Inverness news and views comment
THE inclination to describe some councillors as “the clueless bunch” is tempting, to say the least. Because on one issue – whatever good they may have done elsewhere – their silence has been deafening. Repeated attempts to extract a reaction from them and several others on what we have rightly branded “the Gathering Place scandal” have proved fruitless. They have been as forthcoming as a basket of dead fish.
At the very least let’s describe their lack of reaction as “disappointing”. And insist that it’s long past time they stepped up to be counted. Silence on this major issue affecting our treasured riverside is unacceptable. It’s a disgrace that some seem prepared to shun, shirk, or simply ignore it.
The scandal erupted into the public domain just over three weeks ago, when it was revealed that a £300,000 plan to build a wall and concrete pathways along a beautiful and unspoilt stretch of the riverside at the Ness Islands had been passed “on the nod” under delegated powers by officials.
This meant that one of the most controversial public issues of recent times – any major change to our “jewel in the crown” riverside is by definition hugely contentious – would not even be discussed and voted on in public by elected councillors.
The decision was instead simply approved behind closed doors by unelected officials with no reasonable democratic mandate to do so.
The staggering lack of accountability triggered an immediate reaction, and was branded “a democratic outrage” by one leading critic, Councillor Ron MacWilliam.
Other Inverness area members who have been fiercely critical of the way the issue has been handled include councillors Bill Boyd, Ken Gowans, Janet Campbell, Roddy Balfour, Emma Knox, and Andew Jarvie.
Those who have taken the opposite view and have said they are content to see the matter progess are Provost Helen Carmichael, councillors Graham Ross and Carolyn Caddick, and Isabelle Mackenzie, chairman of the arts group behind the scheme.
Council depute leader Alasdair Christie has said he believes further talks are needed, involving members of the public, to try and find some form of consensus in the dispute.
But from council leader Margaret Davidson, and from councillors Callum Smith, Bet MacAllister, Richard Laird, George Cruickshank, Glynis Sinclair, Duncan MacPherson and Callum Smith, there has been no reaction we are aware of at all. And the same applies to two former Inverness provosts, Alex Graham and Jimmy Gray, men who in particular might be expected to provide some leadership and direction at this time. No-one knows what they think of the “Gathering Place” plan. Councillor Trish Robertson, to compound an utterly bizarre situation, has contacted us to emphasise she has never said she supports it. But she has never said she is against it, either. So as we asked at the time – a question which now applies to the others also: “If you are happy to have such a massive decision approved by unelected officials, why did you become a councillor in the first place?”
Procedure and process has been correctly followed, we have been told repeatedly. A planning application for the Gathering Place was lodged on December 20 and only four objections were received, which meant it could simply be approved by officials under delegated powers.
But the timing of that council application – on effectively the last working day before Christmas, after months on the back-burner, when it was guaranteed minimal public attention or media publicity – has given rise to deep public suspicion.
The belief among many – and shared by Inverness news and views – was that the behind-the-scenes intent all along was to grease it through as quietly as possible to ensure there would be no repetition of the “tilting pier” debacle.
As we’ve said repeatedly over the past three weeks, the whole business stinks like a pile of three week-old dead trout.
There, however, the matter might have ended by simply fading away in an atmosphere of cynical public resignation. But Helen Smith of Ballifeary Community Council had other ideas. She launched a protest petition, and at the last count a few days ago it was attracting support at the rate of 100 people a day and must now be well on the way to reaching the 2,000 mark, with no end in sight.
That petition is unique. As we’ve said here before, councillors are rightly reluctant to be “ruled by petition” on the basis that they have been elected to make the big decisions.
But in this instance, public wrath centres not on a decision they’ve made or intend to make – but on one they’ve refused to make – and instead handed over to unelected officials. Which is utterly unacceptable.
We printed a large number of petition comments here last week. Many people are vehemently opposed to a wall and concrete pathways being built on a beautiful, natural and unspoilt stretch of riverside which has lain untouched for generations, for no identifiable or coherent reason. Others are also furious over the way the issue has been handled. In total, it makes a complete mockery of council claims that the project – after a period of supposed “consultation” – has attracted “many favourable comments”.
Anyone can read the masses upon masses of unfavourable comments – to describe their tone mildly – on the protest petition website. But there is not a shred of evidence that the “favourable comments” cited by the council, beyond perhaps a tiny handful, actually exist. If they do, where are they, and where can we read them?
As has been widely acknowledged, this entire, wretched affair could simply be put to rest by it being returned to an open meeting where councillors of all views would get a chance to have their say and vote for or against the Gathering Place scheme. Whichever way that vote went, the public would regard it as fair and democratic and be duty bound to accept it.
But without such action being taken, those who hoped the Gathering Place scandal would simply fade away are doomed to disappointment. Far from fading, it is going to escalate. And when that happens, as it very soon will, they’ll be the first to hear about it.
Editor’s note: If any of the councillors referred to in this article feel they have been misrepresented, they are free to respond to emails previously sent and their views will be printed in full unaltered and unedited. But from what we’ve seen so far, we are not holding our breath.
Correction: In this article we wrongly identified Glynis Sinclair as being one of those councillors who had made no response on the Gathering Place. In fact Ms Sinclair has been in touch and emailed us to say she responded to our inquiry from her personal email and added: “Please be advised that I am totally against the concrete wall proposed for the Ness Islands.” We sincerely apologise for misrepresenting Ms Sinclair’s views and any embarrassment caused to her.
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