by Colin Campbell
A FRONT page headline appeared in the Inverness Courier: “Call for public to have say on cuts”. The report underneath said: “The public should have a say on up to £77.3million of cuts Highland Council may have to make over the next three years. The call is included in a revenue budget strategy going before councillors on Thursday.”
And I thought: “How very considerate of them. So now we’re back to having a listening, caring, sharing council where what people think matters and is oh so important to the decision-making process.”
And if you detect a resounding tone of cynicism there you’d be right. And, I wonder, how many other people across the Highland capital and beyond felt the same.
This is a favoured tactic of our local authority, to dangle before people the prospect of involvement in something as broadly based and impenetrably complicated as “the cuts”.
Setting aside the seriousness of the issue, it’s essentially an easy suggestion for them to make, creating the airy-fairy impression that we have a role to play in their “revenue budget strategy”.
We are not financial experts. We are not paid to come up with answers to the council’s perennial “financial crisis”. That’s for the £80,000-100,000 a year officials to deal with. It’s not for ordinary members of the public with no financial knowledge or expertise to advise on extremely complex financial issues.
But, as I say, it does present the wishy-washy impression that they “want to listen” and hear what people think.
Well last month Highland Council did hear what people thought – in no uncertain terms.
They thought that plans to spend a vast amount of money on creating a riverside wall and concrete pathways on the Ness riverside and call it “the Gathering Place” was one of the worst and most wasteful council decisions in living memory.
This was something that everyone could understand and get their head round. And they signed a petition against it in their thousands, adding on comments which indicated strident, passionate and vehement opposition.
Was that something the “listening” council would actually listen to?
No. In fact mass public opinion was completely ignored and in fact virtually treated with contempt. At the meeting three weeks ago when the much-reviled Gathering Place was given the go-ahead, those who voted in favour of it did not even acknowledge the existence of that petition. In fact on more than one occasion it was indirectly mocked, and compared to “a few entries in Facebook”.
Where was the listening, caring, sharing council of chief executive Donna Manson and council leader Margaret Davidson then?
Now there will be those who say, the decision’s been taken, it was approved – get over it.
But the saga has barely begun yet. The talking part of it is over. But they still have to build the thing. It’s supposed to be completed in 12-18 months.
So we still have a very lengthy period to look forward to when a natural and unspoilt beauty spot will be turned into a fenced-off, churned up building site. Without, it has emerged, an environmental impact assessment on the impact on wildlife and other key factors having been made. At a total cost of £300,000, including a huge amount from the council and the Inverness Common Good fund.
This is far from over yet. It will not be brushed aside and forgotten.
And the wounds over it among many are still too raw and the disgust felt by many still run – and will continue to run – far too deep for Highland Council to smoothly glide back into its preferred role as the listening, caring, sharing council.
And to say it really, really wants to hear what the public think about this, that, or whatever.
That stance may have worked at one time. The outright contempt shown to public opinion over the Gathering Place has blown it to smithereens.