Thursday, 23 August 2012

Did Democracy Die In Scotland Yesterday?

Union Street in the '50s

A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of entertaining visitors from Aberdeen. They'd lived there all their lives and we enjoyed recalling the pre-oil days in the 1950s when a bustling Union Street was a definite competitor to Edinburgh's Princes Street for the accolade of the most attractive city street in Scotland.

As a wee girl I used to spend my school summer holidays near Aberdeen with my grandmother's sister.  Every year, without fail, we would walk the mile to the A90 and pick up the bus to Aberdeen for a 'day out'.  The planning involved ensuring my best frock was perfectly ironed, shoes shined, hair so clean it squeaked and a few prayers for dry weather.  I don't recall it ever raining during our annual adventure but I suspect it did at times.

What I do recall is the majesty of Union Street and the way in which the whole city appeared to glisten in the sunlight.  A far cry from the industrially blackened buildings of my home town of Dundee.

Over the years I've had close association with Aberdeen and in the 70s, along with the rest of the population, I rejoiced when oil was discovered in the North Sea.  Since the 1950s one of Aberdeen's main industries, fishing, had been slowly in decline and people were assured by the city's then 'great and good' that the new oil industry would replenish the city's coffers and ensure that the city would be one of the most prosperous in Europe.

Today it is prosperous, but the tragedy is that to a first-time visitor, it's 1950s splendour has vanished.  Shortly after oil was discovered, the city planners decided it would be a grand idea to build a shopping centre right across Union Street - thus cutting in half one of the most attractive streets in Scotland.  Over the years the city centre has been reduced to a dull and shabby environment with Union Street currently showing more empty commercial premises than going concerns.

My friends were delighted that recently a referendum about the redesign of Union Terrace Gardens (viewable from Union Street) had resulted in a yes vote.  They were hopeful such a project would kick start a city centre regeneration and just maybe shame the toon cooncillors into building the much needed city by-pass too.  Over the years so much money has been frittered away by generations of councillors and their silly decisions and the Union Terrace project gave hope for the future.

But alas, it's not to be.  My friend telephoned last night and was raging at the decision of the council to cancel the project. "We're back to square one," she wailed and I could do nothing but agree. The garden project would have cost £140 million, half of which would have been met by private enterprise.

Yesterday's decision by Aberdeen councillors shows a distinct disregard for the people of Aberdeen and democracy. No matter how narrow the referendum result was the people voted yes for the project and most accepted the outcome.

The leader of the Labour group of Aberdeen council said: "the council now faced a major job of rebuilding relationships."  Rebuilding?  Relationships have now been demolished and the foundations poisoned.  It will take decades for any resident to have trust in their council.

The decision has wider implications though.  If councillors can overturn the result of a well-run referendum, did democracy in Scotland die too?


JRB said...

Democracy died in Scotland’s towns, cities and shires many a long year ago.

And you alluded to the very reason for this demise in your piece, namely - - - councillors.

There was a time, even within my living memory, when councillors were drawn from the great, the good and the caring, whose motives were purely altruistic with a genuine desire to see their locality and community prosper and advance.

But that is no more.

For councillors are now purely political animals, driven by party HQ, its dictats and personal political ambition. Determined to vote down, on principle, anything by an opposition party regardless of any beneficial effect it may have on their locality and community.

Democracy is dead – long live the Party
(and don’t think for one minute that Independents are any less scurrilous)

RMcGeddon said...

Like JRB said. Democracy has left the building. Even when local councillors listen to their voters and ban a white elephant windmill scheme or whatever it's overturned further up the chain in Edinburgh.
I always dread driving to Aberdeen. Rickety old dual carriageway going north with tractors cutting across everywhere. Then an ancient old dual carriageway right through the city with numerous traffic lights and circles to slow you down.
I'm not sure where all the oil money went....only joking...that M25 etc didn't build itself lol
Oh by the way I prefer the present Union St gardens so am actually glad they've vetoed the new scheme. But it's not democracy and why can't the money be used to build something nice down by the esplanade ? That's another mess along with the decrepit Aberdeen FC stadium.

Hamish said...

My living memory is probably as long as JRB's but I don't remember the halcyon days of altruistic councillors he recalls.
In Edinburgh, the burgh council was set up to protect the interests of the great and good burgers. The motivation was self-interest rather than political, but certainly not altruistic.

George Square in Edinburgh was ruined by an alliance between the construction interests who ran Edinburgh Council and their lapdogs in Edinburgh University.

I agree with JRB to this extent: the problem is councillors.
We don't need them.
As educated citizens we are perfectly cspable of taking policy decisions and letting the council executive get on with implementing them.

pa_broon74 said...

I there just isn't enough interest in local elections. I also think (in lne with whats already been said) thtoon cooncillor positions should not be politicised, it should consist of interested members of the community.

I know they'll have their political leanings in any case but at that level of governance, there is no place for party politics, its harmful.

I've been to Aberdeen (will be working in the new Aberdeen Emergency Care Hospital for a few weeks in Oct/Nov) but I'm not familiar with the UTG thing so don't have an opinion.

subrosa said...

It died in Dundee early last century JRB, when the Burgers decided to knock down the splendid public buildings in the city centre.

I agree that it's the party these days and no longer are Burgers interested in doing the best for their area.

I'd like to see a complete overhaul when Scotland is independent. One in which candidates are chosen by the people (much in the way honours are supposedly nominated). So many candidates per council (dependent on size) etc.

subrosa said...

I think many voted for it for the reasons my friends did RM - it could kick start a regeneration.

