Unsupported, under pressure and under fire

by Colin Campbell

Isabelle Mackenzie.

WITH Inverness councillors now believing they can force a full special meeting over the riverside-ruining Gathering Place what did the last exchanges around the horseshoe-shaped Town House table tell us. First and foremost that Inverness arts group chairman Isabelle Mackenzie – seen as the driving force behind the project – now looks in a lonely, isolated and deeply unenviable position.

 And that the pressure is beginning to tell.

 For while a series of councillors stood up to vehemently oppose the Gathering Place at the Inverness committee meeting, not a single one of her colleagues present spoke up explicitly in favour it.

 The “silent ones” remained just that – silent.

 Provost Helen Carmichael, chairing the meeting, rebutted the critics on the grounds of the “process” involved, and invoked the fact that arts “professors” – presumably meaning UHI professor Jim Mooney – backed the Gathering Place, as if that was conclusive proof of its merit. But she fell far short of coming out swinging in praise of it and saying why it should go ahead.

 Councillor Graham Ross, one of only four councillors to publicly back the £300,000 scheme, had nothing at all to say on it. Its only other public supporter, Carolyn Caddick, also remained silent.

 So that left the spotlight firmly and solely on Ms Mackenzie.

 With nearly 3,000 people having signed a petition against it, this is a hugely contentious project. The arts group chairman might have been expected to present a composed and reasoned explanation as to why the Gathering Place project is desirable and necessary as a concrete adornment to a natural and unspoilt stretch of the cherished Ness riverside.

 Instead, sounding emotional, she said she could have walked away from it weeks ago. She said she knew she’d been taken on “a poisoned chalice” when she took charge of it. And she said people had been laughing behind her back at the time. She then had a go at Councillor Ken Gowans, who had a lead role in the tilting pier saga. But the difference between Ms Mackenzie and Mr Gowans is that he did very sensibly “walk away” from the tilting pier fiasco when it became blindingly obvious how hugely unpopular it was with members of the public, and it was subsequently dumped.

 Ms Mackenzie, declared how “exasperated” she was and insisted everything had been in the public domain and nothing had been “hidden”. She then rounded on council opponents of the scheme, accusing them of simply wanting to get their names in the papers and how “great” they thought that was. She then ended by saying she didn’t know what more to say and sat down. She hadn’t offered a word of explanation about the need for the Gathering Place or why £300,000 should be spent on it.

 The only and only time I’ve spoken about this to Ms Mackenzie was weeks ago, before the intense backlash flared up, when she sounded cocksure, arrogant and was utterly dismissive of any criticism of the Gathering Place, before cutting our conversation short.

 Her tone this time was very different.

 And no wonder.

 As a journalist I’ve written many columns in the Highland News and the Press and Journal over the years and have been on the receiving end of critical letters now and again. We may all like to think we’re thick-skinned and it’s water of a duck’s back – but no one likes to be on the receiving end of criticism and it makes its mark.

 But anything I’ve received is the most minor pinprick compared to the avalanche of criticism directed at the Gathering Place. The thousands of people who have signed the online petition haven’t just clicked a button – most have stated their opinions furiously and without restraint. And Isabelle Mackenzie is the public face of the Gathering Place. She would be less than human if she wasn’t severely feeling the heat.

 If ever anyone needed public support at this time it’s the arts group chairman. But it isn’t there. Other councillors could have come to her rescue at the meeting, and backed her, saying why they thought the Gathering Place had much to offer and Isabelle was doing a fine job. But they didn’t, and it seems they won’t. And the supposition has to be that they’re as unsupportive of the Gathering Place as everyone else, want nothing to do with it, and wish the whole sorry mess would just go away.

 But it’s not going to go away. In fact the problems for the tiny handful of people intent on driving this ahead are just beginning.

 We’re still at the chattering and arguing stage – and after canvassing the views of many, many people about this, there have been two reactions. Firstly, disbelief that anyone would want to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds to build a wall and concrete pathways at such a beautiful and natural setting. And secondly – and surprisingly to people like me – a complete lack of awareness that the project is even planned. Gathering Place? What Gathering Place, has been the response from a large number of people I’ve spoken to.

 But if this does go ahead, and once the hard hats and concrete mixers and heavy machinery moves in to tear up the riverside and turn it into a building site for months on end, everyone will know about it. And I can guarantee that those currently uninformed will be asking what in heaven’s name is going on. It’s going to produce some spectacularly ugly pictures in the Inverness Courier, the Highland News and the Press and Journal. And here as well.

 It wasn’t me who brought up the notion that this would end up being known as “Mackenzie’s Folly”. It was a suggestion emailed me some time ago by an elderly, senior councillor who comes across as the soul of reasonable moderation. But what was what he thought of it.

 I have some genuine sympathy for Isabelle Mackenzie. She’s no Margaret Thatcher or Nicola Sturgeon – a hardened politician who can take endless brickbats. She’s just a citizen who stood for council office and got elected with a few hundred votes. Did she ever think she’d end up in this position? But maybe she’s now too deep in the mire of the Gathering Place to find a way out.

 So I have sympathy for her. But then I go and sit on a sunny day at the planned location of the Gathering Place and look at the scenic beauty around me and that sympathy disappears like the trees that’ll be felled and the wildlife that’ll flee if or when this grotesque, ruinous, vastly expensive travesty goes ahead.

 The challenge now is not for Ms Mackenzie. It’s for those others involved in the Gathering Place to come out and support her, explaining in detail the merit of this scheme, if they see a shred of merit in it. Because as of now she looks under fire, under pressure and beleaguered. Taking more flak than any councillor – no matter how hopelessly misguided – probably deserves.

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