by Colin Campbell
HELEN Smith looked shattered by what she had witnessed. Del McClurg, ashen faced, said she was speechless with anger, and left. Other members of the public filed out of the council chamber, saying little or nothing, many clearly angry and stunned by the outcome.
Such was the aftermath of yesterday’s long-awaited special meeting of the Inverness Area Committee, which voted decisively to go ahead and build the Gathering Place on the riverside at the Ness Islands.
A petition organised by Helen Smith, attracting, at the latest figure, nearly 3,000 signatures and comments from people vehemently opposed to plans to build a wall and concrete pathways at the riverside near the Ness Islands, was barely mentioned by proponents of the scheme.
Ms McClurg, chairwoman of Merkinch Community Council, led her group in blocking the “artwork” predecessor to the Gathering Place, the Tilting Pier, from being dumped on the Merkinch when a tiny clique of councillors and “subversive artists” ran out of other places to put it.
No such luck with blocking the Gathering Place.
In the end, there was a certain inevitability about yesterday’s outcome.
During months of intense controversy, it has been clear – as we have said many times here – that a core of councillors were determined to build the Gathering Place, a £300,000 wall and concrete pathways, on an unspoilt and natural area of riverside, at all or any cost.
Yesterday they assembled a team of around 10 highly-paid officials, led by chief executive Donna Manson, to ensure an air of dominance over council critics and protesters.
Most of the time Highland Council adopts the role of an impoverished organisation struggling on a daily basis to get by.
But the presence at yesterday’s meeting of a group of officials earning up to and possibly more than £800,000 a year – maybe close to a million – told a very different story.
When the council wants to exert its power over the people, it can and will do so. And there is nothing Helen Smith or Del McClurg and the thousands of people who supported their stance against the Gathering Place can do about it.
What the council cannot do is to dispel a widespread public perception of connivance and manipulation leading up to and surrounding yesterday’s final decision on the Gathering Place.
No-one can pinpoint who is responsible for that, or how it has come about. But equally, no-one can deny it does not exist.
Yesterday’s meeting, apart from that, was a rancorous affair.
The most telling contribution came early on from the leading critic of the wall and concrete scheme, Ron MacWilliam, who was largely instrumental in forcing yesterday’s public meeting to be held – a meeting which the council hierarchy emphatically did not want to take place.
A rule was enforced that councillors should be allowed only five minutes to speak on the issue. Mr MacWilliam protested vigorously, saying that he had been calling for the meeting to be held since the beginning of the year, and now he and others were being allowed only five minutes to state their case. The meeting was taking place, but full debate was still being shut down. He said it was an outright farce.
Provost Helen Carmichael, humiliated by the Tilting Pier debacle and now a fervent supporter of the Gathering Place, made it clear that she intended to rigorously enforce the five-minute rule. Several months ago she refused to even meet with members of the Open Ness petition campaign group.
Mr MacWilliam and Glynis Sinclair, another opponent of the Gathering Place, made a motion to increase the time members were allowed to speak on the issue. But council leader Margaret Davidson backed retaining the five-minute limit, and when she received majority support, the writing was on the wall.
A broadcast of the full meeting is available online but little new was said. Professor Jim Mooney, past purveyor of the belief that a wall and concrete on the riverside would “greatly enhance its natural beauty”, re-appeared on the scene to say that if the Gathering Place suffered the same fate as the Tilting Pier, it would be extremely difficult to attract artists in future to work in Inverness.
“Bravo to that,” someone in the audience muttered, presumably on the basis that if the Tilting Pier and the Gathering Place are the best ideas they can come up with, the further they stay away the better.
But “reputational damage” to Inverness among artists was one of the professor’s main concerns yesterday, in the same way as “reputational damage” to the council was a prime concern expressed at the meeting by council chief executive Donna Manson.
Any concern over damage to the riverside inflicted by the Gathering Place just flowed on by them.
Arts group chairwoman Isabelle MacKenzie said the wall and concrete Gathering Place “will bring a uniqueness to set Inverness apart from other cities and countries across the world”.
If the mood of members of the public had not been so sombre and apprehensive about the outcome, some would undoubtedly have burst out laughing.
Ms MacKenzie rose to an even higher plane when she brought the late US president John F Kennedy into the debate. She quoted him as saying: “We must never forget art is not a form of propaganda, it is a form of truth.”
Leonardo da Vinci was also brought into proceedings by Councillor Graham Ross, who quoted him as saying: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” Mr Ross added: “I think that is quite a statement.”
By this point, with John F. Kennedy and Leonardo da Vinci both backing the Gathering Place, there seemed a confident certainty among councillors supporting the scheme that it could not fail to be approved.
Others among its supporters had their say too. Duncan MacPherson, who has been meekly silent on the issue for months up till now, came out of his shell with a rambling attack on opponent Ken Gowans, factually inaccurate and gratuitously insulting. This “worm has turned” performance so angered Mr Gowans – justifiably – that he demanded an apology. Mr MacPherson, emboldened by his new role as fourth rate comedian and the mirthful laughter among councillors around him, made another flippant remark.
Among members of the public looking on, the laughter and flippancy among these councillors provoked only disgust.
Other opponents of the scheme – Bill Boyd, Richard Laird, Glynis Sinclair and Emma Knox did their best to oppose it, saying it was being foisted on Inverness when the people of the city did not want it, that the outcry against it was wholly justified and that it was grossly unnecessary to build such a thing on an area of natural beauty, among other strong criticism.
But when the final vote was taken the council juggernaut rolled over them and the Gathering Place was approved.
After the meeting Ron MacWilliam was still burning with anger – not because he had suffered a personal defeat – but because he believed the outcome was a democratic travesty.
Across Inverness last night, as word of the decision spread, many others will have felt the same.
But although the battle against the Gathering Place has been lost, there’s plenty more yet to come. It will be completed in 12-18 months time, Provost Carmichael informed the committee.
Next comes a beautiful stretch of riverside being turned into a fenced-off, churned-up building site for months on end, a scenario which will leave many people – some who have as yet paid little attention to the issue – aghast.
Helen Smith, recovering from her shock and grief at the outcome, said before leaving yesterday’s meeting place: “This isn’t over yet. This will be remembered. It’ll be remembered by many at the next elections.”
And, as the petition organiser who clearly has her finger on the pulse of public opinion more than anyone else around, in 12-18 months time with another election fast approaching that should not be dismissed as wishful thinking or an idle threat.