeen’s Master Plan so brace yourselves for an onslaught of fatuous bureaucrat-speak.

Key, transformation, vibrant, reawakening, deserves, accessible, enhanced, significant, enhanced, shaping, stakeholders, did I say? enhanced, revitalisation, dynamic, did I say enhance? ambitious, vision, opportunities, did I say enhance? = an exercise in verbiage.

Aberdeen City and Shire Economic Future’s Economic Manifesto, and Action Plan (yes, really) states that the City Centre must act as a key business location, retail centre, major tourist destination, historical and cultural centre, leisure and entertainment centre, key transport node, and a place where people live and feel safe.

It will not have escaped your notice the order of importance listed by Aberdeen City Council – historical and cultural and indeed a place where people live and feel safe as well as transport trail behind retail – as usual.

You cannot ever accuse Aberdeen City Council of understanding the real worth of the city and its own responsibilities.

Aberdeen City Council has never sought to complement and enhance Aberdeen’s unique identity. On the contrary it has sought and succeeded in burying anything unique about Aberdeen in its drive to prove Aberdeen can look like any other town with a bland urban landscape devoid of uniqueness and interest – a cultural desert.

In its Masterplan the Council uses the analogy of the human body to describe the city with Union Street as the spine. It is tempting to suggest that while the city may have a spine the council does not.

For all its high-faluting language we only have to look around at the flimflam chaos and lost opportunities to discover where reality lies. Instead of me setting out what might, but probably won’t, materialise I’m reviewing what has been dished up in the name of planning.

Take the fairly recently built bus station – could it be any more alienating to passengers? People struggle to get there with luggage, from taxis and cars. Families find it virtually impossible to see off family, rushing them out of cars with their luggage from no waiting streets such as Guild Street and Market Street. Why was seating not provided for waiting bus passengers? Why do buses have to perform hazardous reversing manoeuvres when leaving bus stances? Whoever designed the bus station and whoever sanctioned it should have been sacked for incompetency. As soon as it was built it was discovered the place was not fit for purpose, as the man from the council might say. You can be fairly certain those who designed it don’t use it.

Take the Green, or the Merchant Quarter as we are encouraged, unsuccessfully, to call it, where charges for cafes providing seating outside put obstacles in the way of creating a relaxed café atmosphere that the council made such a hoo-ha about wanting yet had no idea how to implement. And it is typical that these guys don’t appreciate the area’s name used and recognised by generations of Aberdonians, the Green. If they don’t get this they won’t get any of it.

Take the ugly, ugly mini retail park at the historic Bridge of Dee. Who but a group of madmen on speed would sanction that?

Take the traffic nightmare on Guild Street, all manufactured by the well-paid jobsworths of Aberdeen City Council.

Take the current state of the once majestic Bridge Street transformed into a state of tacky ugliness.

amadeus

Take the beach Esplanade nice enough it runs along a magnificent beach front but don’t look landward at the horrendous erections city planners let companies away with. Why has this choice site never been reclaimed? Another sacking offence surely?

Take the demolition of old Torry. That sums up the short-sighted, blinkered, ignorance that marks out Aberdeen City planners over the years with no conception of the value of heritage.

Take the Castlegate. Once bustling and a traffic hub it was killed stone dead by planners who thought shutting out traffic would make it people-friendly. It didn’t it made it a no-go area.

Take the shoddy and shabby upper deck at the St Nicholas Centre that closed-off the historical St Nicholas Street and in its place created a dead space; unfriendly and creepy area after dark. Name and shame the architect responsible and the planners who ticked his box. st nich deck 2

Take the approval given to the bland, boring and out-of-keeping blocks that will surround Aberdeen’s only red brick spire at the Triple Kirks. Shameful.

I could go on because quite honestly it’s think of an area and chances are the cack-handed touch of Aberdeen Council has damaged it in some way.

Aberdeen bureaucrats speak a good game, as good as any in other parts no doubt. They don’t deliver on their prattle.  They deliver all that is vulgar, uninspiring and tasteless.

Pedestrianisation is back on the agenda. Pedestrianism is a tricky trick to master. It can deprive areas of life – again those dead spaces, far from creating pedestrian friendly areas cut them off as useable.

