Sleepy old civic trust joins in Gathering Place debate

THE once influential Inverness Civic Trust has become involved in the debate over the planned riverside “Gathering Place”, seeking comments on its Facebook page over whether or not it should go ahead. As interventions go this one may not be entirely irrelevant. Pity it’s about a year late.

 In case civic trust members haven’t noticed, this has been a ragingly controversial issue since it was announced a year last May, with the tempo being ramped up even more in the past few months since it was revealed it had been approved “on the nod” by unelected officials, with councillors being denied a say on whether or not it should go ahead.

 During that time, where has the sleepy old civic trust been?

 Under the forceful chairmanship of John West a few years back, the civic trust regularly made its mark on a range of issues affecting the Highland capital.

 Now it has an slid into virtual anonymity, and I can’t recall a recent issue where it has played a significant part.

 However, now someone there has woken up to the Gathering Place furore. And the trust has made the following statement:

 “This has been quite a controversial subject with councillors, the press and social media all ‘having a go’ at the council’s decision to do this without public consultation.

“Please note and take into account with your comments that this art project is not (sic) instead of funding education or the NHS, filling in pot holes or any other cause other than this (or an alternative art project such as the rejected tilting pier). To say you don’t want this project to go ahead for any of these reasons is not a valid argument. Health, education and roads etc. are separate subjects to be addressed elsewhere.

“However has anyone actually been to this area recently over the last year so they can be in the position to make an educated comment or decision? So, with valid reasons, (sic) is a ‘Yes’ – go ahead or a ‘No’ – leave it as it is?”

Well, let’s just take it as read that quite a few people “have actually been to this area over the last year so they can make an educated comment or decision”. Maybe visiting this part of the riverside would be a new experience for members of the civic trust. But not for thousands of other people who’ve had a darn good look at it and are pretty well placed to make “an educated comment”. As opposed to an “uneducated” one.

 And the trust hasn’t even got the basic facts rights. The council itself states: “The River Ness Public Art Project is funded by Creative Scotland (£305K), City of Inverness Common Good Fund (£250K), HIE (£66K) and the Highland Council (£106K).

 So more than £100,000 of council money which could indeed be spent on education or filling in holes in the roads is being squandered on this “artwork” programme. And the £250,000 of Inverness Common Good fund money could be spent in many better ways as well. Not to mention the £66,000 coming from Highlands and Islands Enterprise.

 Sloppy and careless lack of awareness of the facts would in past times have been anathema to the civic trust. Not any more, it seems.

 As I’ve said here before, you’d struggle to find anyone who knows anyone who knows anyone who thinks it’s a good idea to spent a vast amount of money building a wall and concrete pathways on a beautiful and unspoilt stretch of the riverside to – in one of the most risibly ludicrous statements ever to emerge from council HQ – “enhance its natural beauty”.

 But, of course there’s always former councillor Thomas Prag, one of the most ardent advocates at the time of “the tilting pier”.

 The last I saw of him was when he stormed out of a public meeting on the Gathering Place at the Spectrum Centre, claiming he was not being allowed to speak out in support of the Gathering Place, a few minutes after he’d stood up and made a lengthy contribution speaking out in support of the Gathering Place. To say his noisily irate departure left others present bemused would be an understatement.

 He has contributed to the civic trust “debate” the following assessment of the merits of the Gathering Place.

 “There was in fact a fair bit of consultation, but as always a lot of people missed the opportunity,” he says. “This is a strong effort to respond to the brief given by the council – to reflect use of the river, provide a place where people could gather near the river and interact with it. The visual [artist impression] does it no favours – within a year or two it will have blended in and serve its purpose well. Understandably folk are concerned that it’s just a lump of concrete – I believe it will be largely ‘clad’ in stone etc.

“We can watch the anglers, take our picnics, see the river in its various moods and watch the wildlife which will soon adapt to it. As you might have guessed, I am in favour.”

Unfortunately Mr Prag seems to have swallowed whole and is willing and eager to regurgitate the meaningless gibberish which has been the hallmark of this project from the start, as in his belief that the Gathering Place will “reflect the use of the river” and allow people to “interact with it”. What does that mean? Does anyone have a clue? And the only “consultation” people are demonstrably aware of is a two-day screening of a slide show of pictures of the river in a corner of Inverness Railway Station and attended by, as reported at the time, around 200 people. I went along on both the Saturday and Sunday this was held, and talked to the rather unconvincing artists present. Over both days, I saw a total of three or four others there. This non-event was claimed to yield “many supportive comments”, without anyone involved in the project being able to say where these can be read or establish that they actually exist.

 And Mr Prag says “we can watch the anglers, take our picnics, see the river in its various moods (whatever they might be) and watch the wildlife”.

 So which of these pleasures are we denied now, without a £300,000 wall and concrete pathways to assist us? And never mind the reality that to build this thing would mean a beautiful area being turned into a fenced off, churned up building site for months on end.

 However, enough of the lone, beleaguered utterings of Thomas Prag.

 More significantly, we learn that arts group chairwoman Isabel MacKenzie, the most strident supporter and driving force behind the Gathering Place, has had quite a change of heart in her approach to the issue. A special meeting of the Inverness Area Committee has been forced through by a group of councillors who have had to battle for months to get this thrown open to a full and candid debate, in the face of repeated obfuscation and obstruction from within the council.

 Ms MacKenzie now apparently is fully in favour of this. She said: “I welcome the opportunity for all the city committee members to get an update and discuss the remaining (artworks) projects in August.”

 She hasn’t sounded very welcoming up till now. Not when, on the only occasion I spoke to her (she’s now got the council to block off all contact from Inverness news and views) she was utterly dismissive and even contemptuous of critics of the scheme, before abruptly ending the call.

 Nor has she seemingly welcomed the fact that a petition has since been raised with more than 2,300 people vehemently expressing opposition to the Gathering Place, and has never publicly acknowledged it.

 And she didn’t sound very welcoming to open discussion when the Gathering Place appeared as a brief item on a recent council meeting agenda and she angrily rounded on her colleagues who opposed the scheme, accusing them of only wanting to “get their names in the papers”. Not very welcoming at all.

 Maybe Ms MacKenzie has finally cottoned on to reality and taken cognisance of the massive level of opposition to her riverside-ruining pet project. Maybe she’s now trying to put a brave face on the fact that an open public meeting will now indeed take place under intense public scrutiny with so many questions relating to the highly dubious way this entire project has been handled lined up and needing answers.

 And maybe she now realises that the saga surrounding this ruinously expensive riverside travesty could soon be over. And, although we can’t anticipate what twists and turns may yet come, that the so-called “Gathering Place” could be doomed.

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