Mark McDonald, MSP for Aberdeen Donside, addresses the Scottish Parliament on 08 December regarding Marischal Square. Watch the video below and click "read more" to view the speech's text.
- I pay tribute to the campaigners and in particular to my constituent, Bill Skidmore, who has sent a great deal of information to MSPs in advance of this evening’s debate. It has certainly made for interesting reading.
My colleague Kevin Stewart helpfully focused on the lack of a business plan and the questions that arise off the back of that. I want to consider some of the wider impacts and risks that I think that the development poses. However, I cannot allow some of the things that Lewis Macdonald said to go unchecked and unchallenged.
First, I think that most people would accept and agree that the redevelopment of Marischal college has been a fantastic benefit to the city of Aberdeen. If Lewis Macdonald’s view is that any capital expenditure should be viewed as a millstone or a risk, it is a wonder that anything ever gets developed in the city of Aberdeen. I give the example of new school buildings, which cost tens of millions of pounds. Lewis Macdonald appears to believe that we should not make such investments of tens of millions of pounds because of the potential debt that might arise.
- Lewis Macdonald: Will the member give way?
- Mark McDonald: No, I have more to come to yet. Let me develop further.
Of course, Lewis Macdonald turns around and says that the Local Government and Regeneration Committee has spoken about using pension funds for infrastructure investment. That is something that I have spoken about, too, particularly with regard to public pension funds. The idea is that pension funds that invest in that way recoup their investment over time, rather than the burden of risk of the investment simply being transferred on to the local authority, which is what is happening in the circumstances that Lewis Macdonald is talking about.
Then Mr Macdonald says that the Local Government and Regeneration Committee has said that councils should not be too risk averse. There is a fundamental difference between not being risk averse and being essentially blind to or ignorant of risk. That appears to be a dividing line that the Labour-led administration in Aberdeen has fallen over quite spectacularly.
- Lewis Macdonald: Clearly, Audit Scotland has not considered the handling of the matter to be either blind or ignorant. However, if Mr MacDonald is suggesting that, in some way, Aberdeen City Council should cease to seek an income from Marischal square, can he tell us how he would have the council pay off the debt accrued at Marischal college?
- Mark McDonald: One of the things that Aberdeen City Council ought to have done is to have had a much more open and transparent process from the beginning, focusing on the views of Aberdonians with regard to the options that they want to be developed, and then examining how those could be delivered. I am pretty sure that what is currently being developed would not have been top of any of the considerations.
One of the other things that Aberdeen City Council did erroneously was to vote—against the wishes of the group that I was a member of—for the council itself to incur the costs of the demolition of St Nicholas house, with no guarantee of what would come after, thereby taking on an up-front cost with no guarantee of future income. That was another example of carelessness in the face of risk assessment.
I want to consider some of the wider issues in terms of impact and risk. Union Street, the flagship street in the city of Aberdeen, needs support and investment as part of a strategic approach. I fail to see any sign of such an approach. Indeed, it seems that the development and the proposed development in and around the city centre are designed almost to prevent the recovery of Union Street rather than to assist that. The Marischal square development will be another part of that problem, because it will have a financial impact.
Opportunities are coming to the council and, as Lewis Macdonald is now keen on the council not being risk averse, I am sure that he will join with the calls that have been made by my colleague Councillor Jackie Dunbar for Aberdeen City Council to look to use the new powers that are being given to it in relation to business rates to consider a targeted approach to business-rate reduction in order to encourage independent retailers on to Union Street.
I believe that that should be coupled with ideas about how the upper levels of Union Street buildings could be better used. For example, they could be converted to flats and other properties, which would enable the provision of accommodation in the centre of Aberdeen and reduce the space of buildings that is being let to retailers. That would encourage the smaller independent retailers that exist in areas such as Rose Street and Thistle Street on to Union Street, which would give them greater exposure and greater footfall.
That is the kind of approach that we want to be taken in our city centre—not what is being done with Marischal square at the moment, which, instead of promoting the smaller independent retailers, only gives an opportunity to chain retailers that do not have a local presence to set up shop in Aberdeen and potentially divert business from them. For me, that is one of the great shames about this situation.
- - See more at: http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/parliamentarybusiness/report.aspx?r=10256#sthash.qwOkQdKL.dpuf