Some years ago I was one of a group of town planners taken on a trip around Aberdeen’s Bon Accord shopping centre, then under construction.

Before the tour we had a briefing in the site office.

One of the many architects’ drawings on display showed the two-storey bridge that now connects the shopping centre with the John Lewis department store (shown to the right of this photo of the store).

The glassed-in sides of the bridge were alive with what can only be described as a hanging garden of Babylon of shrubs and plants, trailing over the entire façade of the bridge, providing wonderful cover and colour.

When we reached the nearly-completed bridge and without mentioning the drawing I asked the builders’ rep showing us round whether the bridge would be covered with greenery.

He said

God, no.  You couldn’t have all that vegetation hanging over the public highway.  It just wouldn’t be safe.

I tell this story to illustrate the universal truth that no construction project is ever completed to look like the informal drawings of it prepared at an early stage, usually when the project is being sold to someone – client, funders or planning authority.

The disconnect is greater when a design has been prepared for a competition when, inevitably, the effort and resources a designer puts into a proposal will match the chance of gaining the commission.

I thought it would be interesting to look at the drawings released of the proposed Union Terrace Gardens (UTG) replacement civic plaza in the light of this universal truth.

First, just orientate yourself with the overall sketch plan of the site (North is to the left of the diagram, roughly, and South to the right)

Now consider the view taken looking North West across the site that has been widely used in the media recently (and in my earlier post on UTG)

Observe the triangular area of what looks like about twenty trees to the left.  This is labelled ‘orchard’ on the overall sketch plan.  What sort of fruit trees will grow successfully in a wee triangle in the middle of this northern city with the good citizens (and dogs) of Aberdeen wandering all around and between them?

Note the high walkways over the site at both its southern and northern ends.  Consider the graffiti, skateboarding and drop-your-litter-over-the-side potential of these walkways.

Observe also the warm glow cast over the site, bathed in the intensity of a wonderful sunset somewhere to the North (ergo the image notionally at least must represent some time around the summer solstice).

Note the pedestrians strolling through the foreground casting long shadows to the South notwithstanding the fact that the sun seems to be almost below the horizon behind the tall buildings on Union Terrace.  Given the latitude of Aberdeen and its weather, speculate how many evenings a year the site will look anything like this.

Then take a closer look at the flower garden (also seen above) and the structure behind it.

Marvel at the intensity of colour achieved by the massed planting of flowers, an intensity I’ve yet to see in the city.

Note the steep slope of the sustainable grassed roof of the ‘cultural centre’ behind the flower garden.  See how people are strolling up this steep slope without any apparent restraint of a barrier on its edge.

More could be said about all this sort of detail but I think the point has been made.  With any design proposal be very careful how you read the first sketches, especially if they’ve been prepared to sell the concept.

What you can’t see on these drawings (although you can on the official web site) are all the other elements of the proposal.  It’s not really the purpose of this post to go beyond the points I’ve already made but I just note that there’s a 500-seat theatre tucked away underground, scarcely metres from Aberdeen’s HMT where last Saturday I saw an excellent National Theatre of Scotland production written by and starring a well-known TV star.  Even with this pedigree, the theatre can scarcely have been half-full and the top two tiers of seats were closed off.  Less than a mile away a private businessman is trying to restore the Tivoli theatre to theatrical use and ten minutes’ walk from the UTG site there’s the Arts Centre theatre.  I’m all in favour of culture but does Aberdeen need another sizeable theatre?

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I voted today in a referendum organised by our local council (Aberdeen City) to help determine the future of a green space in the heart of our city – Union Terrace Gardens.

Anyone in the North East of Scotland will know what this is all about but for anyone else here is a brief summary.

A local businessman has offered £50 million to transform these Victorian gardens into a new civic space that will include various facilities, link parts of the city centre currently separated by the gardens (they are in a deep valley), and hide an unsightly dual carriageway road and railway that run alongside the gardens.  A preferred option has been chosen after a period of public consultation.  It is currently estimated that this would cost up to £140 million, the remainder coming from an anonymous donation of £5 million, £15 million from the private sector, and up to £70 million from a TIF (see below).

