by Colin Campbell
GATHERING Place campaigner and 3,000-strong petition organiser Helen Smith is to run for Highland Council office, Inverness news and views can reveal.
She is on the short-leet for the SNP in the Inverness Central Ward.
Ms Smith’s petition against the Gathering Place was widely credited with putting the issue at the top of the council agenda in Inverness, and generating mass public protest against the plan to build a wall and concrete pathways at an idyllic beauty spot at the riverside at the Ness Islands.
It attracted hundreds of supportive signatures within days and ended up with just under 3,000 people registering their backing, with many adding comments fiercely condemning the scheme.
The Gathering Place will cost up to £300,000 to build, with much of that money coming from Highland Council and the Inverness Common Good fund.
At a time of widespread cutbacks in essential services, the “artwork” spending has attracted public fury.
However, it was approved at a special meeting of the Inverness Area Committee on August 20. Ms Smith, who attended the meeting along with other members of the public, said she was angered and incredulous at the outcome.
Only a handful of councillors spoke up in favour of the project. But Provost Helen Carmichael had previously said that, having spent more than £100,000 in “preparation” for the scheme, it was effectively too late to turn back now.
Council chief executive Donna Manson also warned there would be “financial implications” if the project was cancelled and it would cause “reputational damage” to the council.
Helen Smith has decided to run for office at a time when the reputation of the council among members of the public has, however, never been lower.
An online screening of the meeting at which the Gathering Place decision took place is understood to have been watched by more people than any other viewing of council affairs.
It is intended that the Gathering Place will be built within the next 12-18 months. It was originally intended to have been completed by this July.
Doubts remain, however, whether it will be built.
Councillor Bill Boyd, a fierce critic of the scheme, yesterday endorsed the view expressed by Inverness news and views that it was only “the end of the beginning” of the saga.
Many members of public are still unaware of what is planned. Significantly, since the decision to ram it through was taken, a steady stream of letters opposing it have appeared in local papers.
Inverness news and views, which has been the main media forum for the campaign against the Gathering Place, has received similar reaction.
As the prospect of a riverside beauty spot being turned into a fenced-off, churned up building site nears, public anger over what is proposed will spread, as will awareness of the damage being inflicted on the riverside.
The Open Ness campaign group, which Helen Smith leads, intends to step up its efforts against flaws in the scheme, ranging from a lack of proper provision for disabled people to the fact that no environmental impact assessment was carried out.
Ms Smith would be seen as a favourite to gain office in a council election.
And, at a time when many people have never been more critical of those currently in office, she would be seen as “the breath of fresh air” that the council desperately needs.