Too late for council to take fright over the worst decision in years

THE COLIN CAMPBELL COLUMN

PROVOST Helen Carmichael hailed the launch of the excellent Inverness Winter Festival, an imaginative programme of events which helps dispel some of the gloom and glaur which can hang over the city as the clocks change and we head into a time of year which, pre-Christmas, is not a calendar highlight for many.

The festival includes a Halloween event – undoubtedly a highlight for many – in which several thousand children and adults queue to experience a spooky tour around the Ness Islands. I’ve never been on it, but young relatives of mine and their parents say it’s invariably, fright-fully brilliant.

 This atmospheric event is the one and only time of the year in which large numbers of people gather at a particular stretch of riverside for a very worthwhile and identifiable purpose.

 Which reminds me – as I write it’s two months to the day since the final, conclusive decision was taken to go ahead and build the Gathering Place on the riverside at that location.

 After all the sound and fury surrounding that decision, I’d almost forgotten about that. So, quite possibly, has Provost Carmichael and her colleagues who voted it through.

 Or at least if they haven’t, I’ll bet they’re trying to.

 And that’s fine for now. But they can’t forget about it forever.

 After the meeting we were told the Gathering Place would be completed within 16-18 months. Taking them at their word, that’s now shortened to 14-16 months, or roughly by the end of next year.

 Plenty time to fence off and tear up a beautiful stretch of riverside and adorn it with a wall and concrete pathways “to enhance its natural beauty”, a move thousands of people are vehemently opposed to.

 But the window of opportunity is not as wide open as it might seem. With the construction work – or rather destruction work – estimated to take around four months, there is as yet no word of any planned starting date.

 Presumably there will have to be some kind of advance announcement given the level of upheaval involved, including a prolonged road closure.

 So if nothing happens before the end of this year, which seems quite likely, when will it be built?

Even the clods responsible for the Gathering Place fiasco will surely recognise that work shouldn’t begin in late spring and stretch out over the tourist season.

 So it’ll have to be built either side of that, beginning either very early next year or late next year.

 Along with many other members of the public, I attended the conclusive August 20 meeting. There were certainly no victory smiles from any of those who had backed and won the decision to build the Gathering Place. They filed glumly and grimly out of the council chamber, and disappeared pretty quickly from the building.

 It was already probably dawning on them even then: ok, we’ve won the vote, now we have to build the damn thing.

 It was supposed to have been completed by last July. Sooner or later they’re going to have to bite the bullet and get on with it. Much more prevarication and it’ll have been delayed longer than Brexit.

 It is hugely unpopular among members of the public. Virtually no councillors seem to want it either. The only reason it’s being built – a pathetic one in the eyes of many – is to avoid supposed financial penalties being incurred. And, of course, more than £100,000 has gone up in smoke in “preparation costs” so they have to justify that somehow.

 But it’s not an easy business. There’s no doubt in my mind that, despite all the publicity the issue has received, a substantial proportion of city residents still have no idea what’s planned for this lovely stretch of riverside. But they’ll know all about it when the fences go up and the concrete mixers and diggers move it. And pictures of the ungodly mess they’ll make of an unspoilt location appear across the media.

 Is there any way out of it for Provost Carmichael and her colleagues. I suppose they could apply to Creative Scotland, who have provided half the money, for an extension. But that would be humiliating. But not as humiliating as the public backlash and torrent of scorn that will hit them when the ripping apart of the riverside begins. Maybe they could backtrack altogether and decide that the Gathering Place should be put to a “People’s Vote” for a final verdict. Who knows. But the timescale is narrowing and the options are shutting down.

 As of now, councillors have made their hideously unpopular decision and sooner or later they’re going to have to act on it.

 But it’s not difficult to understand why the provost is all smiles as she contemplates the delights of the Winter Festival, and tries to forget about the Gathering Place nightmare that lies ahead.

A historic showcase for a humourless bore

I TUNED in for several hours to coverage of the “historic” Brexit day of drama last Saturday, if only to see if it would match up to the last Saturday sitting of Parliament, in 1982, after Argentina invaded the Falklands. Of course this time the situation couldn’t have been more different. Then the country – apart from craven appeasers and peaceniks like Jeremy Corbyn and those of his ilk – was united in genuine anger against the Argies and fully supportive of any move to sail south and blow them out of the water. Now, as we know all too well, in terms of unity, it couldn’t be more different.

 This time the historic day turned out a damp squib, lacking force and passion amid the Brexit perplexity. One of the few exceptions, unfortunately in his case, was Ross MP and SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford. He was given extended time to speak on several occasions, which meant we had longer than usual to hear him ranting “for Scotland”. As this paunchy, puce-faced blustering bore poured out his tirade of feigned outrage and grievance I couldn’t help wondering how he’d been elected.

 How different were his two predecessors I knew. Long-forgotten Hamish Gray, back in the 70s, was a Tory and a thorough gentleman. And of course Charles Kennedy was viewed with universal affection, even as his darkest days closed in on him.

 Now we have blustering Blackford, a rich Edinburgh banker posing as a humble Skye crofter who can do feigned outrage like no-one else and who never changes the record. When she switches into fully-fledged nationalist grievance mode, Nicola Sturgeon at least tries to vary the tone by injecting barbs of caustic humour into her tirades. I have never once heard Blackford trying to make even the semblance of a joke in his “Scotland treated with utter contempt” diatribes.

 Some time ago I hoped he might follow other high-profile SNP MPs like Alex Salmond and Angus Robertson out the door at the next election. Now, of course, the average SNP supporter would vote for a monkey on a bar stool if it wore a yellow rosette.

 From what I hear Blackford is not particularly popular in his constituency – and not remotely seen as a friend to many like Charlie Kennedy was – but it’s probably too much to hope a majority of Ross voters are fed up with the bluster, pomposity, and arrogance. It’s the thought of oafs like Blackford running the country that sends shivers up my spine. I’d prefer the monkey on the bar stool any day.

Anti-racism hysteria is over the score

OUR national sport is back in the grip of anti-racism hysteria, following the disgraceful behaviour of Bulgarian fans who directed racist abuse at England players last week.

 This is not to downplay the seriousness of the issue but to suggest the reaction, as usual, has gone over the score. Now the pre-match focus is not on players or tactics, it’s at what point a team might theoretically walk off the pitch and force the abandonment of the match if subjected to “racism”. One lower league English team has just done that.

 What this means in practice is that a match – either prominent or obscure – could be abandoned and gain national headlines if one drunken idiot shouted something inappropriate at a black player. That’s all it might take. The official “zero-tolerance” line seems to encourage such a reaction.

 Unfortunately, random drunken idiots and football have always gone hand in hand and are inseparable, and despite massive improvements in behaviour from the days we older fans remember, they always will be. Large scale – or even fairly small scale – racist abuse may deserve a drastic reaction. But how far down the scale do you go? One or even two clowns making fools of themselves deserve to be dealt with by the police or stewards, and then the courts. They do not deserve an over-the-top onfield reaction which spoils the enjoyment of the great majority of fans who will view them with nothing but contempt.

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