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EXCLUSIVE: Jenny Laing insists Union Street plans ‘not dead’ as she opens up on last-minute decision to quit

Council leader Jenny Laing on stepping down from Aberdeen City Council after 15 years. Picture by Kami Thomson/DCT Media
Council leader Jenny Laing on stepping down from Aberdeen City Council after 15 years. Picture by Kami Thomson/DCT Media

There’s a cavalcade of buses growling along Broad Street as I meet Aberdeen City Council leader Jenny Laing on a sharp March morning.

For her, this is an unwelcome reminder of how Union Street will soon operate.

It’s a future she has fought passionately to avoid, eager to push forward the permanent pedestrianisation of the Granite Mile as the only way to revive its fading fortunes.

On Monday those plans were left on life support, with buses and taxis to return within 12 weeks.

The project, part of a £150 million scheme, is now up in the air depending on who runs the council following May’s election.

These designs could paint a picture of a future for Union Street that will never be realised.

Mrs Laing’s SNP and Liberal Democrat rivals insist the disputed central stretch should be open to public transport for elderly and disabled people.

Their vision was voted through following hours of debate on Monday night.

It was a devastating blow for a ruling group intent on getting their plans over the touchline before polling.

And in a shock last-minute twist following the whirlwind meeting, the Aberdeen Labour leader announced she will step down at the end of this term.

In our exclusive sit-down interview, Mrs Laing addresses: 

  • The uncertain future of Aberdeen’s BHS revamp if pedestrianisation is abandoned
  • How Labour’s stand against the Union Terrace Gardens revamp 10 years ago differs from today’s opposition blocking the pedestrianisation scheme
  • The timing of her shock announcement, made just after being outvoted on the fate of Union Street
  • How someone with “Labour in her DNA” feels about their controversial partnership with the Tories five years on
Jenny Laing will soon leave Aberdeen City Council behind. Picture by Kami Thomson / DCT Media

What next for battered Aberdeen city centre?

By the time Union Street is back up for discussion, Mrs Laing will – for the first time since 2007 – be looking on from the outside.

One insider this week told us that pedestrianisation will become increasingly out of reach once buses return to the stretch.

But Monday’s crunch council meeting came after a group of property gurus banded together to argue the case for radical changes.

Arron Finnie, Stuart Johnston, Dan Smith, Derren McRae and Mark McQueen combined to argue for pedestrianiation to remain. Picture by Kath Flannery

They say vacant units stand a far greater chance of being filled should traffic be banned from the section.

It’s this that gives Mrs Laing hope that the new ruling group, whatever their political make-up, won’t let the idea die.

And she insists that any lingering concerns about access for elderly and disabled residents could yet be worked out.

Union Street now an election battleground

She said: “I feel that the SNP and Liberal Democrats clearly don’t want to make a decision before the election.

“I think that’s the wrong thing to do, we need to act now to provide businesses with certainty…

“What is there that people would be getting on and off buses for?

“But it’s now an election issue.

“It has been turned into one by the opposition, which I think is wrong for the city.”

Could £20m of UK Government cash for BHS revamp now be at risk?

The plans to turn Aberdeen’s old BHS building into a £75m indoor market have always been tied explicitly to the road outside being pedestrianised.

In November, finance convener Ryan Houghton warned that “any deviation” from the scheme could lose the local authority a £20m UK Government grant.

Earlier today, Mrs Laing admitted this is now “clearly a risk”.

These design images show how the new indoor market is envisaged to look.

She said: “It could be in jeopardy.

“The plan that was presented for BHS also included pedestrianisation at the front of the building,

“It will be up to the UK Government to decide whether they wish to fund the full £20m if it is fundamentally changed.

“That shortfall would have to be picked up…”

Time for people of Aberdeen to speak up

But regardless, Mrs Laing now believes the future of Aberdeen city centre is in the hands of voters on Thursday, May 5.

And she urged Aberdonians to put their political allegiances to one side when they enter the polling booth.

Jenny Laing on Broad Street. Picture by Kami Thomson.

She said: “The low turnout at local government elections always depresses me a little bit.

“Now is the time to look at the manifestos of candidates and base your action on that.

“It’s not about Scottish independence or protecting the Union.

“This is about how Aberdeen will be shaped for the future, don’t remain silent.”

Jenny Laing on UTG saga

Some have drawn parallels between Labour opposing the Union Terrace Gardens revamp in 2012 and the SNP’s present stance on pedestrianisation.

When Mrs Laing’s party was voted in, they swiftly sunk the much-heralded City Gardens plan.

The outgoing council leader is adamant that they did the right thing, and dismisses any comparisons.

She said: “Those proposals were not right for this city, there were many financial risks attached.

“There was an incredibly generous £50m offer from Ian Wood but the council would still have needed to pay £70m on top of that.

“When we asked an economist to look at the business case, it didn’t stack up.

“The difference with the debate on Monday is these plans are critical now.

“Right now, we can’t afford not to act.

“We are elected to take decisions, that’s why people choose us.”

Council leader Jenny Laing's Aberdeen Labour group pledged to build 2,000 new council houses in the city within the council terms
Council leader Jenny Laing’s Aberdeen Labour group pledged to build 2,000 new council houses.

‘Siding with the Tories was the right thing to do’

After joining with the Conservative group to form the council’s ruling group in 2017, Mrs Laing and eight others were expelled from the party.

Despite the years of turmoil that followed, she wouldn’t necessarily discourage any future Labour leader in Aberdeen from following in their footsteps – if it helps to achieve their goals.

“When we went into administration we did so against the Scottish executive decision and I still believe to my heart it was the right decision.

“It’s taken us a bit of time to sort that out…

“But we entered into coalition in order to deliver the policies we wanted to, and to support the most vulnerable in our communities.”

Jenny Laing: ‘Why I decided to quit’

The timing of Mrs Laing’s shock announcement raised eyebrows in some quarters.

So was it a direct response to the Union Street setback?

Mrs Laing acknowledges that she fought hard for the so-called Aberdeen Nine to stand for re-election fully intending to defend her Midstocket and Rosemount seat.

And that remained the case until just this past weekend, having recently been selected for the ward.

Jenny Laing followed in the footsteps of her parents June and Jim Lamond by standing for the Labour Party in 2007. Picture by Raymond Besant.

However, for personal reasons, she had a change of heart on the eve of the meeting and decided it would be best to spend more time with her family.

She said: “It was not spurred on by the events of Monday.

“I made my mind up prior to the meeting, but didn’t want to distract from it so waited until it was over – I knew it would be newsworthy.

“The leadership role in Aberdeen City Council is a fantastic job, I feel incredibly honoured to have had it for eight years… But it can be consuming.”

This video shows the revamped Union Street that councillors voted against on Monday: 

What’s next for Jenny Laing?

Mrs Laing has mixed feelings about leaving behind a career that can see her negotiating multi-million-pound deals in the morning and then “refereeing arguments between pensioners” in the afternoon.

For now, her plans for the future go no further than to spend a few weeks relaxing after stepping down – and to maybe go on holiday.

Eventually she aims to have a role in the community again, and she will undoubtedly be keeping a close eye on the council for some time to come.