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Analysis: Union Street row is the starter gun in Aberdeen council election race

The Aberdeen City Council election race is under way - with the row over Union Street the starting gun. Picture by Roddie Reid/DCT Media.
The Aberdeen City Council election race is under way - with the row over Union Street the starting gun. Pictured are Councillors Ian Yuill, Alex Nicoll, Jenny Laing and Ryan Houghton. Picture by Roddie Reid/DCT Media.

Another Town House outrage has left it clear to see: the 2022 election year is well under way.

The signs were there last year – big money promises of a refresh of the Aberdeen city centre masterplan, to bring life back to our battered high street and tired beachfront.

While the wheels were put in motion for the £150 million spending spree in 2021, it will be this February – only 68 days before polling – that final decisions are made on a much-needed facelift for the Granite City.

Update: At the end of February, councillors voted to reopen Union Street to buses and taxis – with a final decision to be taken on the future of the Granite Mile in June.

Tens of millions being spent as May’s council election looms

Permanent pedestrianisation of Union Street and surrounding streets, along with plans for a £50m new market on the former BHS site, will be up for discussion.

Concept images of the revamped Aberdeen beach, complete with new joint venture stadium paid for by the council and Aberdeen FC.
Concept images of the revamped Aberdeen beach, complete with new joint venture stadium paid for by the council and Aberdeen FC.

So too will the joint-venture stadium being looked at down at the beach, in which public money could well be spent keeping Aberdeen FC as close to Pittodrie as possible.

New leisure facilities are also being considered while improved walking and cycling links through the Castlegate and down the Boulevard are being sketched up too.

And so when the SNP and Liberal Democrats called for a vote – one they would likely have thought they were going to lose – on reopening Union Street to buses and taxis, those in power were quick to write it off as a diversionary tactic.

Council rules mean the 24-21 majority was not enough to debate reopening Union Street

Despite heading up the largest group on the council, SNP leader Alex Nicoll stepped aside and let his Lib Dem counterpart Ian Yuill lead.

Liberal Democrat leader Ian Yuill is pressing for the temporary Covid-prompted pedestrianisation of Union Street to be undone while permanent plans are drawn up. Picture by Darrell Benns/DCT Media.
Liberal Democrat leader Ian Yuill led calls for the temporary Covid-prompted pedestrianisation of Union Street to be undone while permanent plans are drawn up. Picture by Darrell Benns/DCT Media.

While they won a procedural vote (a vote on whether to have another vote on the future of the Granite Mile), their tally of 24 was six short of the required two-thirds majority needed.

It led to claims “the democratic will of the council” was being prevented – despite both the SNP and Liberal Democrats backing the very rules that frustrated them when they were reviewed in March 2021.

Sources in the SNP now say they will review all standing orders – the council’s rulebook – if they manage to secure the leadership of the council in May.

Union Street the latest big ticket item to dominate ahead of an election

The council leader, Labour’s Jenny Laing, claims there is a pattern becoming very clear in the run up to council elections in Aberdeen.

Council leader Jenny Laing blasted the SNP for a pattern of stirring public outrage ahead of local elections.
Council leader Jenny Laing blasted the SNP for a pattern of stirring public outrage ahead of local elections.

She told us: “The SNP have done what they did just before the 2012 and 2017 elections, forcing officers to hold a special council meeting to try and overturn a decision they don’t like, thinking the public are on their side.

“They held a special council meeting on Union Terrace Gardens in 2012 and Marischal Square in 2017.

“On both occasions, at the May election that followed, the electorate refused to give them a mandate to run the council.

“The SNP are predictable if nothing else and it is clear from Councillor Nicoll’s stance that he is far more concerned with managing decline than building a cleaner, greener city centre that we can all be proud of.

“I suspect the electorate of Aberdeen will once again ensure they are nowhere near the levers of power following the election in May – simply because our city and our citizens want to have a successful and vibrant Union Street.”

Do the numbers support Aberdeen’s council leader?

At the 2017 election, Aberdeen Labour – led by Mrs Laing since 2014 – lost half its councillors, reducing in number to only nine.

Their coalition colleagues, the Conservatives, gained eight seats taking their total to 11.

The SNP became the largest group on the council in 2017 - but were four short of an outright majority. Picture by Heather Fowlie/DCT Media.
The SNP became the largest group on the council in 2017 – but were four short of an outright majority. Picture by Heather Fowlie/DCT Media.

Meanwhile, the SNP grabbed three seats to become the biggest group on the council with 19 members.

A dramatic five years kicked off with the almost-immediate party expulsion of Aberdeen Labour and former Liberal Democrat Jennifer Stewart crossing the chamber to join the administration as an aligned independent.

That has left the 22-strong administration relying on casting votes at times to overcome the 22-strong SNP and Lib Dem opposition.

Alan Donnelly, voted in as a Tory but who left the party over his sexual assault conviction, is the only wildcard unaligned independent.

Fit to lead? SNP group leader laughs off criticism

Back to today, Mrs Laing also claimed that having Mr Yuill front and centre of the debate to reopen Union Street was an admission that the SNP boss is not fit to lead.

However, bus access on the the Market Street to Bridge Street stretch is something Mr Yuill had brought forward time and again since its initial, temporary, Covid-prompted closure in summer 2020.

Mr Nicoll fired back, joking that “only Aberdeen Labour would consider losing half of their seats as a mandate”.

SNP group leader Alex Nicoll laughed of criticism over the Union Street row from council leader Jenny Laing.
SNP group leader Alex Nicoll laughed of criticism over the Union Street row from council leader Jenny Laing. Picture by Kath Flannery/DCT Media.

He added: “As much as Labour and the Tories like to talk about managed decline, the fact remains that they’re the ones who have been in power in this city for the past decade.

“During that time they’ve spent in excess of a billion pounds of public money, burdening our city with debt that will take a generation to pay off, and left the city in a poorer state than what they took over.

“We now have an administration going all out to continue excluding elderly and disabled people from our city centre, instead siding with big business.

“You’d expect that from the Tories but Labour as a party used to actually have some principles.”

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