Labour under pressure over Union Terrace Gardens scrap bid as mandate questioned

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By G.A.Ponsonby
 
Labour has come under pressure from business leaders in Aberdeen over the party’s bid to overturn the result of a local referendum that saw a majority vote in favour of a £140m city centre regeneration project.
 
Members of Aberdeen and Grampian Chamber of Commerce have questioned whether the local Labour group have a strong enough democratic mandate to scrap the development of the City’s Union Terrace Gardens.

The row erupted after last week’s local authority elections that saw Labour emerge the largest party with 17 seats, two ahead of the SNP.  The Labour group spurned an alliance with the SNP in favour of a pact with the three Tory councillors and three Independent councillors.

Labour immediately announced that they intended to ignore the result of the referendum – which saw over 45,301 people support the development with only 41,175 against – and scrap the project.

However, the party has come in for fierce criticism from Sir Ian Wood, the business tycoon who is part funding the programme. 

Speaking today Sir Ian, who is putting up £50m of his own money, accused Labour of turning their back on a significant opportunity, and said: “If they say no, the first major act of the new council will be the rejection of the most exciting and ambitious opportunity the city has had for decades.

“They’ll be turning their back on the opportunity to undertake a significant regeneration of our city centre, at no cost to the council taxpayers.”

Sir Iain was supported by Bob Collier the chief Executive of Aberdeen and Grampain Chamber of Commerce who said:

“45,000 people voted for the City Gardens in the referendum, only 16,000 people voted for the Labour party, and although the Labour party has secured forty per cent of the seats it only secured thirty per cent of the popular vote on a thirty two per cent turnout which is about ten percent of the population of Aberdeen.”

Challenging whether Labour had any democratic mandate to ignore the referendum result Mr Collier added:

“The members of the Chamber would question whether that’s a strong democratic mandate to proceed with this action.”

Labour group leader Barney Crockett defended his party’s stance and claimed that the referendum was “a bad idea” and that it had left a “bad odour”.

Mr Crocket said decisions should be made by councillors and claimed that such referendums were a “very, very dangerous path to go down” and that they undermined local government.

“I think this is the kind of populist dangers that referendums hold.  I think that we are running society we have to look to our elected representative whether that’s UK Parliament, Scottish Parliament or local government, that’s what has to happen.” he said.

The project was welcomed at the time by economic development organisation the Scottish Council for Development and Industry (SCDI).

Speaking in March, immediately after the result of the local referendum, regional director Ian Armstrong said: “SCDI members consistently tell us that a strong and vibrant heart to the city is an essential catalyst for retaining and attracting new investment into the region and the voters should be commended for recognising this and embracing the need for radical change.

“We would now urge the council and Scottish Government to move swiftly to finalise the business case and proceed to the detailed planning stage in a timely manner.”

The SNP joined the business community in condemning the Labour group’s plans to scrap the development and called it “an affront to democracy”.

Kevin Stewart, SNP MSP for Aberdeen Central constituency which includes the gardens, described Labour’s decision as “upsetting”.

Mr Stewart also questioned their rival’s democratic mandate and pointed out that Labour had received a smaller share of the vote across the city than the SNP.

He said:

“This is deeply upsetting news. The Labour Party is wrecking the future of Aberdeen if it goes ahead with these plans.

“The referendum decision on the gardens was close but it was in favour nonetheless and to overturn this is an affront to democracy.

“This sets a terrible precedent for how the Labour group is to run the city.  The referendum was the best way to settle the debate and it is disappointing this decision is not being accepted.

“Our Granite City needs this development as it is vital for giving it a new green heart.”

Labour’s position on the project was the centre of an internal row in the lead up to the local election after it emerged that the local Labour group had threatened to “refute” claims made by Labour MSP Lewis Macdonald who said the project would be scrapped if Labour formed the new administration.

The email reveals that following Mr Macdonald’s comments, the deputy leader of the Labour group questioned the Labour MSP’s authority on the matter.

In the email, Councillor Gordon Graham said he was “extremely concerned it appears as if someone has sanctioned Lewis to speak on our behalf” and he would “refute” Mr MacDonald’s comments, as “no decision has been made by the Labour Group”.

In order for Labour to succeed in scrapping the project the party would need the support of the Conservatives and each of the three Independent councillors, if as expected, the SNP and Lib Dems both vote to honour the result of the referendum.