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Wilson's Weekly Wrap: On the Square, Tis a thing of wonder, democracy & Tall tolls

April 30 2009

Wilson's Weekly Wrap: On the Square, Tis a thing of wonder, democracy & Tall tolls
On the square
Let’s go straight to furryboot city, the antediluvian political infrastructure of which the Wrap has had occasion to reflect on before. I’m afraid it’s another example of the city council’s scant regard for democratic processes and its consequent – perhaps unique - ability to shoot itself in both feet with one granite bullet. I’m not talking about Trumponomics here, although we will be coming onto our hero’s latest machinations shortly – no, it’s an example of political interference the like of which makes the Duke of Rothesay appear like a rank amateur.

Long-term Wrap readers will recall my mentioning the proposal from Sir Ian Wood to chip in £50m of his own cash to create a new public square in the city, providing of course that the sum be matched with funds from the public sector and a further £40m found from other – unspecified – sources. The plan for Union Terrace Gardens was first proposed in the 1990’s by Sir Ian when he was chair of Scottish Enterprise Grampian and envisages the enclosure of a dual carriageway and the main Aberdeen-Inverness railway line which sits on the valley floor alongside the existing park. The intention is to raise the gardens to create a new square alongside the city’s Union Street, a square that “would be mixture of an Italian piazza and a mini New York Central Park”.  Naturally such a plan was going to generate excitement amongst the city’s business and political leaders as well as representatives of the local press for whom a trip to Stonehaven is a fairly exotic excursion. The upshot of course has been to fatally stall plans for Peacock Visual Arts – a competition-winning project that would have cost £13m to complete on the same site.

The problem, as Wrap readers will recall, was that Sir Ian made crystal clear that no money would be forthcoming from him if his ‘Option 1’ wasn’t taken on board in its entirety, a blatant threat the local councillors responded to with a level of obsequiousness learned down Trumpton way. They’ve absorbed the lesson well though – no rigging committee votes or sacking opposition voices this time: nope, it’s all about subtlety and nuance, or whatever passes for these attributes in furrybootville. The bottom line however is that the city council canned all work on the Peacock whilst it ‘investigated’ Sir Ian’s plan. Said investigation of course required a feasibility study paid for by the council and Scottish Enterprise, the conclusion of which is due to appear next month and will no doubt be fabulously positive. The delay caused by its preparation has though caused the Arts project to lose £250k from the European ‘Build With Care’ scheme since this funding was conditional on it opening in 2011. A further £4.3m from the Scottish Arts Council is also in jeopardy and we can be pretty sure that the feasibility study will ensure the previous £5m commitment to the project from the council and Scottish Enterprise will also evaporate like snow off a dyke.

So there we have it: a scheme that was inches away from delivering something Aberdeen has long needed has been kiboshed by the usual craven respect that provincial politicians and quangoes have for those who not only have fat pockets but also expect to get their way without the kind of interference that is such a nuisance in grown-up democracies. In this instance however, the deliberately dilatory action of Aberdeen’s councillors has ensured a spectacular double whammy for the city: no arts centre and no new public square. For let’s be clear, even before the current downturn in the financial climate Aberdeen City Council was showing all the signs of having bankrupted itself and so none of the matching £50m of public funding was ever likely to come from its shattered piggy bank. The Scottish government for its part can hardly bleat about shortfalls in funding from Westminster if it then goes and blows a large whack of cash on indulging the whim of a wealthy local grandee, so no dyce there; and the further £40m required from unspecified sources has about as much chance of materialising in Aberdeen now as Elvis in a granite-studded catsuit.

So, will Sir Ian, Scotland’s second richest man, stump up a bit more? Hardly – according to the Sunday Times Rich List 2009, his fortune has dropped by £143m to £747m. Interesting really to see that his losses in the credit crunch almost exactly equal the total cost of his grand projet.

‘Tis a thing of wonder, democracy
Democratic accountability may be an unfamiliar concept amongst Aberdeen’s finest, but let’s not for a nano-second presume that its absence is unique to Scotland’s northernmost city. No, Edinburgh can certainly show it a thing or two when it comes to driving convoys through due process. This time though it’s not just the council and quangoes involved – we’ve got the Roman Catholic church in Scotland trying to influence (i.e. prevent) plans to develop a site in front of St Mary’s Cathedral at the top of Leith Walk. The problem here has the kind of municipal piquancy that makes living and working in Auld Reekie an especial privilege: the roundabout in front of the cathedral is due to be replaced as part of the re-design necessary at Picardy Place to accommodate the new tram system. Plans for said system are already vastly over budget so – aside from whether or not the trams will ever reach this point – the council desperately needs to sell off the land it owns in front of the cathedral to help finance the whole, mad-as-a-hatter project.

