As protesters make the running, outcome too close to call

by Colin Campbell

WITH criticism piling up amid claims of extensive financial confusion and mismanagement of the River Ness Arts scheme, it might seem an act of almost pathological folly to throw good money after bad by spending still more on the “Gathering Place”, a wall and concrete pathways that virtually no-one wants on a natural and unspoilt stretch of riverside.

 But, less than a week before a crucial special meeting of councillors on the Inverness Area Committee, there’s no guarantee whatsoever that that’s not what they’ll decide to do.

 I’ve been writing about this project – and often railing against it – for well over a year now, on Inverness news and views and before that in a weekly column in the Highland News. It struck me as damagingly absurd from the outset, and I made that point repeatedly, well before criticism of it surfaced from any other quarter.

 That’s a long time – too long – and as a result I’m as sick of the wretched saga as anyone, and more fed up with it than most.

 Surely – surely –  a majority of councillors will next week see sense and decide to dump it once and for all.

 But the one consistent element of the saga has been how impervious too many councillors have been to criticism, no matter how strongly expressed, and no matter how rational and no matter how justified it seems to critics.

 As opposition to the Gathering Place builds to a new level of intensity ahead of next Tuesday’s meeting, should we expect a radical change of attitude?

 Only a fool would bet heavily on that happening.

 Sterling council critics like Ron MacWilliam, Bill Boyd and Ken Gowans have done a fine job in opposing the Gathering Place and lambasting it for the blatant stupidity it represents. And also for giving expression to the feelings of 2,300 people who have signed a protest petition set in motion by the admirable Helen Smith against it.

 But whether or not that will be enough to fundamentally change attitudes among a majority of their colleagues very much remains to be seen.

 Provost Helen Carmichael has argued that as over £100,000 has been spent in preparation for the Gathering Place, the council now has an obligation to get on and build it, rather than see that money “go down the drain”.

 In other words, they’ve gone in too deep to now turn back.

 How many of her colleagues – regardless of the barrage of criticism directed against the scheme – will share her view?

 No-one, apart from those directly involved, knows the answer to that.

 Only four councillors – Ms Carmichael, arts group chairwoman Isabelle MacKenzie, Graham Ross and Carolyn Caddick – have publicly said they back the scheme.

 A total of six – MacWilliam, Boyd, Gowans, Emma Knox, Richard Laird and Glynis Sinclair – banded together against it to force next week’s meeting to be held. Councillors Janet Campbell and Roddy Balfour have previously expressed their serious doubts over the Gathering Place on Inverness news and views.

 But the remainder – bizarrely – as I’ve persistently pointed out, have had virtually nothing to say one way or the other.

 As a matter of conjecture – based on mere fragments of comments some have made – it’s likely council leader Margaret Davidson, former provosts Jimmy Gray and Alex Graham and councillor Bet MacAllister will continue to support the Gathering Place.

 Conservative group leader Andrew Jarvie has flip-flopped all over the place on the issue. First of all he was strongly against a waste of public money on the project, then he changed sides and said he would no longer oppose the Gathering Place because of the financial penalties the council would incur if it did not build it, and now, very belatedly, he seems to have discovered it doesn’t include adequate provision for the disabled, with the implication that he’s now back to opposing it. Who knows where he’ll end up on the issue.

 Of the others, it’s anyone’s guess where councillors Callum Smith, Duncan Macpherson, George Cruickshank and Trish Robertson views are headed. They have kept them firmly, resolutely, to themselves.

 Depute council leader Alasdair Christie previously told Inverness news and views that there was a need for conciliation over the Gathering Place and that the views of those opposed to it should be taken into account. And Councillor Ian Brown told us several months ago that he would have preferred to see the scheme discussed by councillors rather being approved under delegated powers by officials, but “he wasn’t losing any sleep over it”.

 I rather doubt if he’s losing any sleep over it just now.

 So it’s essentially a guessing game how all this will end up.

 The protesters have made all the running in recent times, and there will be a good number crammed in to view proceedings at next week’s meeting.

 It will also be available for live online viewing on the council’s website, and could well break audience records for “council TV”.

 The one thought that may swing councillors conclusively towards dumping the Gathering Place is the prospect of this dragging on for months ahead. As I’ve said here previously, do even those inclined to support it, for whatever reason, want to endure the brickbats that would continue to rain down if a beautiful area of natural riverside was turned into a fenced-off building site for months on end for the creation of a concrete development that virtually no-one seems to want?

 The rational, logical answer to that is – no.

 But the Gathering Place has been an irrational, illogical concept from the outset, a year last May. And there, amid great uncertainty as decision time draws near, it remains.

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