by Colin Campbell
INVERNESS councillors were yesterday told the controversial Gathering Place project is now “fully funded” and officials “will now proceed to finalise the contract with the preferred contractor”. The leap forward in plans to concrete over the Ness riverside beauty spot with a vast outlay of public money came on the day when council leaders said they want to increase the council tax by almost five per cent.
Chief executive Donna Manson was also urged yesterday to elaborate on a crucial assertion made at the council meeting in August at which the project was given the go-ahead.
And members of the OpenNess campaign group said that at a meeting with council representatives on Monday they were again told “anglers are happy with the proposals” when growing evidence is that that claim is, at best, wholly lacking in substance.
The news that thousands of objectors to the Gathering Place hoped they’d never hear – that a contract for the work is to be signed and sealed – was contained in a memo circulated to Inverness councillors.
City manager David Haas told them: “Officers (officials) have been exploring how to meet the funding gap which emerged following the changes to the original design in order to improve access requirements to the My Ness piece of art (the Gathering Place). Following extensive discussions, Creative Scotland have allocated up to £27,000 of targeted funding to fund the additional works required to enhance the access arrangements to the My Ness art piece and to enable the project to be completed. This award includes £22,000 in Contingency funding.
“This funding means that the project programme is fully funded and with this in place, members of the Working Group agreed to proceed with the construction phase of the My Ness project. This means that officers will now proceed to finalise the contract with the preferred contractor.”
The extra money coming from Creative Scotland breaches an explicit pledge from Inverness Arts group chairman Isabelle Mackenzie at the decisive August council meeting that “there will be no further commitment of public funds to the Inverness City Area arts project”. And it means the cost of concreting over a natural beauty spot at the location adjacent to the Ness Islands is rising towards at least £300,000 – much of it coming from Highland Council at a time of continuing cutbacks in funding for voluntary groups and essential services.
At the August meeting chief executive Donna Manson presented figures on a screen which asserted the council would incur costs of £190,000 if councillors decided to cancel the Gathering Place project. Members of the public present believed that was a crucial factor in influencing sceptical councillors – some of whom had expressed strong prior reservations about the detrimental impact on the riverside – to finally give the project the go-ahead.
Demands for an explanation of the £190,000 figure are now coming from several quarters. Councillor Glynis Sinclair, who voted against the Gathering Place, told Inverness news and views: “This figure needs to be quantified.” She added: “I am incensed that even more money is to be spent on the ‘Gathering Place’ without a full investigation of spending to date. The Chair of the Arts Committee made very clear at the special meeting in August that there would be no further requests for funding.”
Councillor Ron MacWilliam, a leading critic of the scheme, told us: “The councillors making these decisions have been given completely unverified information upon which to do so yet they appear content to plough on regardless. The contract for this project to my knowledge has still not been signed and not a turf of riverbank has yet been dug. It is simply mind-blowing to think that Highland Council has found itself in a position whereby the cost of not proceeding with a major project is now higher than cancellation. Something doesn’t quite stack up. I have several times called for an external investigation and I am at a loss as to how other councillors who, like me, are elected to look after public funds, deem that unnecessary.”
And Helen Smith of the OpenNess group, who organised a petition against the Gathering Place signed by 3,000 people, said OpenNess members also want an explanation of the £190,000 loss figure. She said: “The construction contractor is apparently only signing the contract this week so presumably no penalties would have been due to a contractor last August if the project had been cancelled. This being the case, how could the penalties for cancelling the project last August have been so high that they became the material consideration in councillors giving the go-ahead to the scheme? What kind of contract does the council have with the artists and architects that it would be incurring huge penalties last August to them if the project was cancelled then? Obviously, we are in the dark because detailed information about the budget, spending etc are being kept private.”
There have also been ongoing demands for an account of how £108,000 was spent on “preparation costs”. There has been no explanation to the public where that money has gone, although a large amount of it is believed to have been swallowed up by the Glasgow-based firm of consultants – specialising in “subversive art” – who came up with the Gathering Place proposal.
Members of OpenNess who met council representatives on Monday have also reacted strongly to continuing council claims that Inverness anglers “are happy with the proposals”.
They say these claims run totally against their own findings in conversations they have had with anglers on numerous visits to the site. They also cited a report yesterday in Inverness news and views where we said that, on a visit to the landmark “Fishermen’s Hut”, we spoke to anglers – 10 in total – and every one of them was against the Gathering Place because of the impact it would have on the site and the disruption it would cause. Furthermore, several told us emphatically that they knew of no-one who supported the development.
Councillor Bill Boyd, whose Ballifeary ward includes the Gathering Place location, emailed us yesterday to say of our report: “That sums up what my fishermen friends are saying.”
As controversy continues to swirl ever more intensely around the Gathering Place, a date for work at the site to begin has still not been announced. What the public will make of an unspoilt, natural beauty spot being fenced off and turned into a building site for a vastly expensive wall and concrete pathways to be installed remains to be seen.
The declaration that a contract will be finalised to spend hundreds of thousands on this came on the day when council leaders said they want to raise the council tax by almost five per cent. The timing could not be worse.
A deal with a contractor may be about to finalised – but there is no end in sight to the most explosively controversial issue seen in Inverness for many years.