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Councillors approve city centre plans to mend Aberdeen’s “broken heart”

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Councillors pledged to end the bickering and unite behind “Team Aberdeen” as they gave their unanimous backing to a raft of projects designed to revive the city centre.

Leaders of the local authority claimed yesterday that the “people’s masterplan” would mend the city’s “broken heart”, and that work to deliver it would get under way from today.

They also confirmed that Sir Ian Wood had been kept “in the loop” throughout the development of the 49 schemes, and that they would welcome any offer of investment from the oil services billionaire.

However, some members broke ranks from the show of political unity, questioning the “challenging” traffic implications of pedestrianising much of Union Street, as well as the failure to include a new museum in the plans.

Concerns also remained over the funding and delivery of the masterplan after the leaders admitted that “80% is outwith our control”, and that the plans featured “very heavily” in the region’s proposed City Deal, which is still to be signed off by the UK and Scottish governments.

This image shows a proposal to retain buses and taxis but to remove private cars and create wider pavements
This image shows a proposal to retain buses and taxis but to remove private cars and create wider pavements

And council leader Jenny Laing risked a fresh row by refusing to rule out entering into a future deal that was similar to the hugely controversial Marischal Sqaure development at Broad Street.

The local authority’s Labour-led administration promised to deliver a vision for the heart of the city three years ago when a majority of members kicked out Sir Ian’s proposed £140million plan to raise Union Terrace Gardens.

The masterplan document, which was produced by consultants BDP, was published last week but few elected members commented on the plans until yesterday, after agreeing to impose a gagging order on themselves.

The 20-year blueprint includes proposals for 1,600 new homes, refurbishments of the city’s shopping centres, a new foot bridge over the River Dee, a gateway linking the rail station to Union Street, an expansion of Union Terrace Gardens, and pedestrianisation of several of Aberdeen’s main thoroughfares.

It is claimed that the package will help create an extra 5,500 jobs and inject £280million into the local economy.

The five party leaders at the council had clearly agreed in advance of yesterday’s meeting that the document would be nodded through, with no-one asking any questions of council officials, and only the group leaders making speeches.

However, several members did question representatives from BDP, including Ferryhill councillor Alan Donnelly, who raised concerns about banning cars from Union Street.

“I still feel there’s a fair amount of traffic that will be displaced. It sounds good, but the practicalities seem challenging,” he said.

Union Terrace Gardens could be expanded  under the plans
Union Terrace Gardens could be expanded under the plans

The councillors agreed to order a review of the authority’s finances to try to free-up cash for the proposals, and highlighted that each project would be properly scrutinised.

The full council meeting began with a deputation from Aberdeen University’s principal Sir Ian Diamond, Robert Gordon University principal Ferdinand von Prondzynski, and Aberdeen and Grampian Chamber of Commerce chief executive Bob Collier.

All three urged the approval of the plans, with Mr Collier calling on the city to join forces and form “Team Aberdeen” to get it delivered.

Several councillors adopted the phrase throughout the day.

Mrs Laing described it as a “once-in-a-generation opportunity”.

Speaking at a press conference later, she added: “It’s been one of the most important decisions that I’ve certainly made since I’ve come onto the council, and I think what’s important about it is that we’ve had a unanimous decision, with cross-party support for it.”

Quizzed on the funding, the Labour councillor said: “None of us are under any illusion that this is a very ambitious plan, and the price tag connected to that is also an ambitious one.”

She said that the masterplan proposals “feature very heavily” in the proposed City Deal, and was confident that it would be agreed.

Asked if the council would consider repeating the type of deal agreed with Muse Developments at Marischal Square, she said: “We would have to weigh up what that scheme means for the city, but I certainly wouldn’t rule anything in the nature of Marischal Square out again.”

Deputy leader Marie Boulton gave her assurance that funding the plans would not take money out of public services, saying: “We will be very mindful, anything that we’re doing has got to be affordable and won’t affect services on the ground.”

She added: “I think this masterplan has shown that when councillors put their minds to it we can put the city first.

“Today we’ve accepted this is the people’s masterplan, and tomorrow we start working on how we deliver very quickly the things under Aberdeen City Council’s control.”

Opposition SNP group leader Jackie Dunbar said: “People think that this is the end of the process when it’s so very much just the start and there’s a long way to go.

“We’ve started something here today that will be passed onto future councillors and future administrations.”

Liberal Democrat leader Ian Yuill said: “I know that the goodwill that we saw in the council chamber today shows that Team Aberdeen is up for it and will deliver it.

Conservative leader Ross Thomson said the materplan would “repair the city’s broken heart”.

He added: “For the first time we’re now moving together on this as a wider Aberdeen community. We’re now one team, with one goal.”

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