by Colin Campbell
THE campaign for a full and open public debate on the Gathering Place planned for the riverside at the Ness Islands has received a massive boost with confirmation that that will now take place.
It throws wide open an intensely controversial issue that many believe Highland Council tried to slide through with a minimum of scrutiny and discussion, and used the planning process to try and achieve that goal.
The proposal to build a wall and concrete pathways on a beautiful and unspoilt stretch of the Ness riverside was approved behind closed doors by unelected officials.
It will now be fully debated at a council meeting which is certain to attract an unprecedented level of public attention.
So far only four Inverness councillors have publicly backed the scheme. A larger number have expressed opposition to it. And others – including former Inverness provosts Alex Graham and Jimmy Gray – have had nothing whatever to say about a development which is considered by thousands to be a riverside-ruining travesty.
Councillor Ron MacWilliam has spearheaded the campaign challenging plans for the “Gathering Place” backed by a number of his colleagues and hugely bolstered by a petition against the development signed by nearly 3,000 people.
Up till now their efforts to achieve openness have been thwarted by claims that the decision has been taken and “council policy” dictates there has been no chance of reversal, or even an open discussion.
But Mr MacWilliam, backed by fellow councillors Bill Boyd, Ken Gowans, Emma Knox, Glynis Sinclair and Richard Laird have banded together to force through a U-turn and subject the scheme to the open scrutiny that so many believe it deserves.
Inverness news and views, which has extensively covered the issue in recent months, learned of the U-turn earlier in the week.
However, we made the rare decision to hold back from immediately publishing the information online to enable the Inverness Courier to give it maximum front page publicity and a strongly-worded editorial which would attract wide attention. And the newspaper yesterday fulfilled that aim.
This news and comment site is not in the business of using the Gathering Place travesty as a mechanism for attracting readers and public attention. In exactly the same way as Ron MacWilliam, Bill Boyd, Ken Gowans and others are not homing in on it to make names for themselves.
We, in accord with these councillors, and petition organiser Helen Smith, simply want to do what’s right, and to see that right is done.
Regular readers of Inverness news and views will be fully aware that there are so many questions to be asked of the Gathering Place that it’s difficult to know where to begin.
And in advance of the council meeting we’ll ask them again.
But as a taster of the absurdity of the scheme we could begin with the council claim that concreting over an unspoilt area of the riverside which has been cherished by Invernessians and visitors down the generations “will enhance its natural beauty”.
In the sphere of risible and ludicrous assertions, “absurd” is scarcely an adequate description for that claim.
And there are many more concerns surrounding the Gathering Place besides.
What has inflamed public opinion more than anything has been the belief that this would go through “on the nod” without elected councillors even having the chance to have their say and vote on the issue.
That can no longer happen.
Another factor which has been as incomprehensible as it is baffling has been the refusal of elected councillors – like Mr Gray and Mr Graham and others – to even publicly offer a view on the merit or otherwise of a project which would hugely impact the city’s “jewel in the crown” riverside.
Repeated requests for public comment have gone unheeded or been ignored, which can only been construed as a fundamental dereliction of duty for councillors elected to serve and reflect the views of the people who put them in positions of power.
The “silent ones” as we have branded them have the option of remaining silent.
But from now on – and particularly at the upcoming meeting – their silence would be deafening.
In addition to the six councillors who have forced an open meeting on the Gathering Place, three others, Janet Campbell, Roddy Balfour and Andrew Jarvie have also been strongly critical of the scheme, with their views having been printed here.
The four who have told us they back the scheme are Provost Helen Carmichael, arts group chairwoman Isabelle Mackenzie, and councillors Graham Ross and Carolyn Caddick.
And why have we topped this article with a picture of one of the sculptures which have appeared around the riverside in the past few weeks?
Because it is playfully imaginative and amusing and illustrates how cleverly and positively the riverside can be enhanced – at virtually no cost – with a light touch and some inventive thought.
And it stands in stark and total contrast to the proposal to tear up the riverside and turn it into a fenced off, churned up building site for months on end at a cost of £300,000 for no reason that anyone in authority can adequately explain.
The other pictures in this article were taken at 10pm with the sun going down on the longest day of the year.
They depict an area of beauty and serenity, surroundings which people even at that hour were still enjoying.
And now the appalling proposals to tear it up and concrete it over will be exposed to the full level of scrutiny they so richly deserve.
On the longest day of 2019, reasons to be cheerful indeed.