The buyer intends to redevelop the hugely unloved St James Centre behind the cathedral and has plans to create a new public square (yep, they’re all the rage these days) around which will be a fashionable assembly of café bars and restaurants. Trouble is, the top dogs in the church believe this will ruin views of St Mary’s, a less-than-remarkable edifice that has been much amended in its near 200 year existence. In Edinburgh terms the opposition is strong: a scary combination of Cardinal Keith O’Brien, Scotland’s top Roman Catholic and whose titles also include that of Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh (St Mary’s is in fact the base of the latter Archdiocese) and famous Leither, Tom Farmer, formerly of Kwik-Fit fame and still an influential power in the city and a noted worshipper at aforesaid church.

Negotiations over the developer’s plans have, apparently, “dragged on” for over twelve months – which in Edinburgh terms is but nothing since the planning process in the nation’s capital is normally only measured in light years – so Keith and Tom have decided to go public with their concerns. Nothing wrong with that you might say – no full planning application having yet been submitted – but it’s not that simple: the council has now decided that this is a huge opportunity to transform one of the key “gateways” into the city centre and in any case sees no problem with building on this land since it apparently used to be occupied by tenements.

That of course was many, many years ago, and even this spectacularly ingenuous council understands that ground that can be built on has a far higher sale value than land that can’t be developed.  At this point our story takes a new and more intriguing twist: step forward Councillor Eric Milligan, former Lord Provost but now a member of the city’s planning committee who evidently feels it appropriate for a man in his position to comment on the current (i.e. pre-planning application) situation. In a letter to the Scotsman, Eric makes clear that the good Cardinal’s concerns are ones he accords with and goes on to suggest that his fellow members of the planning committee also share these views. He goes further and disagrees with the un-named planning officer who came up with the ‘former site of tenements’ angle.

Now, it’s not unusual in Edinburgh for ex-councillors and ex-planning committee members to write to the papers, but this is the first time I can recall of a sitting member seeking to influence the process outwith the confines of the council chamber – and presuming the support of his fellow committee members in doing so. This, it should be said, is the same planning committee that only two months ago gave the project outline planning permission and also approved the tram project. Quite where this leaves one of the few international development companies still with finance available is anybody’s guess, but you can’t help thinking that the barometer of optimism within their offices has shifted from ‘outlook good’ to ‘decidedly stormy’. I won’t bother to mention their faith or otherwise in Edinburgh’s supposedly democratic planning process, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the St James Centre is once again sold on before any redevelopment whatsoever has taken place and yet another of Allan Murray Architects’ major projects for the city centre is placed in limbo.

Tall tolls
Still in Edinburgh, another scheme that continues to get a kicking from powerful forces – this time in the influential form of Lord McCluskey. The reason for the ongoing furore is the forthcoming public inquiry into Richard Murphy’s proposals for a 17-storey hotel next to the city’s Haymarket Station. Why the inquiry? Yes, the good old Edinburgh Council that would otherwise pronounce judgement on the project stands to benefit to the tune of several million in terms of a developer contribution towards its tramline to nirvana: not exactly the independent, objective decision-making authority required in this instance.

The legal peer’s tirade in the Scotsman starts off on a sound footing, pointing out that in 2004 the Council itself sponsored the building of a six storey hotel on the site but in doing so expressly respected its own “skyline” policy adopted in the wake of the destruction of George Square by Edinburgh University in the early 1960s when it built its Appleton and Hume Towers. In 2007 another scheme came forward for the Haymarket site – this time from Tiger Developments an Irish construction group. The company initially proposed an 11-storey hotel, then increased it to 12 and – just before submitting its application – took it up to 17 floors and, crucially, 20 controversial metres higher than the widely unloved towers.

Memories of 60s architectural depredations are elephantine amongst the capital’s great and good and, perhaps as a consequence, the noble Lord descends into New Town dinner party rant mode, decrying all that has happened architecturally ever since at the behest or with the approval of the various Edinburgh councils that have occupied the intervening years. The point, however, is that few Scotsman readers will have noticed the lack of cogent detail in the McCluskey argument and will have responded instead to the overall tenor of his case.

But the argument being made is hardly focused well. Think for a moment about those extra five storeys added just before the planning application was submitted – were they really a whim on the part of the developers and their architects, hoping that by applying for a bit more they would be pulled back to a height still exceeding the Council’s own skyline policy? Or are the extra storeys a financial necessity to meet Council demands for a multi-million contribution to the tramline destined (in theory) to pass the Haymarket site? The damage to the city being wreaked by the tramworks is not only at ground level.