The proposal has sparked major local controversy, with strong lobbies both in favour of the scheme and of retaining the gardens.

In one way, the issue is fundamentally simple – keep or redevelop the gardens.

But as so often happens with these things there are innumerable complications lurking in the wings, from what could be described as opposing political ideologies for the future of the city through what the council has or hasn’t done with this major civic asset over the years, to concerns about the TIF – and much more besides.

This is not the place to reprise all the arguments.  A Google search on ‘Union Terrace Gardens’ today threw up 1,940,000 hits and anyone who doesn’t know the ins and outs of the controversy can immerse themselves for ever in everything to do with the subject.

Anyhow, all this is a preamble to saying I have voted, reluctantly, against the proposal.

Reluctantly because I think it is magnificent that someone is willing to donate £50 million to help ensure the future of the city they were born and brought up in.

Reluctantly because the heart of any city needs constant rejuvenation and the gardens in particular need a lot of TLC.

But I just can’t see it working, from the design chosen to the money needed to make it work.  I’ve seen too many architects’ drawings over the years that turned out to be triumphs of optimism over reality.

Well, voting closes on 1 March and who am I tell fellow Aberdonians how to cast their ballot?

I do know that come 2 March a significant proportion of the population of this city will see the result – whatever it is – as either a tragedy or a triumph.

TIF – tax increment funding scheme

TLC – tender loving care


Chancellor George Osborne has just announced that the coalition government’s council tax freeze in England will be extended to 2012/13 and will include the devolved administrations providing they abide by the same rules that he has set English councils (Scotland has already ‘enjoyed’ a council tax freeze for several years funded by its SNP government).

Put simply, the chancellor’s rules are that if a council limits its annual spending increase to 2.5% and does not increase its council tax the government will provide additional funding to bridge the gap.

Of course 2.5% is below the rate of inflation so in real terms councils are being asked to spend less money each year.  But that’s another story.

A typical headline that greets these initiatives is Chancellor throws lifeline to hard-pressed council tax payers.  I’ve invented that one but you’ll be familiar with the style.

These ‘freezes’ are typically said, in today’s easy cliché, to be a win-win-win situation:

  • The government wins because it helps keep inflation down and gets the credit for helping people (invariably characterised as ordinary decent hard-working people) in hard times
  • The council wins because it shares the credit for keeping the tax down
  • The council tax payer obviously wins because their tax doesn’t go up.

The truth is slightly more complex.

Take a look at the statistics.

Assume for ease of calculation a council with a yearly spend of £1,000,000, 75% of whose spend is currently funded by central government.  The £1,000,000 is unrealistically low (think 10 or 100) but the 75% is not untypical.

If that council accepts the government’s offer of 2.5% extra money and doesn’t increase its council tax, this is what happens over five years:

 

Year 1

Year 2

Year 3

Year 4

Year 5

Council spend

£1,000,000

£1,025,000

£1,051,000

£1,077,000

£1,104,000

Additional spend funded by central government

     £25,000

      £51,000

     £77,000

   £104,000

Total central government funding

  £750,000

 £775,000

   £801,000

   £827,000

  £854,000

% funded by central government

75%

75.6%

76.2%

76.8%

77.4%

In other words, the percentage of the council’s spending funded directly by central government creeps inexorably upward.

In the short term you might say ‘So what?’ and councillors certainly find it convenient not to have to raise the council tax.

But all concerned would do well to remember the old saying He who pays the piper calls the tune.

Scottish councils have already found this, with their council tax freeze linked to a concordat with the Scottish government that includes a single outcome agreement in which they and their local partners have to agree with the government how they will help deliver their national priorities.

A quick glance across the water to the Republic of Ireland gives a taste of what could eventually happen.  As Wikipedia (not always right but near enough on this occasion) puts it

Following the abolition of domestic property rates in the late 1970s, local councils have found it extremely difficult to raise money…[National government] is a significant source of funding at present…The dependence on Exchequer has led to charges that the Republic has an overly centralised system of local government…numerous studies…have recommended the reintroduction of some form of local taxation/charging regime, but these are generally seen as politically unacceptable.

