The unanimous approval of the Masterplan by the City Council represents a major step forward following the sometimes acrimonious debate over Union Terrace Gardens and the much maligned Marischal Square development. The purpose of the Masterplan and its delivery programme is stated as “…energising the city centre to deliver prosperity and better quality of life for all”.
The Plan has been met with a mixed response but, whilst recognising its flaws, has generally been welcomed and the fact it gained the unanimous support of the Full Council is, in itself, no small feat. Perhaps that support is understandable given the claim it will create 5,500 jobs and inject £280 million into the local economy, as well as providing 1,600 new homes in the city centre.
Now that it has been approved the real challenge begins to ensure that it is funded and delivered. Aberdeen has won awards for the preparation of Masterplans in the past but, unlike its neighbouring city to the south, has failed to deliver those plans. That cannot be allowed to happen this time around given the difficulties currently being experienced by the Oil Industry and its impact on the local economy. The fact that the Plan has the unanimous support of the Council is a good starting point. For it to be successful it needs the buy-in, not just of the current administration, but of future administrations. Too often in the past Plans have been “dumped” as a consequence of changes in the political environment.
It also needs the buy-in of the private sector and I think this is achievable, but only if three changes are made promptly. Firstly, strong leadership from the Regeneration Board, which should include representatives from the public and private sectors, as well as the wider community. Secondly, the appointment of an enthusiastic team charged with its delivery, again involving the private sector. Finally, the Council must ensure that its various service departments and functions are aligned and working towards the overall vision. All too often in the past we have seen contradictions in the approaches taken by various Council departments to development in the city, if this happens again the project will inevitably stall.
Given the new found togetherness of ‘Team Aberdeen’, the key to delivery is funding. The Council is looking closely at its own finances in this regard, but landing the ‘city deal’ will be crucial if we are to see progress with the various projects in the timescale envisaged. Private sector commitment to funding will also be necessary, which will be a challenge in the current climate. Nevertheless, through a combination of joint working and innovative funding solutions, I feel progress can be made.
We can’t escape the fact that there is the potential for compulsory purchase in an effort to secure land assembly and facilitate the delivery of projects. It’s a thorny subject, and one Councils have been reluctant to pursue in the past but it could be used to facilitate the delivery of projects and in turn be the key to unlocking the development potential of certain sites.
Overall, the preparation and approval of the City Centre Masterplan is a positive step forward to the regeneration of the city and should be welcomed. The City Council, however, cannot allow this Plan to gather dust and the focus now must be on its implementation. Early wins will be essential to maintain public support and build the momentum to ensure the eight objectives and the Masterplan vision for the city are met.
The Masterplan identifies eight objectives which provide a framework for addressing the city centre’s challenges and delivering the vision. To achieve the objectives a range of interventions are set out in the Masterplan arranged and described under four thematic strategies: the economy, community, environment and infrastructure. Between the four themes, 49 projects are identified spread over seven intervention areas within and close to the city centre, the farthest afield being the North Dee/Torry Waterfront.
The projects cover a broad spectrum and range from a business centre aimed at local entrepreneurs to the redevelopment of the Trinity Centre to provide a quality retail environment and a “contextually appropriate setting to the Merchant Quarter, railway station and Union Street”. Some are new projects, but many are a re-work of proposals contained in earlier Masterplans, such as the pedestrianisation of part of Union Street, the North Dee Business Quarter and the redevelopment of the Denburn Health Centre and Woolmanhill Hospital. Others are already consented or under way. The development of Marischal Square will soon emerge from the ground and the regeneration of North Dee is well underway with major office developments constructed in recent years.