by Colin Campbell
TREES axed, shrubs uprooted, grass and flowers churned up, wildlife fleeing or destroyed: Highland Council is promising a spring by the Inverness riverside like no other. The beginning of work on a concrete wall and pathways to form the £300,000 “Gathering Place” on a beauty spot adjacent to the Ness islands is only a few weeks away.
The council has given no precise starting date for a project mired in controversy and clouded by secrecy. But members of campaign group OpenNess have already signalled their intention to highlight the destruction of a location – which has lain untouched and unspoilt for decades – every step of the way.
As a first move they have attached placards to trees which will be felled bearing the words: “I’ve been condemned to death by Highland Council.”
Helen Smith, who organised a petition opposing the Gathering Place which was backed by 3,000 people, told Inverness news and views: “We intend to protest against this right to the end.”
Campaigners have not yet given up hope of blocking or at least derailing the scheme, and are still working on initiatives to do so.
Inverness councillors finally backed the development at a special meeting in August. It was called after an outcry over the way it had been handled – having been approved behind closed doors by officials. However, there was minimal enthusiasm for the Gathering Place among those present, even those who ended up voting for it.
By last August more than £100,000 had been spent on consultation and preparation – it has not been fully explained where that six figure sum has gone – and Provost Helen Carmichael and other senior councillors believed it was too late to turn back.
Council chief executive Donna Manson warned that the council would incur financial penalties if it didn’t press ahead with it, and said ditching it would cause “reputational damage” to the council. Members of the public present noted that the debate over the council’s reputation and finances contained scant reference to what they were concerned about – the scenic and environmental impact on the riverside.
However, the scheme was opposed and condemned by seven councillors who echoed the views of those who believe it is unwanted and unnecessary, will destroy an area of unspoilt natural beauty, and is a scandalous waste of money.
Council chiefs announced last month that work would finally begin on the Gathering Place “in the spring”. As well as failing to provide a starting date, they have not revealed how long the work will take as the location is fenced off and turned into a building site.
OpenNess members want to know, among other things, how many trees will be felled to make way for concrete. But, in the absence of any information, they fear the worst.
They are also monitoring any other plans to develop the “jewel in the crown” riverside. The move to build the Gathering Place is seen as a calamitous blunder made by a small group of councillors determined to spend money where it doesn’t need to be spent and to impose artificial improvements on naturally scenic areas which should be left alone.
After a torrent of bad publicity, the belief is that the council wants to press ahead with the Gathering Place work with as little attention or publicity as possible.
But OpenNess members, acting on behalf of the thousands who signed the protest petition, have no intention of letting that happen. By tying poignant ribbons around doomed trees at the site, they have given the first signal that a destructive outbreak of serious environmental vandalism certainly isn’t going to pass unnoticed.