To mix my metaphors, as the link between taxation and democratic representation is weakened councils will inevitably become more emasculated and increasingly the hand maiden of central government.

Not a good idea.


Well done UK council chief executives.

They’re having a summit in October to think about the future of the important services local authorities provide.  Their debate will be structured around five propositions you can find on the web site they’ve set up to prepare for the event.

One thing they didn’t anticipate (who did?) will surely inform their deliberations – the “riots”.

I was pondering this as I checked out their site and in particular their

Proposition 4 Public services in a networked world

Although they can’t have intended it, this is absolutely central to what happened in England (media, Twitterers, politicians, foreign commentators et al please note – England, and even then only parts of England, not UK).

Spurred by this thought I dropped a note on the web site concerned.  Being of an economical and sustainable cast of mind I thought an expanded version might have a wider interest.

My thoughts started with something I’ve already looked at on this blog – the performance of the UK government Directgov portal during the disturbances.  That led me to thinking about social media and four distinct groups.

Central government itself

Given my other blog post it probably needs least comment of all here.  My characterisation of it to the chief execs was

An apparent social media paralysis…Directgov, their web portal, and its Twitter feed remained supine over the first few days of the riots

Local authorities

My own trawls did not reveal any hugely systematic or proactive use of the web and social media by councils, councillors or council chief executives.  Was I reading the wrong sources (let me know)?  I found three honourable exceptions.

The leader of Lambeth council was out and about in Brixton the morning after their disturbance and blogged about what he saw.  It had the smack of authenticity about it rather than the dead hand of PR

I was astonished to find Ms Cupcake, owner of a bakery on Brixton’s Coldharbour Lane, out in Brixton this morning handing out brightly-coloured iced cakes. She told me this was no day to sell cakes, and she wanted to show the world the true face of Brixton –smiling, generous, and big-hearted.

The chief executive of Haringey wrote for his peers about his experience on the SOLACE web site and the Guardian’s Public leaders network gave it a wider audience.  A thoughtful piece that concluded

I would love to close with some coherent thoughts on how we move on from this but as I reflect on the events of the last few days both here and across the country – reading the reports of the damage to our street maintenance depot which was attacked last night – I find myself like many others wondering how we got to this point.

I watched for council Tweets on the situation but few crossed my path amidst the thousands tumbling out, initially tagged #londonriots then #ukriots (but see comment on “UK” above).  An ironic exception was the prolific Twitterer Ruth Hyde @relhyde, chief executive of Broxtowe Borough Council.  Ironic because they’ve had no reported troubles.  But they’re next door to Nottingham which did and she’s been keeping her followers up to date, most recently with

Riots updates with Police and partners. Great communication from Notts police, Nothing yet reported in Broxtowe.

Note the praise given to the police.  She’s also been assiduous in re-tweeting their messages.  She gets the point in a way that many don’t – to the point, a conversational tone, up to date and frequent (but not excessive) Tweeting, informal and friendly.  A great example.  You feel there’s a real person there not the junior member of a comms team.  She deserves more followers (so get on over there and sign up) .

Rioters and would-be rioters

This is the group that’s had all the publicity.  Not only their use of social media including Twitter and Blackberry messaging to co-ordinate (co-ordinate probably pitches it too high) their activities but also their Tweets and videos showing the results.  So social media is immediately cast as the villian of the piece and bizarrely, for this particular business user, the Blackberry with its secure encrypted messaging in particular becomes a “problem”.

Community response

This for me has been the most inspiring use of social media in the current disturbances.  Just as baddies can use it to communicate so can goodies.  Hashtags like #riotcleanup and #riotwombles (love that) came out of nowhere and residents appeared on the streets almost instantly with brooms and dustpans to tidy up their own communities (although a big plus to many councils who were also mobilising their own resources for rapid clean ups).  And elsewhere in cyberspace you could hardly blink before people had web sites up gathering photos of probable looters (innocent until proven guilty of course) for identifying and reporting to the police.  This looked like the big society in action, although it has to be said without any credit due to the only begetter of the idea.

Which of these groups made most effective use of social media?  You’d have to say central government was pathetic, councils good in parts but, sadly, the baddies were expert.  The good news is that the positive community response was probably more expert (certainly more educated).

