Fury erupts at council meeting over ‘scandal of the decade’

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People sitting in the sunshine and strolling along the riverside, at the area planned to be torn apart at a cost of £300,000 to build a wall and concrete pathways.

ANGER and outrage erupted at a Town House meeting when councillors clashed furiously over the £300,000 riverside-ruining Gathering Place. In some of the stormiest exchanges seen in years council opponents of the scheme gave full vent to their fury and disgust over the plan to concrete over a natural and unspoilt area of the riverside at the Ness Islands.

 Councillor Ron MacWilliam branded it “the scandal of the decade” and called for an outside group to conduct a full inquiry “into the whole sorry affair”.

 Councillor Bill Boyd said there were risks and dangers involved in a project virtually no member of the public wants or supports.

 Provost Helen Carmichael accused Mr MacWilliam of launching a diatribe against it.

 Arts group chairman Isabelle Mackenzie declared in an emotional outburst that she could have walked away from the “poisoned chalice” scheme weeks ago and furiously attacked its council critics.

 And city manager David Haas claimed there had been “hundreds” of responses to it, without saying where these could be seen or read.

 The meeting, a video of which is available online at the council website, was the first chance members of the public have had to see councillors publicly express their feelings around the horseshoe shaped Town House chamber table.

 Mr MacWilliam said there was no doubting the determination of the council to “railroad” through the hugely unpopular Gathering Place. It was an attempt “to get to your destination by speeding through a red light.” He stated: “Major expenditure is getting spent on something that a lot of people simply do not want and in which I see major flaws.”

 And he said: “New information is coming to light which makes it sound as though the project couldn’t even go ahead. It’s about time we called in an external body to investigate the whole sorry affair which is fast turning into the scandal of the decade.”

 And he called on the provost, chairing the meeting, to agree to a full and open debate and vote on the scheme.

 Ms Carmichael insisted all procedures had been correctly followed and it was “not within my gift” to grant such a meeting.

 The Gathering Place was approved behind closed doors by council officials under delegated powers – a process which has enraged some councillors and thousands of people who have signed a petition against it.

 Councillor Boyd said there seemed to be determination to foist it on the people of Inverness “at all or any cost”. He said there were approximately 5,000 houses in his Inverness West ward and “the majority do not want anything to do with it.”

 He said: “This project is doing a lot of damage to the council. We have a petition (against it) now signed by approaching 3,000 people. There are a lot of people very angry about the way this has been handled.”

 And he added: “I’m an engineer. I see risks – physical, environmental and ecological risks associated with this project. It is not appropriate for it to be decided by delegated powers.”

 Councillor Ken Gowans raised a number of concerns relating to the fishermen who use the location. And Councillor Richard Laird challenged the planning process involved in ladder style “rest spaces” planned for the riverside, saying in terms of approval it was impossible to see how they could be considered “as the same sort of thing as a lamppost or a bench”.

 Isabelle Mackenzie – seen by many as the driving force behind the Gathering Place – said she knew when she had taken over the role as head of the City Arts Group that it was “a poisoned chalice”, but did not elaborate on why, if she knew it was so “poisoned”, she had decided to take it on at all.

 “I could have walked away from this committee (group) a few weeks ago.” She said: “It has not been an easy project to work on.” She defended the artists and officials involved, and claimed everything about the scheme had been open and in the public domain, and demanded to know what had been “hidden”. And, her voice rising, she said time and again council critics had had their say in the media “and your names printed in the papers” and suggested they thought that was “great”. Were they just “having a go” at Highland Council or officials, she asked. And said she did not know what more to say.

 The fiery meeting concluded with a largely irrelevant vote in favour of a motion approving the process involved – which will have no effect on plans for the Gathering Place, and which falls far short of demands for the entire scheme to be openly debated by councillors and giving them the final say on whether the Gathering Place should go ahead or not.

COMMENT by Colin Campbell

THE strength of feeling on show at this council meeting would have gladdened the hearts of thousands of people who see the Gathering Place as a vastly expensive riverside-ruining travesty and are utterly baffled by proposals to build a wall and concrete pathways in an area of natural, unspoilt beauty.

 And who view council claims that the concrete “will enhance its natural beauty” is one con-trick claim too far.

 After a lull in which it had begun to look as if opposition to it was running out of steam, the anger expressed by a number of councillors vehemently opposed to it was exactly what many would want to hear.

 Far from being dead and buried, the Gathering Place campaign is very much alive and kicking.

 With so much else needing attention in and around Inverness, ranging from the plight of the elderly, to education, traffic problems, and derelict eyesore sites to name but a few, there is no shortage of anger and bewilderment over so much council time, resources, sound and fury being expended on something that – both anecdotally and backed up by the mass opposition petition – it is apparent beyond all reasonable doubt many think neither desirable nor necessary and are vehemently opposed to.

 And with £300,000 being spent on it – at a time when the poverty-pleading council insists on the need for cuts, cuts and more cuts.

 Arts chairman Isabelle Mackenzie declared she could have walked away from it weeks ago. Many will say it’s a great pity she didn’t – and took the tiny handful of her Gathering Place cohorts with her.

 The council meeting revealed that some of the clique behind this are feeling the strain under the weight of opposition, and while no one wants to be vindictive or even unreasonable, many will have little or no sympathy for them.

 This was a problem they did not need to add to the burden on the council, or add to the responsibilities they face themselves.

 After the tilting pier fiasco showed that the vast majority of people in Inverness do not want to see councillors or “progressive” artists messing around with supposedly “enhancing” the cherished, natural riverside, what drove them on to take on – in Isabelle Mackenzie’s own words – another “poisoned chalice” defies all understanding.

 According to the initial schedule the Gathering Place was due to be completed by this July. Nothing has since emerged – another wall of silence – over when it is due to be started.

 Even if it does go ahead the its tiny band of supporters – including Helen Carmichael, Isabelle Mackenzie and whoever else – can expect continuing mockery, ridicule and anger from all sides as a beautiful natural setting is churned up into a building site for months on end, for no identifiable reason and no justified purpose.

 And councillors can expect to be haunted as long as they’re in office by endless accusations of squandering precious money when they claim there is so little of it around.

But as of now – and with more revelations still to come – the foundations of the so-called Gathering Place look on shakier ground than ever.

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