by Colin Campbell
MORE public money is being poured into the controversial Ness riverside “Gathering Place” – despite a previous council assurance that spending on the wall and concrete pathways development would stop. Another £32,000 is being allocated to it to improve access for the disabled. It is understood the bill will be picked up by the Creative Scotland arts agency. However, at a time of constant cutbacks in essential services, the prospect of more cash being spent on a development opposed by thousands of people has engendered anger.
A leading critic of the scheme, Inverness councillor Ron MacWilliam, told Inverness news and views: “This is more public money being spent on this thing, when an assurance was given that that wouldn’t happen.”
At a council meeting where the project was given the go-ahead by a majority of councillors, Arts Group chairman Isabelle Mackenzie explicitly stated that “there will be no further commitment of public funds to the Inverness City Area arts project”.
The need for the additional work on the scheme for disabled people is accepted by Mr MacWilliam and others who remain opposed to it being built at all. Another councillor who believes the Gathering Place is unwanted and unnecessary, Emma Knox, previously highlighted its unsuitability for disabled people. Ms Knox said the lack of adequate turning space for wheelchair users would mean “in the words of a well-known song, they can check in but never leave”.
Mr MacWilliam said: “It looks like the shortfall for this project is considerably higher than anyone is letting on and I fear that without a formal investigation we will remain none the wiser as to the full extent of the waste of public funds. It would be a reckless position to commit to a start date without having first been assured of full financing. What would be even worse than destroying the riverbank is if they commit to a start date in the knowledge there might not be funds to complete the project.
“Having made every effort to stop this reckless project going ahead it was of some mild comfort that the Inverness councillors who are so committed to this folly were shamed into making into making a firm commitment to not invest any further public funds when we held a special meeting in August. If they’ve changed their minds behind closed doors and now plan to renege on that commitment they will have reduced the role of the Inverness city committee to a circus act. I don’t think people will stand for much more of this and there may well be a case for a community legal challenge. It was completely clear after last August that any further expenditure would have to come from private subscription. Those who continually like to remind us about how they represent the ‘silent majority’ should prove their point by rattling a collection tin around town. I suspect the chances of Inverness citizens gifting a further £32,000 to this nonsense are far lower than the chances of community crowdfunding to raise a legal challenge to put an end to the sorry affair once and for all.”
Money has taken over as the main reason for concreting over the natural beauty spot adjacent to the Ness islands. At the meeting where councillors approved it, members of the public present were appalled to see that concerns over finance and “reputational damage” to the council dominated discussion, with scant reference to the scenic and environmental impact it will have on an area which has lain unspoilt and untouched for decades. Critics consider it a scandal that an outlay rising towards £300,000 should be spent on “developing” a location which should be left alone.
Chief executive Donna Manson produced figures which cited a cost to the council of £190,000 if the Gathering Place was scrapped. However, no breakdown as to how that extraordinarily high figure was reached was made available to members of the public.
Inverness Provost Helen Carmichael has admitted a total of £108,000 has already been spent on “preparation” for the Gathering Place, although it’s unclear where all the money has gone. However, tens of thousands of pounds will go to the Glasgow-based firm of arts consultants – specialising in “subversive art” – who came up with the wall and concrete pathways proposal.
Council supporters of the scheme claim it will bring financial benefit to Inverness. Citing the rise in tourist numbers in the Highland capital and implying it would benefit tourism, Isabelle Mackenzie said it would “set Inverness apart from other cities and countries in the world, because people can wander along and look at it”.
Her opinion of the benefits of a wall on the riverside is viewed by opponents as risible, ludicrous and clutching at straws in an effort to provide some kind of justification for it being built.
Highland Council is already shelling out £106,000 for the River Ness artwork programme, with another £250,000 coming from the council-run Inverness Common Good fund. The Gathering Place is seen as the “centrepiece” of the artwork.
The money is being spent at a time of constant cutbacks in funding for essential services, and voluntary groups, some of whom are being driven out of existence as their funding is withdrawn.
Many public construction projects run well over budget when building work hits unforeseen problems. It is unclear if any provision has been made for that.
The OpenNess campaign group have vowed to fight what is seen as the riverside-ruining Gathering Place “to the end”. Around 3,000 people signed a petition against it, with many expressing vehement opposition to it, saying the area should remain untouched.
The council has given no exact date when work will start on ripping up the riverside beauty spot, but has said it will begin “in the spring”.