The BIG Inverness issue of 2019
by Colin Campbell
FOR most of the past year it’s been a truism to say you could stand during daylight hours on the site for the planned Ness riverside Gathering Place and within 10 minutes meet a passer-by who would – if approached – express incredulity or disbelief at what’s planned to be built there. I know. On a number of occasions I’ve tried it. During summer, it didn’t take 10 minutes, more like two. And even in deepest midwinter, visitors to the riverside location can barely believe what councillors and various “artists” have in store for it.
The Gathering Place saga – the biggest Inverness issue of 2019 – has gone quiet in recent months. That’s how councillors want to keep it.
But last Friday we went along there, a couple of days after Christmas and a few days before the new year.
In a lowering mist an hour before darkness fell, it wasn’t looking at its best – but even at this time of year it has a bleak and natural beauty.
The Ness riverside retains its appeal, throughout the changing seasons.
Within minutes I came across Tom Leighton and Svitlana Ramsay, from Yell in Shetland, who were taking pictures of each other framed against the Gathering Place site.
Tom was down here visiting relatives and, like Svetlana, understandably knew nothing of the council intention to “enhance” the location with a wall and concrete pathways.
Their reaction echoed that of everyone I’ve spoken to at the site – and I’ve spoken to a lot of people.
Why change it? Why mess around with it? And how misguided/idiotic/crazy do you have to be to spend £300,000 adorning it with concrete dressed up as “artwork”?
Tom shook his head and said: “It’s utter madness.”
Svitlana was disbelieving and dismayed. “This is a lovely area, even at this time of year. The birds, the trees, the river, how could it be better? I’ve always loved coming here. We’re here on December 27 taking pictures because it’s so special to us. I just cannot believe that anyone would want to start building things on it. It’s natural, it’s beautiful. Why on earth can’t they just leave it alone?”
That’s a question that has been asked – literally – thousands of times. And as we reach the end of the year, no-one can provide a credible answer.
This was indeed the big Inverness issue of the year. The saga is too long, complex and protracted to go over again in detail, but it had ramifications extending far beyond the appalling plan for the Gathering Place itself.
It raised mistrust of Highland Council to a level not seen in years, something which no-one should take pleasure from.
The revelation that a massively significant riverside development had been passed for approval behind closed doors by officials lit the blue touchpaper in March.
Accusations then that the council was determined to ram the “artwork” plan through by fair means or foul gained widespread currency.
Attempts by a number of councillors to force it open to public debate were fiercely resisted.
And when it finally was openly discussed it left a majority of Inverness councillors wide open to well-founded accusations that they were hopelessly out of touch with public opinion and, even worse, were stubbornly resistant to it when the reality of how thousands of people felt was staring them in the face.
The provost of Inverness was left clutching at straws by insisting that so much money had been spent – or wasted – on “preparatory work” for the Gathering Place, totalling over £100,000, that it was too late to turn back now.
The council chief executive based her case for going ahead with it solely on the “reputational damage” that would be inflicted on the council if they didn’t do so.
She appeared oblivious to the reputational damage they were inflicting on themselves by pressing ahead with a plan vehemently and stridently opposed in an online petition signed by 3,000 people, the majority with vituperative comments attached.
By the end of the saga – or the first chapter of the saga – it was all about reputations and money. The need to preserve and protect the cherished Ness riverside didn’t get a look in.
The Gathering Place was finally backed by a majority of councillors at a special meeting on August 20, but their body language was not that of “victors”. With hindsight, they looked about as upbeat as Jeremy Corbyn on election night.
“Reputations”, “money” – they had been browbeaten by the council hierarchy into approving a development they didn’t want and which was utterly devoid of public support.
They didn’t want to build the Gathering Place. They felt they “had to”.
However, there is as yet no word or even hint of any starting date for a project which, initially, was supposed to have been completed by last July. At last count fresh doubts were raised over it because of a £32,000 shortfall in funding for disabled access. There is no word of that having been resolved.
Whether or not – after a year of sound and fury – it ever will be built remains to be seen. The OpenNess protest group will continue to throw every obstacle possible at it to try and prevent it, and they still have a few remaining in their armoury.
All logic dictates that councillors who have plenty other matters to deal with cannot be looking forward to the Gathering Place saga flaring up again, even more intensely, with the prospect of heavy machinery and workmen moving in to fence off this natural beauty spot and tear it apart, to concrete it over, at a cost of £300,000.
What part of that would make them or the council look good? Stubborn intransigence only stretches so far.
We’ll have to wait and see what the new year brings. But, like thousands of other people, Tom Leighton and Svitlana Ramsay, visiting from Shetland, may be able to enjoy this untouched and unspoilt stretch of the Ness riverside for some time yet.