Do not pedestrianise Union Street. Remove the pedestrianisation of the Castlegate and bring buses back there and reinstate a direct route to the beach.

I wholly agree with the intention to utilise upper floors of Union Street buildings. Where they cannot be turned into shops or offices I think upper floors that are not used should be taken over by the council and used for social housing. This would bring life back into the centre of the city.

Another ambition, they claim, is to encourage high quality architecture. That is precisely what has not been happening and will not be delivered in the disastrous Broad Street shopping centre nor those bland boxes at the Triple Kirks.

Making our towns and cities comfortable and safe and practical places for the people who inhabit them is too important to leave to the whims of dubiously qualified planners, developers and their cronies.

Following World War II the city plan shows how those then charged with responsibility for modernising Aberdeen considered thirty years the lifespan of a building and after that it was fair game for replacement having outlived its usefulness.

‘…it must not be overlooked, that sooner or later, buildings of all classes, no matter how well preserved structurally, become out-of-date from a functional point of view.’

It was this mindset that lost Aberdeen its interesting old wynds and courts and old Torry. The drive for modrenisation that involved ripping out and tearing down. We saw it during the years of Harold Wilson’s government when dead-eyed concrete towers sprang up in all our towns and cities as a harbinger of the new age which unfortunately turned out to be an age of instant slums and social alienation.

Back in 1949 there were good ideas mixed with bad in its Master Plan such as an entire ring road, not only Anderson Drive, that incorporated a bridge over the harbour mouth to permit industrial traffic from the eastern parts of the city and the fishing ports of Fraserburgh and Peterhead, the harbour, fish market and so on, easy access north and south.

The proposed assembly hall at the beach (see top picture) did not materialise and neither did the graceful bridge that would have offset the burden of traffic crawling through the city and away from the congested Bridge of Dee. Something of the kind could have be built now in place of the western peripheral route but the vision wasn’t there.

Notice, too, the elegant line of the banana pier that has been lost by the addition of an ugly light at its end and wire mesh to keep people off. It is another mark of how in this country people are stopped, blocked, prevented from getting close to the nooks and crannies and places familiar to previous generations by increased private restrictions and overarching public regulations.

harbour

You’ll see what I mean with this ’49 proposal for Market Street; a working area of the city. No high fences to keep people out but the integration of people and space. I struggle to understand how it is people elsewhere survive wandering around harbours when we are deemed incapable of walking past water without succumbing to the urge to fall in.

So much of urban life is about alienation. People are valued for how quickly they will part with their cash – hence the preference for shops over community spaces, as in a Marischal Square. It is as if our councillors work for private business and not citizens. Their concerns are purely economic. The well-being of the citizens of Aberdeen comes way down any list of priorities, if it makes that list at all. There is a shallowness that pervades Aberdeen Town House, a general incompetency and disregard for their roles as guardians of the past as well as the future.

st nich deck

It is interesting that the creation of space in the 1949 plans was regarded in keeping with the concept of functionality. Space now is at a premium and as we know from the Marischal Square debacle must give way to yet more retail – as far as the eye can see.

The spaces that would have been created in ’49 would have come from flattening what was there. Flattening there certainly was but those bold ideas remained on paper and never found expression into bricks and mortar.

beach

The illustration of how the beach might be transformed at the end of the Second World War with a short pier and play pool areas to the north of the Broad Hill looks child friendly but were never built. But at the same time thank goodness those acres of flat-roof blocks, like some prison complex, did not see the light of day. But a pier would have been nice.

When future plans are written we can be sure they will contain key terms then current, variations on

key, transformation, vibrant, reawakening, deserves, accessible, enhanced, significant, enhanced, shaping, stakeholders, revitalisation, dynamic, ambitious, vision, opportunities

as an exercise in ticking boxes but our children and grandchildren will left to ponder when those terms lost all meaning, leaving their value only as word count to bulk up planning documents.

