AS the furious row over the Ness riverside Gathering Place intensifies, questions are being raised over the project being the subject of a Christmas “carve-up”. The planning application for the development was submitted within Highland Council on Thursday, December 20, after months on the back-burner, at a time when it was guaranteed to receive the minimum of attention, either in the media or among members of the public. The party-time scheduling of the application leaves it wide open to accusations that it was calculated and deliberate.
Yesterday Inverness Councillor Ron MacWilliam, who has already branded the handling of the Gathering Place issue “a democratic outrage”, said questions were being raised over whether the timing of the application was “strategic”.
And a colleague, Invernesss Councillor Janet Campbell, also indicated she had similar doubts. “Everyone’s thoughts are elsewhere at that time. My thoughts are on Christmas. So are everyone else’s. People aren’t scouring around for details of council planning applications.”
In the event, the submission of the planning application received the most minimal coverage in the local papers, which faced earlier deadlines for the festive period, when papers are smaller in size than at other times and journalists – like everyone else – have their thoughts at least partly on the Christmas break.
At any other time of the year a planning application being submitted on a major decision affecting the Ness riverside would have been liable to receive much more prominence in newspapers and across the media.
And the effect of that would have been to alert many more people to the fact that the application had been lodged and to give them the awareness to raise objections.
In the event, the pre-Christmas timing led to only four objections being submitted, and they were all judged to have come in too late.
This enabled planning officers to pass the Gathering Place “on the nod” under delegated powers without it being subjected to full scrutiny, debate or a vote by councillors.
However, the “Christmas carve-up” suspicion – like so many other questions in this increasingly dense and dubious affair – seems destined to remain unanswered.
Inverness news and views yesterday tried to make contact with a number of Inverness councillors, with partial success. Some were no doubt genuinely unavailable on a Sunday afternoon. Of the five we did speak to, four were prepared to comment, and one angrily criticised “the tone” of a previous email we had sent to him (and other councillors) and said he would have nothing to say to us.
Councillor MacWilliam renewed his demands for a meeting of the Inverness City Area Committee to be called to discuss the entire Gathering Place situation, which he said lay entirely “within the gift” of Provost Helen Carmichael. He said he has been waiting six weeks in total for his request to be answered, without yet receiving a reply.
Mr MacWilliam said he has been approached by numerous constituents and members of the public who have been deeply angered by unfolding events surrounding the Gathering Place.
He said: “Many people have spoken to me about this and they’re absolutely furious about it and want to know what’s going on. They’ve just realised what’s been decided. They’re trying to find out ways to object and how they can make their protests heard. And I have nothing to tell them.
“The way this has been handled so far has been outrageous and unforgivable.
“The planning application was lodged just before Christmas as well, which some people think may have been strategic. There are so many questions and the only way I believe that can be cleared up is by a full public meeting of the City Area Committee.”
He added that feelings are running so strongly over the issue that he would be quite happy to attend an external public meeting on the issue if it was called by concerned members of the public.
And he stated: “I’m a member of the city committee, a member of the planning applications committed, and a custodian of the Inverness Common Good Fund. And I’ve never once been involved in the process leading to this decision. That is democratically unacceptable.”
He said that as a member of the planning committee he had been unable to make any advance comment on the Gathering Place issue as this would have breached the rules. “The council issued guidance to members of the planning committee emphasising this point, and telling them with regard to controversial applications like this they have to keep quiet about it or they wouldn’t be able to take part in any debate. Then it emerges that this has been decided under delegated powers and this is the first time I’ve been able to say anything about it.”
He said: “The reason they did that was because they were trying to get people to keep quiet about it.”
He said that if this does go through nothing like it should ever be allowed to happen again.
Councillor Ian Brown, when contacted, said: “I would have preferred this to go to the City Area Committee.”
Councillor Janet Campbell said of the Gathering Place project: “This is a beautiful, tranquil area, a lovely place to enjoy as it is.”
She had heard nothing about the Gathering Place between the announcement of plans for it on May 24 last year and the submission of the planning application on December 20, other than minutes from the Arts sub-group – comprising only four or five people who had somehow been given autonomy to see the entire project through – and they were only for noting rather than for any discussion.
She had had no chance to vote on it or to discuss it.
With regard to what course of action she might have taken given the way the issue has been handled, she said: “I’m in a position now of…if only. If only I’d known this or if only I’d known that.” She implied that, to fend off and prevent the situation as it stands today, she would have acted much more forcefully and become much more involved.
She said there should have been a full meeting and a chance for councillors to vote on an issue of such magnitude, as she and others had been assumed would happen.
We also spoke to the deputy leader of Highland Council, Alasdair Christie, who sent us a rapid response email which may be the most significant comment of all. Mr Christie has previously told us of his desire to gain consensus on the issue. We asked him how, if the decision has already been taken by unelected officials and there’s no going back on it, this could happen.
Mr Christie wrote: “I believe that by sitting people around a table discussing the issues and explaining everything in detail it may be possible to move forward and try to improve the current situation and understanding of what has happened and why. As you say it may not rectify the situation but we all must try to explore every avenue to know if there is a way forward. It is clear that communication channels could have been better and that with the great deal of interest in the outcome of the matter discussions should be taking place.”
We take this, from a senior and widely-respected councillor like Mr Christie – who has never claimed any expenses from the council but funds his work entirely from his own pocket – as a clear indication that he regards the issue as not yet closed. And his candid admission that it could have been better handled underpins his belief that ongoing “discussions should be taking place”.
That in itself will give heart to those who feel totally let down by Highland Council over the secrecy and subterfuge many believe is linked to the Gathering Place issue, and their belief that the intention all along was to “grease it through” as quietly as possible to avoid at all costs an embarrassing re-run of the tilting pier debacle.
The only other elected representative we spoke to was Inverness Councillor Duncan MacPherson, in a short and surprisingly sharp conversation.
He said he had not replied to an email we sent out to all councillors seeking their views on the Gathering Place because “I didn’t like the tone, threatening to do this and do that if we didn’t reply”. He said he would have nothing more to say to us and promptly hung up.
This is the email we sent to Mr MacPherson. “Dear Duncan, on the highly controversial decision to approve the Inverness riverside Gathering Place by officials through delegated powers rather than have a council meeting where councillors could have their say and vote on the issue as happened with the tilting pier – and as many people also believed would happen on this one – do you agree with that? If you do agree Inverness news and views will print that and, hopefully the reasons you have for it. If you do not agree, what do you intend to do about it? If you decide not to respond we’ll print that also. Hope you are fine, and best regards.”
Given the magnitude of the issue involved, he is the only councillor we’ve spoken to so far who has objected to “the tone” of our email.