Shoo, fly, don’t bother me
OK that’s three tales of woe on the trot, so let’s go to Donnie Darko for some light relief. Yes, I promised more news from Trumpton and more you shall have. This time it’s the law of the land that’s up for grabs or, more particularly, the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 – you know the one that allows us citizens to make our way (whether by cycle, horse or foot) across the country’s landscape without hindrance. The thing is, the Donald doesn’t actually accept that statutory rights of access should apply to his land at Menie and especially not for any of the mealy-mouthed Liberal Democrat councillors who had the temerity to vote against his beneficent new town and golf course development.

Despite coming from the land of the free, the Donald and his local representative, George Sorial, seem to have an interesting notion of the concept of liberty, preferring to invoke allegations of “trespass” and “breaking the law” against Lib Dem Councillor Debra Storr simply because she took it upon herself to walk the walk and photograph any trumped-up impediments in her path. Now clearly Councillor Storr is, by anyone’s interpretation, not the sort of Lib Dem you want to have round to dinner (twittering or otherwise) but she has the same rights as the rest of us and shouldn’t find herself harassed by Grampian’s constabulary just because the Donald’s man about Menie, the aforesaid Mr Sorial, has got antsy about her taking pics of his padlocks. To be fair, Georgie may not have realised that Aberdeenshire Council has still to invoke US laws across its territory, but he does at least have his own very distinctive sense of propriety, referring to Ms Storr as “a distraction” before going on to add “she is a nuisance – like a fly – and we merely swatted her out of the way.” Personally I just can’t wait for the midge season at Menie to see how he combats Scotland’s most tenacious intruders. If seriously troubled he can always look to his boss for something that acts as a total repellent.

We gotta get out of this place
Architecture schools are curious phenomena that are all too often hermetically isolated from the profession they are intended to service. When they become separated from their own students, however, you know there’s a serious problem. The latest difficulty relates to the current health of the architectural community, i.e. the reality of widespread redundancies and shortened working weeks as offices try desperately to adjust to the downturn in the construction industry. Unemployment in the sector is apparently far higher than for any other professional grouping and an additional unwanted consequence of this under-activity is that there are precious few opportunities available for year-out students to complete either of the two periods of professional experience required by their courses.

In times past - and in recognition of their educational responsibilities - some UK schools of architecture sought to fill this gap by creating in-house professional training studios so that students would not lose a year in their seven year education programme. That was then and this is now, however, and the latest nostrum to come out of the University of Strathclyde school of architecture is that its year-out students should simply take themselves off somewhere – anywhere – for a year, just so long as they get out of the department’s hair.

The simplistic notion is that this should be treated as some kind of gap year to gain other experience – no matter that many students will already have done this and will have been looking to complete their course within the minimum seven year time-scale. Quite why students should be obliged to take more time than necessary because the school cannot deliver the resources and facilities their fees are paying for is an interesting question, but a more immediately pertinent one is why the school is not in urgent negotiation with the RIBA to rethink the requirements of the year-out in response to the current circumstances.

There are four obvious options – allow the students to continue their studies and complete their professional training later when times are more auspicious; create programmes of work (albeit unpaid) for students that can be adjudged equivalent in experience to the year-out requirements; ensure that a year of non-architectural activity that has effectively been forced upon students through no fault of their own counts towards professional status; or for a fixed period of time remove altogether one year of professional practice from the course requirements. What is not acceptable is the ‘school of life’ chimera being proposed by Strathclyde – it is nothing more nor less than a complete abrogation of educational responsibility and students pushed down this path would be well advised to transfer themselves and their fees to another, more ethically credible institution.

And finally…
One of the big recent shocks in UK architecture was the announcement by the editor of BD that the publication would no longer be sent free to every registered architect but would soon only be available by paid subscription. Much wittering about old business models notwithstanding (i.e, the almost total disappearance of advertising revenue from a currently moribund construction industry) this has to be one of the dumbest business decisions ever, maybe the proprietors have missed the fact that national newspapers are virtually giving their product away on a subscription basis but at least these publications are trying to consolidate from a reducing daily revenue basis to a quarterly one – and are doing so with all sorts of incentives. Moving from a non-purchase basis to a direct debit one (in a climate of exponentially rising redundancy numbers in the architectural profession) has about as much chance of success as a Scottish practice has of ever winning the Stirling Prize, i.e. none.

Don’t the proprietors realise they have a unique market position in that almost every registered architect in the country receives BD and a huge percentage of them actually read and respect its contents? No other magazine, journal or website come remotely close to this level of market penetration and advertisers know it even if BD’s proprietors don’t. It would surely be far better for them to sell the title that to run it into the ground, for that is surely what is going to happen with this plan. Come on guys, dig in – I know it’s a much devalued phrase, but this time things really can only get better.

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