AFTER more than three years of debate and dispute, nearly 52% of those entitled to take part have cast their vote in a referendum to decide the future of a city gardens.

Aberdeen City Council officials said last night around 86,000 voting papers had been returned out of the 165,829 sent out in the ballot on the city's Union Terrace Gardens.

The exact figure will not be known until later today, but the early indications point towards a turnout of around 51.9% – higher than the 50.4% of Scots who turned out to vote in last year's Holyrood election.

Counting will begin this morning, with the final result expected in the middle of the day, when it will become clear if the residents of Aberdeen have voted in favour of the proposed £140 million upgrade of the gardens.

Oil tycoon Sir Ian Wood has pledged £50m from his family trust in support of the plan to raise the sunken gardens to street level, and transform them into the Granite Web envisaged by the New York based Diller Scofidio & Renfro design studio. The trust will also make a further £35m to cover any overspend.

Both sides in the debate said they couldn't predict the result.

Colin Crosby, director of Aberdeen City Gardens Trust, said: "It's difficult to call. This project has divided opinion in the three years since it was mooted. But we are hoping that the majority of the Aberdeen public will have voted for transformation.

"There has certainly been more demonstrable support for the City Garden since the winning design was unveiled and people have seen the amazing potential for the city."

Mike Shepherd, of the Friends of Union Terrace Gardens, the campaign group opposing the plans, said: "I think it is pretty close. We have been getting mixed messages.

"We have a few dozen people going round the doors, leafleting, asking what people think and we are getting a tremendous amount of support.

"But when we go out and talk to people on the street, we get a different message with it about 50/50. We can get entire families split.

"Some of the older people who you might think would be for us are voting for the development. But on the other hand we getting support from younger people, who are obviously committed to preserving the city's heritage."