Gathering Place decision day will provide a splash of drama

FORGET the conventional wisdom that council meetings by default are turgid, dreary and boring. Tomorrow’s debate on the Ness arts programme and in particular the planned £300,000 riverside Gathering Place, at Glenurquhart Road HQ, will provide a splash of real drama as councillors thrash out the pros and cons of one of the most controversial schemes in years, and decide whether or not it will go ahead. Whether you’re there in person or watching live on the council website, COLIN CAMPBELL reviews the participants and things to look out for.

An artist’s impression of the riverside Gathering Place, one of the most controversial developments in years.

The ‘missing’ professor Mooney

Whether or not Professor Jim Mooney will turn up to watch the event remains to be seen. Probably not. But, as chairman of “the evaluation panel”, he was presented at the launch of the Gathering Place a year last May as a key, distinguished figure who gave credibility to the scheme. In fact, he set alarm bells ringing from the outset when he offered probably the most risible quote in civic history by claiming that building a wall and concrete pathways at the unspoilt Gathering Place site would “greatly enhance the natural beauty” of the Ness riverside. Since then, nothing has publicly been seen or heard of him in relation to the development. Given the cringe-making absurdity of that initial claim, his absence would be understandable. But it will be fascinating if any supporter of the scheme stands up and tries to explain how a wall and concrete enhances natural beauty.

Provost Helen Carmichael

A dogged supporter of the Gathering Place, she insists it has to be built for financial reasons. She’ll be in the chair and will need to be on better form than she was when the issue was briefly raised at a meeting a few weeks ago. She had to be corrected on proper procedure by Councillor Richard Laird and was also accused of showing bias against councillors opposing the scheme. Will need to be on top of her brief and firmly in charge of tomorrow’s meeting or will face a very difficult afternoon.

Chief executive Donna Manson

 Her contribution on the issue came late last week when she said failure to build the Gathering Place would cause “reputational damage” to the council. Expect an audible rumble of frustration from members of the public present if she repeats that claim, with the implication that the reputation of the council is more important than the conservation of the Ness riverside.

Council Leader Margaret Davidson

 Has had virtually nothing to say on the merits of the Gathering Place but wants it to go ahead and caused controversy last week when she called fierce opponent of the scheme Ron MacWilliam to account for critical comments he has made in the media. Whether or not she will maintain the persona of a stern headmistress frowning on errant pupils remains to be seen. But will be aware that such a posture is unlikely to stifle criticism and is more likely to inflame it.

Former provosts Jimmy Gray and Alex Graham

Have had nothing to say on whether the Gathering Place will improve the riverside or harm it. Will these two former First Citizens of the Highland Capital finally be bold enough to offer their views on one of the most significant and contentious developments in years?

Councilllor Ron MacWilliam

 The leading and most determined opponent of the Gathering Place and the way the issue has been handled will be primed and ready for a meeting he has been demanding be held for months, after the scheme was passed “on the nod” by unelected officials. Deserves more credit than any other councillor for his persistence in bringing about tomorrow’s meeting, which the council hierarchy did not want. Has a mass of criticism he could make, but will need to choose his words carefully for maximum impact. 

Councillor Bill Boyd

 Armed with the expertise of a former engineer, he tore the construction element of the Gathering Place apart when the issue was briefly raised at a meeting before. His, calm, reasoned and authoritative delivery, backed up by his view that no-one in the near-riverside area he represents wants anything to do with it, was unanswerable. His “voice of the people” demeanour reinforced by his engineering knowledge makes him a highly effective and convincing opponent of the Gathering Place.

Councillor Janet Campbell

 Has had little to say so far on the issue, but is known to have deep concerns about the damaging impact of the Gathering Place on the riverside. At the council meeting at which its predecessor, the Tilting Pier, was dumped, her impassioned argument against it was probably the most effective of all on the day. If she’s on repeat form, could help give the Gathering Place a hefty shove into oblivion as well.

Councillor Isabelle MacKenzie

The arts group chairman and driving force behind the Gathering Place has gone from a position of confident certainty that it would be built to recognition that the project is in real jeopardy. When it was briefly raised at a meeting before she did not perform well, saying she knew she’d taken on “a poisoned chalice” without explaining why she’d done so, claimed that colleagues had been laughing behind her back, and accused them of simply wanting to get their names in the papers. They looked on, bewildered by her outburst. Will need to be calmer and rise above the strain of her unenviable position if she wants to rescue the Gathering Place plan.

