by Colin Campbell
THE glorious Easter Monday sunshine brought out a gathering at the location of the planned riverside “Gathering Place” – with the universal view among those relaxing there being: “Who in their right minds would want to build a £300,000 wall and concrete pathways in this beautiful natural setting?” The OpenNess campaign group’s “picnic protest” on the riverside at the Ness Islands demonstrated to the full the folly of turning the area into a building site to create a “Gathering Place” wall and concrete pathways at an unspoilt setting enjoyed by so many.
Families and couples with children basked in the sunshine, partly there to enjoy a delightful Easter Monday and partly there to reinforce their opposition to the ruinously expensive Gathering Place project which is planned to engulf the area in dust and grime and concrete sometime in the summer weeks ahead.
“Sheer and utter madness” was the collective view of those present.
Dell McClurg of Merkinch Community Council, on a picnic blanket with her granddaughters, said: “Words don’t often fail me but they almost do today. When I think of what’s planned for this area it’s beyond belief. It’s glorious here on a day like this, the perfect place for the children and a picnic. And to think the council is going to spend £300,000 on ‘developing’ what Inverness has here, and which should be treasured and protected, with a wall and concrete. It’s just beyond belief. And don’t even get me started on the lack of transparency and the way this has been handled, passed by officials without councillors even having a say on it. It’s too nice a day to get angry, but no wonder so many people are disgusted by it all.”
Willie and Vivienne Moir, of Heatherley Crescent, echoed that criticism. “It’s all been said before regarding this Gathering Place nonsense but it seems we just have to keep repeating it until someone at the council actually listens,” said Vivienne. “This is a beautiful, perfect setting. Just leave it alone!”
Willie Moir said: “Look around you. How could this be improved? By a wall and concrete? At a cost of hundreds of thousands of pounds? There’s only one word for it – insane.”
Irene Stacy, there with grandson Nathan Moffat, said: “We know what they’re planning and on a beautiful day like this it seems crazier than ever, if that’s possible. How can anyone in their right mind say this area needs ‘enhancing’? With a wall and concrete as trees are cut down and the impact it’ll have on wildlife? The whole thing is simply incomprehensible.”
Nathan (14) said: “I know now what’s being planned here and I can’t see the need for it. It’s really nice here. Why can’t it just be left alone?”
But not everyone relaxing on the riverside was aware of what was proposed. Heather Lawton, from King Street, sitting reading a book in the sunshine, said she knew nothing of plans for the Gathering Place.
“I don’t know how I missed that, as I try and keep reasonably well informed,” she said. “I wonder how many other people still don’t know about it either. If they did they’d be up in arms.”
When it was explained to her that council claims for the Gathering Place included the assertion that it “would enhance the natural beauty” of the area she said forthrightly: “That has to be the biggest load of crap I’ve ever heard. Enhance it how? With a wall and concrete in a lovely area like this? That’s madness, it’s just insane.”
Ms Lawton’s lack of knowledge of the plan was a telling insight into the effectiveness of what many critics believe has been a deliberate and calculated attempt by the council to “grease through” the Gathering Place to minimise the level of criticism aimed at it.
The planning application for it – after months on the back-burner – was not submitted by the council until December 20, on the last full working day before Christmas, when it was guaranteed to receive the minimum of public and media attention. As a result, only four objections were received, enabling it to be passed behind the scenes by officials “on the nod”, rather than being subjected to full and open debate among councillors.
One council opponent, Ron MacWilliam, has branded the way the process has been handled “a democratic outrage”. A number of his council colleagues have also expressed strong criticism, both of the development, the lack of information they received, and the way it has been dealt with. Councillor Glynis Sinclair has said “skulduggery” has taken place.
Only four councillors have publicly expressed support for the Gathering Place. But a larger number, including council leader Margaret Davidson and former Inverness provosts Alex Graham and Jimmy Gray, have had nothing whatever to say on a decision of such magnitude.
Media critics like the Inverness Courier have said the way the Gathering Place issue has been handled “stinks to high heaven”.
Dell McClurg added: “There is so much artistic talent in the Highlands and they could have come up with something acceptable to everyone. Instead what we’re supposed to be getting as riverside ‘art’ is a wall, disfiguring a lovely, natural setting which is just glorious here today. What a total, wasteful, disgraceful mess.”
Petition organiser Helen Smith said the number of protest signatures received has now topped the 2,000 mark. Yesterday a steady stream of people added their names to it.
She said: “The level of support we’ve had today again demonstrates the level of public opposition to this. (At a public meeting held three weeks ago in the Spectrum Centre only one person in a packed hall expressed support for the Gathering Place).
“It just makes us more determined to step up the campaign and explore every way possible to try and stop this going ahead.”
The OpenNess leaders have asked for a meeting with council leader Margaret Davidson, have written to the other organisations involved in funding the scheme, and have submitted a Freedom of Information request for details on certain aspects of the scheme.
In the Easter sunshine yesterday the key questions loomed larger than ever among many of those present:
When will Provost Helen Carmichael re-submit the Gathering Place for a full and open debate among elected councillors?
How long can Highland Council go on trying to ignore the intense level of public opposition?
At a time of cuts, cuts and more cuts, how can it be justified spending £300,000 on a scheme which appears to have no public support whatsoever?
And is it conceivable that yesterday’s sun-baked, scenic setting will be fenced off and turned into a building site for it to be concreted over at the height of the tourist season – or at any other time?
The delightful riverside spectacle of yesterday’s “picnic protest” made these questions seem more relevant and pressing than ever.