No sign of early start for £300,000 ‘Gathering Place’
by Colin Campbell
PLANS to turn the “Gathering Place” riverside beauty spot into a building site by July have fallen through, with no indication now if or when a £300,000 wall and concrete pathways will be built there.
Highland Council originally intended work on the Gathering Place to be completed in a matter of weeks from now, but with the possibility of it dragging on at the height of the tourist season.
However there is no evidence of any preparatory work being in place.
The tourist season timing is seen as further evidence of the way the scheme has been handled, part secretive, part shambolic.
It’s estimated that the concreting over of the location, on the riverside at the Ness Islands, could take up to four months to complete.
This week in the warm, sunny weather locals and visitors alike have made the most of the natural and unspoilt setting on the most scenic part of the riverside.
If council plans had gone ahead as intended it would now be a fenced off building site, churned up with grime and dust and heavy machinery.
The lack of any update on if or when the scheme is planned to begin is viewed as evidence of further uncertainty and confusion behind the scenes at Highland Council.
The only statement to emerge has been a declaration from Provost Helen Carmichael last Friday that the Gathering Place WILL go ahead, regardless of what people think about it.
This has distinct echoes of what she said about the “tilting pier”, at the time further inflaming public opinion against it, and leading to it being dumped by her fellow councillors.
Provost Carmichael’s statement on the Gathering Place has led to a similar backlash, with a surge in support for a protest petition against it, and it has now been signed by just under 2,300 people. A packed public meeting was held by the OpenNess campaign group at the Spectrum Centre, when only one person spoke in favour of the Gathering Place. An Easter Monday “picnic protest” at the beauty spot also attracted a large number of people to bask in sunshine and add their names to the petition.
Petition organiser Helen Smith said yesterday: “The provost’s attitude has spurred us on rather than putting us off.”
OpenNess campaigners are also proposing to crowdfund legal action against Highland Council over the way the Gathering Place issue has been handled, if it proves necessary.
They are also awaiting a meeting with council leader Margaret Davidson, and have submitted a Freedom of Information request on key aspects of the scheme.
The planning application for the Gathering Place – 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”.
Councillor Bill Boyd said yesterday he will challenge the council leader at the next full council meeting.
He stated: “Fury is growing in Inverness and throughout the Highlands about this continuing folly, with the planned ecological desecration of the natural riverside environment. This issue is continuing to damage credibility and trust in the council. My question to the leader will seek an explanation for the unsatisfactory procedures leading up to planning permission being granted behind closed doors on a controversial project where Highland Council was both the applicant and the planning authority.
“The project is planned to cost a minimum of a quarter of a million pounds and quite possibly a lot more. It is highly controversial and unpopular. It is difficult to find any supporters for it among local people. There are significant risks to the flow of the river and to wildlife, and the project may be a further blow to dwindling salmon stocks.”