Councillor Andrew Jarvie

Has changed his mind back and forth on the issue but the Conservative group leader last week strongly criticised the Gathering Place over the lack of planning for disabled people. He himself is disabled. If he comes out against it as a waste of public money – his original stance – he could be influential in bringing other members of the Tory group along with him.

Councillor Alasdair Christie

 As depute leader of the council, he has previously expressed the view that there needed to be conciliation over the issue, and the concerns of critics of the scheme must be taken into account. The only councillor who claims no expenses and never has done, funding his work from his own pocket, will he now fall in line with the council hierarchy who want the Gathering Place to go ahead, or will he side with the thousands of critics strongly opposed to it?

Councillors Ken Gowans, Glynis Sinclair, Emma Knox, Richard Laird

The four others, along with MacWilliam and Boyd, who signed up against the Gathering Place to force tomorrow’s meeting to be held. Any or all could provide fireworks if they get in full flow. Glynis Sinclair has previously claimed, in a particularly strong accusation, that there has been council “skulduggery” involved in the issue – but somehow was spared a summons from Margaret Davidson. So expect no mincing of words from her or the other three when they speak out on the issue.

Councillor Roddy Balfour

 A quiet but effective voice, he is known to have serious concerns over the Gathering Place and could decide now is the time to publicly make those crystal clear.

Councillors Graham Ross and Carolyn Caddick

 Other than Helen Carmichael and Isabel MacKenzie, the only two councillors who have publicly supported the Gathering Place. However that was several months ago, before the groundswell of opposition to it and before a mass protest petition was drawn up. They’ve had nothing to say on the scheme since then. Will they stick with their original support, or will they decide that the views of so many members of the public opposing it should take priority?

The silent ones

 If the issue is finely balanced, and we said here last week that it was too close to call, ultimately it’s the stance of those who so far who have had little or nothing to say on the Gathering Place who will decide whether or not it goes ahead. Trish Robertson, Duncan Macpherson, Callum Smith, Bet MacAllister and George Cruickshank have largely kept out of the debate, along with Alex Graham and Jimmy Gray. No-one will be forced to speak out at the meeting, and some may decide to sit it out and maintain a monastic silence on the issue, but under a high level of public scrutiny, that would be seen as a very peculiar and negligent stance to take. Members of the public will be hoping that each and every councillor is prepared to offer their personal opinion on such a contentious issue, with a lack of involvement or candour no longer a credible position to adopt.

Helen Smith and members of the Open Ness group

 Petition organiser Helen Smith probably deserves more credit than anyone for preventing such a major riverside development being built with the approval only of unelected officials, as could have happened, without elected councillors having any say on the scheme. She will attend the meeting, along with members of her vigorous and effective campaign group, who have organised public meetings and protests against the Gathering Place. Ms Smith is responsible for bringing together the views of more than 2,300 people who vehemently oppose the concreting over of a natural and unspoilt location, with the simple but explicit demands from many who have left comments on the petition website best summarised as: “The Ness riverside is a place of beauty as it is now. Just leave it alone.”

The agenda

Members are invited (by the chief executive) to
(i)     note that the enhanced governance arrangements that were agreed to by the City of Inverness Area Committee for the delivery of the arts programme have been adhered to throughout;
(ii)    note the update on Inverness City Arts Projects;
(iii)   note the next steps for the ICArts Working Group;
(iv)    note the considerable financial and reputational implications of any decision not to progress any or all of the remaining arts programme;
(v)     agree to continue the River Arts Programme under the governance of the ICArts Working Group and as agreed by the City of Inverness Area Committee; and
(vi)    note that any decision not to progress the remaining arts programme will require to be remitted to a meeting of the full Council to determine how any additional costs are met.

Still too close to call

In a nutshell, if a majority of councillors vote against continuing the arts programme, of which the Gathering Place is the centrepiece, it will referred back to the full council, where it will inevitably be kicked out. Many councillors from cash-starved areas of the Highlands are resentful of the amount of money spent in Inverness on worthwhile projects, and would without hesitation write off  “artwork” that virtually no-one seems to want. Changes and modifications to the arts programme could tomorrow gain consensus. However on the central issue, incomprehensible as it may seem to many people, it is still a distinct possibility that a majority of Inverness councillors will vote to go ahead and build the Gathering Place, resulting in a churned up riverside and months of turmoil ahead.

The meeting will be held at council headquarters, beginning at 2pm, and will be broadcast live on the council website.

Standing up for our jewel in the crown riverside – look out for full coverage of the Gathering Place meeting at Inverness news and views on Wednesday

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