HIGHLAND Council leader Margaret Davidson has made an astonishing intervention into the Ness riverside Gathering Place dispute, just days before a crucial meeting on the issue.
She has written to rebuke Councillor Ron MacWilliam – a fierce critic of the project and the way it’s been handled – for comments he has made on the Gathering Place debacle, and has demanded that he apologise for his criticism. Ms Davidson said in her letter: “I have become increasingly uncomfortable with some of the statements I read in the press that are attributed to you. I give you some examples here and will explain why I am uneasy with these statements.”
She goes on to list the statements made by Mr MacWilliam with which she is “uncomfortable” and “uneasy”.
These involve him saying: “A small clique of Administration Councillors are now running amok with the Inverness Common Good Fund and need to be stopped in their tracks.”
“The whole issue (is) about the mismanagement of public projects and public funds by a tiny clique who think they know what is best for everyone.”
“The incompetence of those who led this project cannot be overstated. To have wasted public money in the last council term on the original tilting pier design in the full knowledge that they did not have public consent was shameful. This time around, they’ve invented a whole new league of incompetence.”
Ms Davidson then says: “I need to ask you Ron, firstly, if these quotes are correct? If so then I must ask for a public apology for the words used. The words used in example 1 and 2 are incorrect and call into question the moral character of those involved in the Inverness Arts group.
“I and the convener look forward to meeting with you to hear your explanation of these comments.”
Last night Mr Davidson’s letter was branded “outrageous” by one of the editorial advisers of Inverness news and views, who has followed the issue closely in recent months.
Her intervention will further inflame the bitter dispute with the central question being: why now?
Mr MacWilliam’s comments are not new, and he has expressed himself in forthright terms on a number of previous occasions.
There is no indication in the council leader’s letter as to why she has taken so long to object in such a tone to criticism of the hugely controversial scheme.
Many will feel the role of the council leader should be to try and calm feelings before next Tuesday’s showdown meeting – not choose this time to stoke up emotions and acrimony even further.
Mr MacWilliam, meanwhile, has made it clear he has no intention of adopting the role of an errant schoolboy being lectured by a stern headmistress.
He will also be fully aware that his views echo the sentiments of many members of the public – with 2,300 people having signed an online protest petition against the Gathering Place debacle – and they will feel it is the council leader rather than Mr MacWilliam who has a lot of apologising and explaining to do.
His implication that the project has been pushed ahead by “a tiny clique” who have bungled it from the outset fits in accurately with how many people view the way the Gathering Place issue has been handled.
And comments from members of the public who have contributed to the protest petition express it in far more forceful terms than that.
In addition to widespread public opposition to the concreting over of a natural and unspoilt stretch of riverside for the “Gathering Place”, it has emerged that more than £100,000 has been already been squandered in preparation for it.
But for the efforts of Mr MacWilliam and a group of other councillors, it’s likely none of this would have been brought into the open and a “small clique” would have been able to forge ahead with what many see as a wholly unnecessary, vastly expensive and riverside ruining development supported by virtually no-one.
And the buck for that stops with council leader Margaret Davidson.
The tone of her remarks to Mr MacWilliam will be seen as high-handed, ill-timed and ill-judged, hallmarks of the Gathering Place debacle since the outset.
In a comment article on Inverness news and view two days ago, we said that despite mass public opposition to the scheme, the outcome was still “too close to call”.
Mrs Davidson’s letter to Mr MacWilliam substantiates that view.
It is either an act of baffling clumsiness on her part, or she has put down a marker to the effect that she and a group of others are determined to push the scheme through, regardless of the level of public opposition, and she is trying to sweep aside all criticism and even using her authority to try and mute council critics.
That tactic, if she has thought it through at all, is certain to backfire.
Far from responsibly trying to lower the tempo and ensure next Tuesday’s meeting is conducted in a civil and reasonable atmosphere, by trying to slap down Mr MacWilliam the embattled council boss has only succeeded in pouring more fuel on to the flames.