by Colin Campbell
HIGHLAND Council chief executive Donna Manson has intervened decisively in a bid to end the chaos and confusion surrounding the River Ness Arts Project, and the proposed £300,000 riverside “Gathering Place” in particular.
It is believed Ms Manson, who only recently took over her role, has taken a long, hard look at a bitterly contested saga which has dragged on for 15 months and has decided “enough is enough”, and that the public damage being inflicted on the image of her council cannot be allowed to continue.
Her intervention is a major boost for campaigners who have despaired of anyone in the council’s upper echelons moving to bring some rational perspective to an issue which has provoked an unprecedented level of public anger and opposition.
A meeting of the Inverness Area Committee will be held on August 20 at the council’s Glenurquhart Road HQ to openly thrash out all aspects of the scheme. It would normally be held at Inverness Town but has been moved to allow more members of the public to attend to ensure “maximum transparency”. It will also be screened online.
Ms Manson, unencumbered by any previous involvement in the Gathering Place debacle, has taken a fresh look at a situation mired in damaging accusations of “secrecy” and behind-the-scenes manipulation of the planning process.
Plans for the £300,000 Gathering Place, a wall and concrete pathways to be built on a stretch of riverside at the Ness Islands, were announced a year last May.
It was approved by officials behind the scenes – a move which stunned councillors and members of the public who assumed it would be debated openly and in public, with the final decision being made by elected representatives.
The fact that such a major development affecting the “jewel in the crown” riverside had been given the go-ahead in such a manner also outraged members of the public, leading to a protest petition currently signed by more than 2,300 people.
Demands by a group of councillors led by Ron MacWilliam for the final decision to be made by the Inverness Area Committee have continually been rebuffed – until now.
Ms Manson is believed to have exerted her influence to bring about the council U-turn and ensure the issue is now placed under the spotlight with “maximum transparency”.
As things stand, only four members of the Inverness Area Committee have publicly backed the Gathering Place, considered by many to be a concrete desecration of an unspoilt, natural beauty spot at immense cost for no identifiable purpose.
At least eight councillors are stridently opposed to it while a number of others – bizarrely in the eyes of many – have refused despite repeated requests from Inverness news and views and other media outlets to make any comment on it whatsoever. Those opposed to it say they were denied the chance to have any input on the scheme. The formal planning application was lodged on December 20, the last working day before the festive season, when it was guaranteed to receive the minimum level of media coverage or public attention.
It was claimed when plans for the Gathering Place were announced 15 months ago that concreting over the stretch of riverside would “enhance its natural beauty”, an assertion which has been described as “a mind-boggling inversion of reality”.
However, Provost Helen Carmichael and Arts Group chairwoman Isabelle MacKenzie have repeatedly insisted that the final decision had been taken under proper procedure and the project would go ahead, regardless of the avalanche of opposition it has faced.
The Gathering Place was scheduled to have been completed and in place by this month.
Instead, no information has recently been provided on any starting date, or how long the riverside beauty spot would be turned into a churned up building site for the work to be carried out.
Before Ms Manson’s intervention Inverness news and views, which has given extensive coverage to the issue and has been the leading media platform for its opponents, said it now looked like the scheme was “being kicked into the long grass” amid doubts that the Gathering Place would ever be built.
As she settles into her new job the chief executive has many other issues to contend with, at a time when the council is said to be in the grip of a “financial crisis”.
There have been demands for more money to be spent on essential services like education, roads and transport, support for the vulnerable and elderly, and for the vital work done by a host of voluntary groups – money which the council says is not there.
At a time of cutbacks across the board Ms Manson is believed to be deeply concerned about the council, by contrast, being seen to be spending tens of thousands of pounds of council and Inverness Common Good fund money on a project for which public support is virtually non-existent, and which so many people are expressly opposed to.
The August 20 meeting will be the subject of wide public interest and scrutiny, with many people ardently hoping that it brings an end to a shambolic, long-running fiasco, and that plans for the riverside-ruining “Gathering Place” are finally killed off altogether.
What we said in a comment article on Monday:
“It may well be that sanity has now prevailed in the upper echelons of Highland Council, and that the intent is to try and bury this riverside-ruining travesty, involving building a £300,000 wall and concrete pathways on a beautiful and unspoilt location supposedly to enhance its ‘natural beauty’.
“Has new chief executive Donna Manson stepped in, reviewed the level of damage being done to the image of her council by this wretched scheme and decided “enough is enough”?
“Powerful chief executives who have gone before would have seen it wiped off the agenda long ago.”