Aberdeen has frittered money for year, it's nearly criminal.

The same has happened to Dundee regarding the waterfront. How long has that road bridge been there now and prior to it's existence the people were told the waterfront would be developed into a special promenade along the lines of a continental one? Since 1961 I think.

subrosa said...

That's another idea Hamish - do away with them altogether.

subrosa said...

There's interest here pa_broon but the candidates are all party members who are put forward on grounds of loyalty.

If you've time when there nip down to Union Street and have a look. The street is in a sad state.

Captain Ranty said...

Here's a sad little fact for you. (Off topic slightly).

Aberdeen (population around 300,000) has 53 councillors.

New York City (population around 8 million) has 48 councillors.


Doug Daniel said...

The SNP held a referendum a few months before an election that would have pledged the incoming council to spending £90million it didn't have on a hare-brained scheme that amounts to no more than "if you build it, they will come". Whether this was an attempt to remove it as an issue in the election or to strong-arm the next council into spending money on it, the fact is this was a cynical ploy. When it comes to spending decisions, the buck stops with the person holding the purse strings. By winning the election in Aberdeen on a platform of cancelling the project, Labour had every right to do what they said they would - especially as it had already been conceded beforehand that the final go-ahead hinged on a sufficient business case being put forward.

Look at it this way - if Scotland votes "YES" in Autumn 2014 and we had a (Scottish) election in Spring 2015 where Labour stands on a platform of ignoring that result, then if they were to win, they would be fully within their rights to do what they said.

If the local SNP group wanted the CGP project to go ahead, they should have had their referendum earlier, and gotten work started before the election. By shifting responsibility to the next council administration, they gave up that right.

Far too many fellow SNP members from outwith Aberdeen are getting involved in what is a local decision. This isn't like the Edinburgh Trams debacle, where Scottish taxpayer funds have been used - the £90million not put up by Ian Wood would have been fully the responsibility of Aberdeen council tax payers if the supposed increases in business rates required for the TIF scheme never came through. It's getting really tiresome seeing people in Glasgow, the Highlands and elsewhere saying Aberdeen should have been plunged into debt for the benefit of one vain man's memorial scheme.

Weekend Yachtsman said...

You're a bit over-dramatic in talking about democracy dying yesterday, imho. It died long ago.

In any case, Aberdeen council might have very good reasons for ignoring the result of any referendum: people will happily vote for "ponies for all" or fluffy bunnies everywhere, if they think that "they" - ie someone else - will be paying for it. The council, otoh, has to balance the books to some extent.

Having said that, democracy doesn't have much to so with development and planning anyway; how many communities have voted to destroy their rural landscapes and raise the price of everyone's electricity, to no purpose? Any? And what's the SNP's response? "More windmills, faster, regardless of what anyone wants or thinks. Local people can go to hell."

No, democracy is a fiction.

Key bored warrior. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Key bored warrior. said...

Corrected post.

I tend to agree with Doug. I have always liked the gardens and spent several enjoyable hours there when working at the Theatre. I cannot see what is wrong with the gardens as they are. If there is £90 million going spare I am certain there are much better projects to spend it on rather than what appears to an outsider to be purely a vanity project, or a memorial to one mans ego.

There is no doubt that this was overruled because of petty politics and self interested councillors. Anything and every thing that can be done to poke the SNP in the eye will be done and I am surprised that people are surprised.

Anon said...

So many small towns no longer have town councils!

And the big councils seem to be run by corrupt freemasons.

"Over the years so much money has been frittered away by generations of councillors and their silly decisions."

Very true.

- Aangirfan

Joe Public said...

"The garden project would have cost £140 million, half of which would have been met by private enterprise."

If everyone's asked in a referendum if they'd want a redesign of Union Terrace Gardens or whatever, the natural instinct is to result in a "yes" vote.

Until it comes to paying for it.

Maybe the Council simply hasn't got a surplus £70 million to spend on greenery?

And if it had, many of the over-taxed would question why (it had).

Brian said...

@Captain Ranty 51 councillors actually and don't forget the 59 community boards with up to 50 appointed members each.

Captain Ranty said...

Thanks Brian.

I stand corrected.


subrosa said...

Jings Ranty, how do they justify such a number?

subrosa said...

The project was in the pipeline for a few years though Doug - although much shorter than the by-pass.

Labour didn't win the election did they? I thought they've had to go into a coalition with the independents.

I'm afraid the folk of Aberdeen have been plunged into debt for many years for the benefit of a few men's egos.

subrosa said...

Apologies for sounding over-dramatic WY. It's just that I thought the meeting yesterday was purely posturing then I listened to my friend's opinion later.

The older I get the more I agree with you. Democracy is a myth.

subrosa said...

No doubt KBW and I wasn't surprised in the least. Some Aberdonians were though by all accounts.

subrosa said...

I wonder if the small towns without councils still operate reasonably Aangirfan.

subrosa said...

Joe, I'm sure you're aware just how much debt Aberdeen council has accrued in the past decade. For the oil capital of Europe it's city destroyers have wasted so much money and there's nothing to show for it.

subrosa said...

Do we have community boards in Scotland Brian? I thought they were called community councils. Ineffective get togethers for those who want their name in the paper.

muddypaws said...

"ineffective get togethers...."

Might I recommend you to have a look at these links

subrosa said...

Sorry muddypaws, I should not have tarred all community councils with the same brush. None around here is effective. In fact they're less than useless.

muddypaws said...

Not at all, it's me who should be saying sorry. I take it my substantive point was off topic.

subrosa said...

Slight off-topic but related muddypaws. :)

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