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Was turning down £50m part of a master plan?

BY any measure, £50 million is a great deal of money to turn down, but that is what Aberdeen City Council appears to have done in not taking up an offer of investment from the businessman Sir Ian Wood to help transform the centre of the city.

Every Aberdonian, and everyone who cares about urban regeneration in Scotland, should be hoping that the council knows what it is doing.

Sir Ian originally put the money on the table as part of the highly controversial plans to raze Union Terrace Gardens. The idea sharply divided Aberdonians, and attracted criticism from high-profile opponents including singer and Aberdonian Annie Lennox who famously described the proposals as civic vandalism.

In the end, the people of the city narrowly supported the plans in a referendum, only for the council to reject the scheme anyway. At the time, Sir Ian said he believed future generations would look back on that decision and wonder why the city's leaders failed to grasp an opportunity to transform their urban landscape. He also wondered why those who run a relatively rich city that has benefited from oil and gas have allowed some parts of it to decline so badly.

It was a fair point to make at the time, and it still is. To some extent, Aberdeen has been immune to many of the economic pressures seen in other parts of Scotland, and there is every prospect of the city continuing to boom as new ways are developed of extracting oil and gas in the North Sea.

And yet, even as the economy of Aberdeen has continued to thrive, Union Street, its main thoroughfare, and some of the streets around it have deteriorated and simply do not reflect the city's status as one of Europe's most important economic regions.

The council insists it does have plans for a transformational project but that they will not be finalised to meet the deadline of the end of the year which came with Sir Ian's £50m offer. Part of the council's reticence may be due to worry about undue influence by a billionaire businessman - and that is understandable, especially after the debacle of the Union Terrace Garden plans which Sir Ian supported so vehemently.

However, Sir Ian showed considerable goodwill in refusing to walk away when the gardens plan was rejected. He could have taken his £50m elsewhere, but instead he said his trust would still pay up if the council came up with an alternative revitalising scheme in good time.

If that offer has now been allowed to fall by the wayside, as appears to be the case, the council could come to regret it. No democratically-elected body should be dictated to by a rich businessman, but that is not what Sir Ian has done. As the First Minister Alex Salmond has said, Sir Ian has not been dogmatic in terms of what he wanted to see happen in Aberdeen.

There has also been almost universal agreement in the city that, like many other urban centres in Scotland, it does need regeneration. If an offer of £50m to make that regeneration happen really has been rejected, the city council had better be sure it has a good plan for the future - and can pay for it.

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