Councillors will come to rue the day they made riverside decision

by Colin Campbell

EVEN if we now want to escape from the Gathering Place saga – and I admit I was still too demoralised by the outcome to lay a finger on a keyboard 24 hours after Tuesday’s decisive meeting – we can’t. Because it’s a matter of fact that it’s far from over.

 If arts chairwoman Isabelle MacKenzie can quote John F Kennedy and Councillor Graham Ross can quote Leonard da Vinci, as they did to support their argument for the Gathering Place at the meeting, I can be similarly off-centre by quoting Winston Churchill, in more grave times.

 “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is the end of the beginning.”

 Because they still have to build the thing yet.

 The matter is certainly resolved in terms of whether or not it will be built. Whatever anyone thinks of it, a democratic decision was taken at a meeting so many of us were demanding, and the clear decision was to go ahead with it.

 That has to be accepted. There was encouraging talk in the papers yesterday from Open Ness campaigners of “fighting on”, but they meant they would be vigilant in combatting any further damage to the riverside. The battle over the Gathering Place is over and those of us who were strongly, stridently, vehemently against it have lost.

 But if we are the demoralised losers, who are the triumphant winners?

 It’s very, very difficult to identify any.

 In fairness, there was no cock-a-hoop air of celebration among “winning” councillors after the meeting. They seemed pretty much as downbeat as those members of the public who quietly left the meeting, people with their heads hanging very low.

 The sound and fury leading up to Tuesday’s meeting has gone. But I know I’ll feel a mixture of anger and dismay each and every time I pass the location where the Gathering Place is to be built. And so, to a greater or lesser degree, will many other people.

 This is not the time to rake over all the arguments yet again.

 But even if you do not see the riverside is sacrosanct, and far less than sacred, surely you’d agree that this particular location opposite the Ness Islands looks pretty nice as it is.

 And we have to pose the central question yet again: can you genuinely come up with any other area of Inverness that looks less in need of “development”? That is, development work costing up to £300,000?

 Provost Helen Carmichael says the Gathering Place will be built within the next 12-18 months. So at some point, and it’s no exaggeration but a matter of fact, the entire area will be fenced off, ripped apart and turned into a building site.

 A wall and concrete pathways won’t magically drop down into place overnight from the sky.

 Are Provost Carmichael and other councillors who backed the Gathering Place really looking forward to the day when a prolonged period of work at the location begins?

 And, no matter what anyone thought of Tuesday’s final verdict, it’s difficult to see an upside for the council and its Inverness councillors.

 If the Gathering Place turns out to have minimal impact on the appearance of the riverside, people will be asking why it was built and a huge sum of money spent on it.

 If it has major impact the argument will prevail that it should not have been built at all.

 There’s no middle ground on the issue. I and others contend that it would take an artistic genius to “improve” a scenic, natural area by adorning it with concrete. And there’s no evidence that there’s a Leonardo da Vinci among any of those who have designed this thing.

 And then there’s the cost. I and others who have closely followed the saga know that, although tens of thousands are being shelled out by the council and from the Inverness Common Good Fund, they’re not funding the Gathering Place in its entirety, with Creative Scotland picking up some of the tab.

 But many members of the public who are less aware of the overall situation won’t bother too much checking out the figures.

 The impression and belief will prevail that the council is spending hundreds of thousands on this riverside “artwork” – basically, a wall – at a time when, on a weekly basis, it’s pleading poverty and the need for cuts and still more cuts to essential services.

 Every time another cutback is imposed there will be a rumbling echo across the Highland capital: “Aye, but they can afford to spend a fortune on bloody artwork.”

 Or do councillors with their new centrepiece of “the Gathering Place” really believe that won’t happen? That they can spend a huge amount of money tearing apart the riverside to build this thing, and simultaneously say they’ve no money available for the basics, like mending schools, fixing potholes, supporting voluntary organisations or looking after the elderly, and that people won’t be critical – to put it mildly – of their sense of priorities?

 How’s it going to look?

 The Gathering Place saga has made me feel – as never before to such an extent in the 44 years I’ve been covering Inverness for the papers – that we have a significant number of councillors who either don’t care about or are completely out of touch with public opinion.

 Officials are protected from public criticism in their Glenurquhart Road offices. Councillors are not so fortunate.

 It’s all very well preaching that they stood for office, were elected and deserve respect accordingly. That may be true.

 But the ramifications of the Gathering Place certainly didn’t end on Tuesday. They will reverberate for a long time ahead, and we’ll report on them here as and when they arise. And I predict without any malice or vindictiveness, councillors will come to rue the day they decided to go ahead and build it.

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