by Colin Campbell
THE OpenNess campaign group has savaged Inverness civic leaders following the latest shambolic twist in the Gathering Place saga, with the project now facing an “indefinite delay” due to a shortfall in funding for the provision of access for the disabled. Ignoring a 3,000-strong protest petition gathered by the group, Inverness councillors voted in August to go ahead with plans to build a wall and concrete pathways – designated as “artwork” – on a natural beauty spot on the riverside at the Ness Islands.
But now it has emerged that disabled access work will cost £32,000 – money the council claims it doesn’t have.
This comes after more than £100,000 has already been spent on “preparatory work” for the Gathering Place, much of it going to a Glasgow based firm of “arts consultants” who devised the scheme.
OpenNess leader Helen Smith yesterday said she “couldn’t believe” the latest twist in the Gathering Place “farce”, which has been dragged through months of controversy.
Many of those who signed the protest petition argued vehemently against the plan to concrete over an unspoilt area of riverside at a cost of £300,000.
But after heated debate Inverness councillors voted 15-7 to go ahead with the scheme, even though only a tiny minority spoke in favour of it.
Council chief executive Donna Manson told the August meeting that if they did not proceed, it would cause “reputational damage” to the council, and they would incur financial penalties.
OpenNess members and many other people were aghast that the decision to concrete over a treasured area of riverside should be decided on such a basis, with no heed paid to the scenic or environmental impact on the riverside.
It now seems certain that the Gathering Place will not now be built within the 12-18 months timeframe laid down at the August meeting. It is highly unlikely that it will be built in double that time. And – despite the immensely stubborn refusal of senior councillors to pay attention to widespread public opinion – the prospect of “indefinite delay” suggests they have now buckled under the weight of odium targeted at the scheme, and the likeliest outcome is it will never to built at all.
Yesterday the OpenNess group ripped into a series of blunders which this week prompted one councillor to describe the Gathering Place saga as “the nightmare that never ends”.
They stated: “Here’s a picture (above) summing up the incompetence of the current Council administration in Inverness. It’s the site where mature trees were cut down to make way for a children’s water feature in the Ness Islands – except that won’t now be happening because the money needs to be diverted to making the wall (sorry, the Gathering Place) accessible to people with disabilities because they didn’t plan originally to do this for some unknown reason.
“A report is going to the City of Inverness Area Committee this Thursday (21st November) detailing the current situation re the River Ness public arts projects.
“The additional cost of making the wall accessible to people with disabilities will be £33k. No-one in the project team or councillor working group supervising the works had thought about access issues – it took a question from OpenNess to highlight the problem. Back in August, Inverness councillors voted to proceed with the project on condition that it did not exceed its budget. It is now going to exceed its budget, even after the budgets for the children’s play feature and the Trail have been transferred to it
“To cover some of the £33k shortfall, the children’s water feature in the Islands and the proposed Trail have both been abandoned.
“Meanwhile, the five pieces of public art (the “Rest Place”) and their £40k budget had already changed into one £40k piece of “art” (remarkably like a sawn-off metal railway bridge) which was going to be installed in front of Johnny Fox’s. However, questions about the safety of the structure in view of its proximity to the river, mean that it is now going to be located near the canal crossing at Torvean. So we have a riverside “art” feature which is no longer even going to be at the river. And no-one has yet told us how anyone with mobility issues is going to be able to enjoy it. (We’ll not even mention the complete lack of consultation with the community council covering that area, because who needs to listen to community councils anyway?)
“The original £21,850 contingency for the project appears to be gone (who knows where?) meaning that, in addition to the shortfall in budget for making the wall accessible, another contingency budget of £22k needs to be found. The begging bowl is about to be passed round – anyone know of a Council budget with a spare £22K? Oh but don’t worry – there’s always the Inverness Common Good Fund, traditional source of cash needed for fancy cars for the provost, lavish hospitality at the Town House, and to plug holes in project budgets which can’t be found anywhere else.”
The campaigners continue: “Meanwhile, the annual report of the Inverness City Arts Working Group is also going to the City of Inverness Area Committee next Thursday. It mysteriously fails to mention the £758k budget for the River Ness public arts project and focuses instead on the budget for the Gathering Place (now helpfully redacted from its original £300k to show up as only ££195k – but who wants to be reminded of the £105k which has already been spent on the abandoned Tilting Pier and other work which has not resulted in anything actually happening on the ground?
“The report also states: ‘It is important to be clear that the vast majority of the money for the projects comes from Third Party funding and therefore cannot be used for any purposes other than the art project.’ This is not actually correct. £305k comes from Creative Scotland, and could be spent on other arts projects if necessary. £66k comes from HIE, who could doubtless find something better to spend it on, £106k is Council money, and the balance is from the Common Good Fund.
“Meanwhile, the Infirmary Bridge is not fit for purpose and needs investment before it collapses or is washed away, the Northern Meeting Park grandstand is mouldering away, the city centre is a mess, and the £33k they are scrabbling around to find would cover the costs of providing two much-needed pupil support assistant posts to help children with additional support needs for a year (or maybe even fill a vacant primary mental health worker post for the large Inverness secondary school which currently cannot provide mental health support for its pupils.
“Just for reference, the councillors presiding over this utter farce are Provost Helen Carmichael, Iain Brown, Isobel Mackenzie, and Graham Ross.
“We can only hope that they, and the other councillors on the Inverness Area Committee will call a halt to this disastrous project this Thursday. Because OpenNess thinks that the £32k shortfall – bad enough as that is – will prove to be even higher if the work continues. And that’s before you start thinking of the damage to the river bank and Islands, disruption to wildlife, potential flooding consequences, and the costs of building a new hut for the anglers.
“And we are still unclear as to where the annual maintenance costs are coming from, or how they will be met. And that we know for certain that there is no budget for dismantling the wall when it reaches the end of its 20-30 year life span.
“Back in August, OpenNess provided all the Inverness councillors with a statement of nine good reasons why the Gathering Place should be abandoned. There are now even more reasons. Let’s call a halt to this farce now.”