Civic leaders face new claims of operating ‘behind closed doors’

INVERNESS civic leaders have again been accused of making decisions “behind closed doors” in relation to public spending on projects in the Highland capital. Provost Helen Carmichael and her deputy Bet MacAllister suffered an embarrassing defeat at a meeting of the council’s Environment, Development and Infrastructure committee when other members from across the region voted against their move to push through cash being spent on selected projects in Inverness.

 Instead, the proposals will now be referred back to the Inverness Area Committee for detailed consideration.

 Council critics claim – so soon after the Gathering Place furore – that it’s another example of a failure to subject spending on Inverness projects to proper scrutiny by Inverness councillors.

 Councillor Ken Gowans said: “This must be the first time in history that a provost and deputy provost of Inverness have proposed and seconded an amendment to deny councillors representing Inverness to have their say in a democratic elected forum. These were the only councillors in the chamber who did not support the motion to remit this to the City of Inverness Area Committee.”

And Councillor Ron MacWilliam said it had the hallmark of “Gathering Place Mark2.”

Councillor Ron MacWilliam.

The provost and depute provost were left isolated as the vote went 15-2 against them.

Mr Gowans said they had ranked “the top three priorities for Inverness as £100,000 to part-fund three mobile light projectors – costing a total of £300k – renovations to the Midmills Building, and cash to the Victorian Market.” He added: “A condition of the grants is that the projects have the rest of their funding in place, but none of these meet that criteria.”

And he said Ms Carmichael and Ms MacAllister should “consider their positions” after being slapped down so decisively.

Mr MacWilliam said after the meeting in a letter to the provost: “It has been of increasing concern to me that ‘windfall’ funding for projects in the city of Inverness are being allocated to projects that make little sense to anyone other than a small group of councillors. The Gathering Place/ My Ness controversy, for example, could easily have been averted had the process been more open and transparent. Instead we have ended up with a landscape art installation of the quality one would expect to find in a supermarket car park, unceremoniously dumped on our natural river banks and with understandably strong public disapproval.

“The Scottish Government’s Town Centre fund allocation is the latest in a line of such errors. Yesterday at the Environment, Development and Infrastructure Committee I was dismayed that both yourself and the deputy provost Bet McAllister attempted to thwart a proposal to direct the decision-making on allocation from EDI back to the City of Inverness area committee, in effect seeking to block your own area committee from expressing its view. To have Inverness civic leaders actively urging that decision-making be removed from the city’s elected representatives is I suspect unprecedented in the long and complex history of Inverness local politics. You further demanded an apology from me for asserting that these decisions had been made ‘behind closed doors’. These decisions have very clearly been taken behind closed doors. The town centre fund working group minutes from the meeting on 30 October stated that the Inverness Area Committee had approved these projects. This is patently untrue. A private briefing for a handful of members is not the same as a meeting held in public where anyone can attend and importantly where citizens can inform themselves and discuss these matters with the people they have voted in to office.

 “I am however pleased that other members from across the Highlands had the sense to outvote yourself and Cllr McAllister and so the issue will now come back before our committee. The Inverness allocation of £600,000 could make a significant contribution to projects currently being worked on, or indeed projects for which there is as yet no clear direction. We are blessed in Inverness to have active community groups and burgeoning creative, academic and tourism sectors. What is missing is the leadership at council level to engage with our communities and to bring coherence to the developments that need to happen in order for our town centre to thrive as it once did.”

 Mr MacWilliam and Mr Gowans were among the fiercest critics of the decision to build the £300,000 Ness riverside Gathering Place – which was taken by unelected officials before they and others succeeded in bringing it to a vote among Inverness councillors.

 Provost Carmichael and her depute could claim that their latest round of criticism is linked to lingering bad feeling over that lengthy dispute. However the fact that the latest plans and the way they were handled was unanimously rejected by other councillors from across the region leaves them open to accusations that they have again showed bad judgement in their decision-making.

Widespread ill-feeling remains over the Gathering Place – and it’s only going to get worse

 by Colin Campbell

THE provost and her deputy may try and brush aside the criticism from Ron MacWilliam and Ken Gowans – although the fact that their latest spending plans and the way they were processed was rejected by other councillors from across the region certainly doesn’t look good for them.

 But they’ll find it less easy to brush aside the widespread ill-feeling which still remains potent regarding the Gathering Place fiasco, and which stretches far beyond their critics on the council.

The Gathering Place location, planned to be torn apart to build a wall and concrete pathways at a cost of £300,000.

Many people other than Mr MacWilliam and Mr Gowans are ready and eager to pounce on any embarrassment – like the one they’ve just suffered – and cite it as another example of “behind closed doors” secrecy or incompetence.

 And the bad news for them is that the worst is yet to come.

 When the decision was gloomily taken by a majority of councillors on August 20 to go ahead with the Gathering Place I said at the time that’s the talking and arguing phase over.

 Despite all the sound and fury the issue generated, that was the easy bit.

 The prospect of having to build the thing is the hard bit, and it can’t exactly be very appealing to Ms Carmichael or Ms MacAllister or any other councillor who gave it the go-ahead.

 At the August meeting virtually no-one spoke out in favour of the plan to concrete over a beautiful, natural and unspoilt stretch of riverside at the Ness Islands. The decision was taken purely for financial reasons – that is, having already wasted more than £100,000 on preparation for the Gathering Place, including spending a small fortune on Glasgow based “arts consultants” – the council could incur financial penalties if it didn’t go ahead and build it.

 Nothing to do with maintaining and preserving the beauty of the Ness riverside. Everything to do with “reputational damage” to the council and money.

Sooner or later someone at the council, probably an unnamed official hiding underneath a desk, is going to have to signal that work on the Gathering Place will start on such and such a date.

 That the fencing will go up around the beauty spot as the hard-hats move in to tear it apart and install a wall and concrete pathways at a cost of £300,000.

 At least 3,000 people who signed an online petition with many furious comments attached think this is complete and utter madness. After a lull of a few months, when the work actually starts I think there’ll be an outpouring of anger all over again, even more than before.

 But how about a completely different scenario, with many thinking: “I see they’ve started work on that grassy bit of riverside. Great. That area really needs sorting out. It’s fantastic that they’re going to build a wall and concrete pathways there. About time. That is long overdue. And the best thing is, it’s only going to cost £300,000. Now that’s what I call a bargain.”

 No, I don’t think so either.

 As a torrent of anger pours down on our beleaguered, blundering city leaders they’ll need the hard hats as much as the workmen.

 Should any councillor have to go through this? Aren’t they just enthusiastic amateurs with good intent elected on a few hundred votes who don’t deserve to be rubbished in this way? Yes, that may be so. The problem is that too many of them, as I’ve seen over the decades, start believing they’re rather special people entitled to conjure up big ideas as soon as they gain office. They get carried away with themselves and start thinking they’ve suddenly become very wise and knowing, on the back of a few hundred votes. And none more so than some of the current lot.

 That’s why the Gathering Place is being built. If they were still plain Joe and Joanna Public the 15 councillors who voted for it would be as dead set against it as everyone else. Sympathy for them is in short supply.

 And, as it now seems likely that it will actually be built, when the £300,000 has been squandered and part of the riverside has been ruined, Provost Carmichael will have the truly mournful task of performing the opening ceremony to an awkward ripple of applause from the handful of people present and a crescendo of derision from many who are not. The splendid Winter Festival and her role in it shows parts of her role can be uplifting. But if her legacy and that of other councillors is the godforsaken Gathering Place, it certainly won’t be viewed as a great success.

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