Nothing here about the police use (and monitoring, which we’ll probably never find out about in detail) of social media.  That’s another story and someone else will need to tell it.


Well, that’s what it took to recharge the batteries in the Pyrenees – part of a long-held ambition to walk the Spanish side of the mountains from Atlantic to the Mediterranean.

I returned footsore but exhilarated, and who wouldn’t be by the scenery…

… think 10,000+ ft. altitude and check the trees to get the scale.

The mountain-with-cloud is one of the few parts of Andorra not devoted to removing money from visiting foreigners.  Thanks to a quirk of geography I also visited the town of Llivia, a pocket handkerchief-size piece of Spain surrounded completely by France (Catalan required to read their web site).  Eat your heart out Berwick-on-Tweed.

Casting my eye away from the walking towards the Spanish media I was surprised to see their national RTVE 24h news channel live coverage of our own sordid tales of media hacking and the accompanying resignations/arrests.  They even showed Rupert Murdoch being pied in the Commons Select Committee and Mrs M’s robust defence of the old fella.

One of the more obscure issues the whole News International affair throws up for me is the almost complete inversion at national level of the normal relationship between local politicians and local print media.

In my experience councillors (certainly those in a ruling group) often have a highly antagonistic view of their local morning and evening papers.  Many are convinced the local rag is out to get them, that this hostility is peculiar to them and is uniquely bad in their patch.  The truth of course is that this is what it’s like everywhere there’s a local daily paper.  The difference nationally is that the stakes are so much higher – the government of a whole country, the power to determine the major strategic expansion of a global media company.  The power (diminished in England now) to withhold a planning permission for a newspaper publisher isn’t quite the same thing.


The following document has come into our hands by a circuitous route.  It should be read in conjunction with the note that follows it.

HAYMARKET ACADEMY

End of term report for: Master L. A. Cosla, Class 5a

Subject: Modern studies – Future of Scottish Education

Project: Pupils were invited to propose a draft submission to the review of Scottish education being carried out for the Scottish Government by Professor Gerry McCormac of Stirling University.  Their project has been graded according to the key proposals they made.
Pupil’s proposal

Mark

Teacher’s comment
In order to encourage high performance by head teachers there is a case for them being on renewable rather than permanent contracts

0%

You have fundamentally misunderstood what motivates people at work and before your final exam you would profit from familiarising yourself with Alfie Kohn’s  seminal book Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes
Consideration should be given to the satisfactory completion of training courses in order for teachers to be re-accredited as teachers by the General Teaching Council of Scotland

60%

Your argument in favour of properly structured continuing professional development is compelling but take care in how you link that to the continuing right to a job
Teachers on promoted posts below head teacher level should be on short, fixed-term contracts, subject to appraisal, for promoted posts below head teacher level

0%

See my comment about performance of head teachers above.  You seem to make the tenure of these jobs even more at risk than the more senior posts – something perverse there!
Teachers on promoted posts below head teacher level should also move between different schools so that future leaders acquired a broad range of experience

40%

The proposal to move promoted teachers between schools is an interesting one but linked with your other suggestions above smacks more of punishment than career development
There is a case for primary head teachers graduating to become secondary heads

10%

This proposal very much positions primary head teachers as the lesser of the two sub-species.  It’s true they earn less but their schools are usually much smaller and have smaller budgets.  Anyhow, are the two client bases (if you want to take a business-like approach to this issue) not very different?  What about secondary head teachers taking primary school posts?  I cannot see this suggestion as fundamental to the issues you were asked to address
The number of in-service days could increase from the current five a year, and they could take place during pupils’ holidays because the current system was too disruptive to pupils and required hard-pressed councils to pay for temporary staff

70%

An interesting proposal that would merit further development in your final project submission.  You could make the point that the current five “in-service days” are already taken from the notional 200 days a year schooling pupils are supposed to receive.  Perhaps link to the amount of holidays teachers receive each year?
“Counting hours” is inappropriate for professionals and teachers should move from a 35-hour week to a more flexible model of about 140 hours a month

