Council arts group leader buries her head in the sand

by Colin Campbell

MOMENTS before articles on Inverness-related issues appear on Inverness news and views it’s our regular practice to email them to all councillors within the Highland capital area. And this has applied particularly to comment and news on the intensely controversial plans to build the riverside Gathering Place.

 Councillors can do as they wish thereafter, read them, glance over them, or delete them into their trash box where they may believe they belong. That’s entirely up to them. But we do it as a courtesy in recognition of their special status as our elected representatives.

 So we were surprised on Saturday to receive an automatic message from Highland Council that the latest article routinely sent out to Isabelle Mackenzie, chairwoman of the council’s Inverness Arts group, which is driving the Gathering Place scheme ahead, had been blocked. This didn’t happen and hasn’t happened with articles sent out to any other councillors, whatever they think of them. It stated:

Your message to Isabelle.MacKenzie.cllr@highland.gov.uk couldn’t be delivered.
A custom mail flow rule created by an admin at highlandcouncil1.onmicrosoft.com has blocked your message.
Undelivered: Your email has been rejected due to company policy.

 What company policy? The one that says no-one is allowed to present councillors with views they may disagree with?

So we take this to mean – unless there has been a technical malfunction which we think extremely unlikely – that Ms Mackenzie no longer wants to read or hear anything that appears on our site.

 We don’t feel slighted by that, we don’t feel dismayed. And to some it may seem a trivial matter.

 Except that it isn’t.

 By blocking us off it suggests that the person in overall charge of the Gathering Place scheme doesn’t want to receive views that conflict with her own.

 And that’s concerning and alarming.

 We have been relentlessly critical of the £300,000 Gathering Place proposal and have described Ms Mackenzie’s attitude towards criticism of it as “arrogant”. But nothing that has appeared here has been personally abusive or above and beyond what someone in her position of power should be prepared to expect.

 And our measured criticism and rhetoric could be described as a mild slap on the wrist compared with some – indeed many – of the comments on an online petition against the Gathering Place signed by nearly 3,000 people which reflect the level of anger, disgust and sheer outrage directed against it.

 This appalling, riverside-ruining scheme which would turn an unspoilt and beautiful stretch of the riverside into a building site for months on end for the purpose of building a wall and concrete pathways there for no rational reason that anyone in authority – including Isabelle Mackenzie – seems able to provide has enraged very many people.

 That’s a fact – and that petition proves it.

 Has the arts group chairwoman looked at the petition? Has she read any of the comments there? Or has she blocked them out of her mindset also?

 Has she looked at fierce editorial criticism of the scheme in the Inverness Courier, or in the Highland News? Or has she shunned views expressed elsewhere in the media also?

 In other words, as criticism of this ruinous project – costing £300,000 – has rained down from all sides is she intent on leading a tiny pack hellbent on forging ahead with the Gathering Place come what may, ignoring all views to the contrary?

 And blocking them out, as she has apparently done with Inverness news and views?

 Isabelle Mackenzie may be in the eye of the storm but she has not strayed there by accident.

 When Gathering Place concerns were raised by her fellow councillors at a brief discussion on the issue at a recent meeting she stood up to say she knew she had taken on “a poisoned chalice” when she took on the role of arts chief.

 Most people who deliberately decide to take on a “poisoned chalice” recognise what they’re getting into, and that the going is likely to get rough, and may get very rough. And they are prepared and braced to take hostile and critical feedback fully on the chin.

 Ms Mackenzie also claimed that at the time people had been “laughing behind her back”, a bizarre assertion which we very much doubt. Whatever the truth or otherwise of that claim, certainly no one’s laughing now.

 She then rounded on councillors who have criticised the Gathering Place and accused them of simply wanting to get their names in the papers, a slur on members like Ron MacWillam, Bill Boyd, Ken Gowans and others which we believe is palpably untrue.

 So the arts group chairwoman can certainly dish it out. But questions loom large over whether she can take it. And when we said the strain of the pressure she’s under was showing we believe we were demonstrably right.

 However, the fact is that in a few years time – or much less – Isabelle Mackenzie, those lined up against her and the “Gathering Place”, and all the current sound or fury will be forgotten as a footnote in Inverness civic history.

 But if she and the tiny clique who are intent on driving the Gathering Place through succeed in their efforts an unspoilt and beautiful stretch of the Inverness riverside which has remained untouched for generations will have changed – forever.

 A wall and concrete pathways will disfigure a precious, natural area and leave it permanently scarred, for no reason that anyone seems able to coherently explain. And all this, costing a vast amount of money, is planned to be inflicted on the riverside at a time when the mantra from Highland Council is of the need for cuts, cuts and more cuts to essential services.

 No one knows anyone who knows anyone who seems to believe this scheme is desirable or necessary. So far, only one member of the public – one sole individual – has written to the Inverness Courier to express his support for it.

 And thousands stand vehemently against it.

 Now – after consistent council efforts to avoid full discussion of a scheme passed “on the nod” by unelected officials – it will be thrashed out at a full and open meeting of the Inverness Area Committee early next month.

 With so much at stake it is little wonder tensions are rising and tempers are fraying.

 As we said – sympathetically – in a recent article, the arts group chairwoman is probably taking more flak than any councillor deserves. But the way things are going there’ll be a lot more to come. And she cannot hope to avoid it by dismissing the views of justifiably outspoken critics and burying her head in the sand.

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