Meanwhile the little that remains of Aberdeen’s unique heritage is dependent on the whims and abilities of this and the next incumbents of the Town House. It is an absurd method of determining the future of the city that is guaranteed to plunder its past and waste opportunities in the pursuit of short-term ambitions of a few men and women of dubious capability. We have seen it before. We see it now. And we will see it in the future. One thing is certain, planning officials don’t change their spots.

February 14, 2015

It was a dog of a day but Muse’s plans for Marischal Square were given the bird

 

Marischal Square

 

It was a dog of a day.

A guy carrying a placard reading

Existentialists Oppose Mindless Civic Vandalism

If anyone on the verge of action should judge himself according

to the outcome, he would never begin.

(Dedicated to Jenny Laing and Willie Young 2014/15)

sauntered past.

P1030173

‘Have you got a light mac?’ he asked.

‘No, but I have a dark brown raincoat,’ I replied.

‘That makes two of us,’ he said as he trudged away to gaze meaningfully up at the magnificent frontage of Marischal College.

He looked familiar. Like a man who was once Chief Executive of Aberdeen City Council. I said to him one time,  Marischal College should become the council HQ. He turned to me and from the side of his mouth mumbled something along the lines of,

I dinnae really like it.

Happily he is no longer Chief Executive and Marischal College is the council HQ but that’s not where the story ends. Local government is like a cesspool. It is infested with the kind of low life attracted to cess pools. As Titania once said in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, shit rises to the top.

People, several hundreds, were gathered to voice their opposition to those miserable plans to destroy Aberdeen city centre from Muse Developments.

The people gathered around the tenacious old warrior Robert the Bruce were looking for a fight. Eyes turned to the Town House – was he there? Was Willie Young in there looking out at us looking in? sneering?

P1030171

People expressed incredulity that anyone in their right mind would support the Muse proposals.

They say money doesn’t smell, said one, I sometimes wonder.

Willie Young

Willie Young Wanted

the banners read. Only in a manner of speaking. No-one there today wanted him in a good sense.

Party dogma has been driving this agenda.

A list of councillors in favour of snuffing out all vestiges of a civic square was read out.

In another time the gibbets would have been erected but Aberdeen is a peaceful city. The miscreants were let off lightly – instead of rotten tomatoes their names were received with boos.

Some were booed louder, much louder than others.

Several names were greeted with,  fa?  Those councillors you find everywhere -the ones no-one has ever heard of – they just turn up and pocket the cash, keep schtum, don’t rock any boats – play the role of their party’s bitches, vote when told when and how and trust no-one will notice next election time. They got off lightly in the booing stakes.

But not all.

It’s clear some councillors are in the dog-house as far as the voters gathered there today were concerned. They don’t reckon them at all and these guys will be hounded next time they present their credentials to the public.

Biggest boos of the day were given to Alan Donnelly, Yvonne Allan, Lesley Dunbar, Ramsay Milne (big time), Neil Cooney (big time), Len Ironside (big time), Marie Boulton (big time), Fraser Forsyth (big time), Barney Crockett (BIG BIG time), Jenny Laing (GIANT BIG time), Willie Young (SCREAMINGLY LOUD ENORMOUSLY BIG time).

There aint no sanity clause might have been written for Aberdeen City Council. This local authority has apparently drawn up a contract that not only sells off public space but agrees to pay the developer compensation in the event they cannot lease out all its retail outlets in what was council land.

I don’t believe it – do you? No-one in their right mind would sign that off?

Sacking is too good for these individuals.

In a dog-eat-dog world Aberdeen has been sold a pup.

A real dog’s breakfast of a deal for the city.

There are more dog-fights to come – in the council chamber, on the pages of the local newspaper and across the airwaves on local radio stations over this.

People are going nowhere.

As the great man once said,

Common sense always speaks too late. Common sense is the guy who tells you ought to have had your brakes relined last week before you smashed a front end this week.

As he went on to say,

Such is the brutalization of commercial ethics in this country that no one can feel anything more delicate than the velvety touch of a soft buck.

willie young

I looked at the banner billowing in the breeze. Willie Young’s face gazed out over his accusers.

The moment a man talks about one commercial development being essential that’s proof he’s fresh out of ideas.

Provost Skene's House Enjoy it while you can

Provost Skene’s House
Enjoy it while you can