25%

Are you suggesting more “flexibility” or more work?  Your standard grade maths should have taught you that a 35-hour week is about 140 hours a month!  This is a difficult issue you should develop further.  It would be interesting to know how many teachers already work more than their contracted 35 hours a week
Primary teachers should no longer spend a maximum 22.5 hours a week teaching in the classroom in order to provide time for preparing and marking (because of the additional expense of paying for cover staff)

40%

Another proposal (poorly expressed) that needs further development before it could become a valid argument.  I think a good case may lurk here but it needs to be developed further
The amount of time secondary teachers spend in the classroom should also be examined

40%

See my comments on primary teachers above
Head teacher’s comment:I agree with the comments of your modern studies teacher.  In addition you might wish to consider whether your proposals get to the heart of the future challenges for Scottish education.  Given the resources available to you in school and your understanding of the subject I am somewhat disappointed at your overall conclusions

Readers unaware of the Scottish education system may not know that Master L. A. Cosla is in fact the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities.  It would have been good to judge their proposals against their own words.  Unfortunately the only available account of their submission to Professor McCormac’s review is a leaked version reported by the BBC on 23 May 2011.  COSLA have been quoted as saying they may amend their comments but have not released their current submission.  The views of Master Cosla’s teacher and head teacher in his end of term report may of course bear no resemblance to those of any real teacher.  But they do take account of this blog author’s many years experience working in and for the public sector, as well as his active parenthood for almost as many years and his membership over the years of various school boards and parent councils.   


Two weeks after the council elections in England 100s of new councillors will be getting to grips with  what they’ve let themselves in for.

As potential candidates, some may have been to an event encouraging people to stand for election.  Many will have been briefed by their party and its existing councillors.  Some will still be in recovery mode from the glib assurance of a party official that “It’s just to make sure we’re on the ballot paper.  We haven’t got a chance of winning in that ward”.  A tiny minority will have convinced themselves that they’re embarking on a crusade to clean the whole sorry mess up without realising yet that there isn’t actually a whole sorry mess there.

All will be receiving some sort of induction, more or less thorough, more or less baffling.  All will find local government finance challenging.  All will be suffering from information overload.  And all will struggle with the jargon.

That jargon will undoubtedly include reference to governance, partnership, stakeholders, engagement and much else of a similar nature

It will contrast starkly with what they came into local government to achieve and what they’ve been told by voters on the doorstep.

Back before the recession the Local Government Association commissioned research on what determines the reputation of a council.  Their consultants, Ipsos-MORI, came up with 12 actions that were critical to ensuring a council’s reputation

  • adopt a highly visible, strongly branded council cleaning operation
  • set up one phone number for the public to report local environmental problems
  • know your grot spots – and deal with them
  • aim to remove abandoned cars and fly-tipping within 24 hours
  • win a Green Flag award for at least one park
  • ensure no gaps or overlap in council cleaning and maintenance contracts
  • educate and enforce to protect the environment
  • manage the media effectively to promote and defend the council
  • provide an A-Z guide to council services
  • publish a regular council magazine or newspaper to inform residents (this one will have taken a bit of a knock under the current Whitehall regime)
  • ensure the council brand is consistently linked to services
  • good internal communications – make sure staff and members are informed.

The LGA have developed and refined their recommendations on reputation since then but it would be interesting to know whether several years on, in the recession and with radically reduced resources, these are still the key factors that drive what people think of their council.

What better way to find out than the feedback that newly elected councillors received during their election campaigns?

In the absence of national collation of that sort of information, I asked a chief executive what issues her new members had picked up on the doorstep recently.  Across all parties they said

  • potholes
  • unkempt verges
  • parking on pavements
  • high council house rent increases
  • worries about future cuts.

It’s easy to discern the similarities with the LGA’s list together with an overlay for obvious reasons of financial concerns.  Not much about that jargon from the higher realms of democratic theory.

The chief executive cited above is Ruth Hyde of Broxtowe Borough Council.  She’s one of the small minority of local authority CEs who use Twitter.  Her Tweets are well worth following if you want to see what a council chief executive’s job is all about.  And at present you can find updates on Broxtowe’s induction programme for new councillors – at @Relhyde