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Aberdeen surveyor says politics get in the way of progress

Graham&Sibbald partner Bruce Murdoch
Graham&Sibbald partner Bruce Murdoch

It sounds simple enough – create a vibrant new hub for offices and retailing in the heart of a city and then provide great transport options to get workers in and out.

Bruce Murdoch, Granite-based partner of chartered surveyor Graham + Sibbald (G+S), made it all sound so very easy.

But as is often the case when it comes to making Europe’s energy capital a better place to live, work or both, more than a few hurdles can get in the way of substantial progress when it comes to regeneration schemes.

Grand plans have come and gone without a brick being laid, in many cases casualties of acrimonious bickering over what is best for the city.

In other cases, ambitious blueprints for re-energising parts of Aberdeen – particularly Union Street – have ended up on shelves gathering dust.

But there are major developments currently taking place in or near to the city centre, which Mr Murdoch believes could be the key to unlocking the kind of transformational change people seem to be crying out for.

The area now knows as the North Dee Business Quarter is a case in point.

G+S has no involvement in any of the work there, but Mr Murdoch, 51, is enthusiastic about what it gives the city in terms of future opportunity.

“That area offers fantastic potential,” he said, adding: “With a workforce in the heart of the city, we have an opportunity to harness the workplace to a wide range of amenities and good transport links.”

That is where we hit one of those hurdles holding back further progress.

Despite its proximity to Aberdeen’s train and bus stations, a lot of the people already working in the North Dee Business Quarter and many of those who are likely to join them in the near future are or will be travelling there in their cars.

The Granite City is a long way from being as public transport friendly as either FirstGroup or Stagecoach Group would have us believe, although public-private partnership Nestrans and others are working hard to try to improve the situation.

Get Mr Murdoch on the subject and you soon start to realise that having “pulsating” commuter transport lines from the city centre may not only help to ease traffic congestion but it could pave the way for further transformation.

Property development currently deemed unsuitable because of road access issues would be seen in a new light if people no longer had to use their cars to get to work.

It all seems to make sense – but then there is politics.

Mr Murdoch, who has worked in Aberdeen for 25 years, is reluctant to point the finger at anyone in particular but generally scathing about the “political tribalism” that can kill off projects.

“I don’t think it is very helpful,” he said, adding that it is all too prevalent at every level of government.

He said: “We end up with people saying no to a lot of things before they even know what the question is.

“I would like to see a genuine, consensus approach for the greater good.”

Mr Murdoch, who hails from Inverness, decided to become a surveyor – as opposed to a helicopter pilot, which was his other early career idea – while work shadowing a friend, Ian Leighton, who is now the senior partner at G+S.

“I was curious about what it (surveying) was,” he said, adding: “I later found myself in Glen Affric looking at a residential property and decided that it was not such a bad job.”

He arrived in Aberdeen in 1989, having spent the first seven years of his career with G+S in its Inverness office after land economics studies at Paisley College.

The move to the Granite City was a bit of a wrench for the surveyor in some respects as it took him away from the mountains he loved so much in the Highlands.

But it was also an exciting time as he was the only surveyor in the new Aberdeen office at the start. The secretary who came to work with him back then, Doreen Elphinstone, has also been with the firm ever since.

He became a member of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors in 1994 and was appointed as a G+S partner two years later.

G+S has 27 partners, 18 associates and two consultants, plus more than 200 employees across 14 offices, supporting its managing and senior partners.

Aberdeen is one of 13 locations in Scotland for the firm, with another in Weybridge in Kent, and now has 12 employees. Inverness has a slightly bigger team of about 16.

The company’s roots lie in Dundee – in February 1959, Sandy Graham, formerly of the district valuer’s department, went into partnership with Greig Sibbald, principal of John G. Sibbald and Son Property Agents, to establish what was then the only solely valuation-based practice in “jute, jam and journalism” city.

In 1964, the business expanded through office openings in Kirkcaldy, Stirling and Glasgow. More locations have followed, with Weybridge being added in recent years to serve local companies through the firm’s specialist petroleum and roadside division.

The company is active in commercial and residential property markets, while a joint-venture – Surveyors Panel Management – provides services for banks and building societies.

Its OpenHouse operation provides home reports, single surveys and energy performance certificates as a business to business service.

Mr Murdoch has seen many changes during his time in Aberdeen as the ups and downs of the energy industry impact on the nature of property deals in the city.

The buoyant commercial market of recent years seems to be slowing down as oil and gas companies and energy service businesses adapt to lower oil prices and the uncertainty facing the industry just now.

But the forecast is that oil prices will recover, refuelling the momentum of businesses expanding into new premises either in Aberdeen or in the many business parks taking shape in and around the Granite City.

Towns around Aberdeenshire are also expected to continue their rapid growth, creating new opportunities for property developers.

Mr Murdoch said the current “correction” in Europe’s energy capital was taking some of the pressure off what had been in danger of becoming an overheated local commercial market.

He added: “If it had carried on the way it was going, it would have led to questions about sustainability and we would be facing issued of a different kind”.

It would take considerable bravery for businesses to contemplate a move to bigger offices in the current climate as the oil and gas industry “battens down the hatches” but the market should take off again soon amid expectations of a rise in oil prices, he said.

Mr Murdoch lives at Blairdaff, between Kenmay and Moneymusk, with is wife, Aileen. The couple have three children – Calum, 16, Gina, 14 and Rosie, six.

The love of the mountains and hill-walking persists, while the G+S partner also enjoys sailing – he is a member of Aberdeen and Stonehaven Yacht Club – and the odd round of golf.