Black-hole council told: scrap Gathering Place, hand over park

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May Day at the Gathering Place site. Campaigners are now more confident than ever that the £300,000 wall and concrete pathways planned for the location will never be built.
by Colin Campbell                                                                                                       Saturday, May 2

POVERTY pleading Highland Council must scrap non-essential projects – with the £300,000 riverside Gathering Place top of the list for the axe.

 OpenNess campaigner Helen Smith, who raised a 3,000-petition against the Gathering Place, yesterday called for the saga “to finally be brought to an end”.

 The council this week claimed that the impact of the coronavirus would cost it a staggering £60million, leaving the local authority with an £80million budget “black hole” shortfall.

 Ms Smith told Inverness news and views yesterday: “In these circumstances it would look very, very strange to the public if they went ahead and spent a large amount of money on the Gathering Place, which virtually no-one seems to want. They should be looking at cutting unnecessary expenditure and focusing on essential services, and unloading things that are not core business. That will be obvious to everyone.”

She also called on the council to consider handing over the Northern Meeting Park to a community group whose members want to develop it for use by members of the public – rather than remain gated off and inaccessible – and bring facilities there into a state of good repair.

 Ms Smith said: “They have no money to do anything with it – their only interest in it is running large concerts and these are not going to be happening any time soon, so it is a real liability to them. The local community group has loads of ideas for making the green space and grandstand into a real asset, and all the more so now when people are going to need all sorts of support to deal with the pandemic and its aftermath. The local community are also much better placed than the council to tap into other sources of income.”

Meanwhile, the council claim that the virus would cost it £60million came in for renewed criticism yesterday.

 Conservative group leader Andrew Jarvie on Thursday branded it “ludicrous” and questioned how the figure had been arrived at. He said there had been a dearth of detail given to councillors about how the calculation had been made, and said there appeared to have been no consideration given to a range of savings being made, with schools being closed and no mileage costs being incurred due to staff working from home.

 Yesterday Ness-side councillor Ron MacWilliam said he had no idea how that size of budget shortfall “could even be conceivable”.

Independent councillor Andrew Baxter cast doubt on the claim and called for more information.

And Thurso and Northwest Caithness member Struan Mackie said: “Very little information is available, fuelling an increasing number of members pressing for greater transparency.”

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The gated-off Northern Meeting Park. The council is being urged to hand it over to a community group who could upgrade it and open it up for use by the public.

 The Gathering Place saga has dragged on for three years, since plans were revealed by the council in 2017 to build another piece of artwork after a public outcry forced them to dump the “tilting pier”. In May two years ago a firm of Glasgow-based arts consultants unveiled their plan for a wall and concrete pathways to be built on the beauty spot adjacent to the Ness islands.

It was supposed to have been completed last July, but was delayed because of intense public opposition. In January it was claimed work on it would start “in the spring”, a claim which never materialised.

Despite the strength of protests, councillors last year decided to press ahead with the scheme, but that was in a different era – the pre-coronavirus era.

Now even the name – “the Gathering Place” – looks bizarrely out of touch with the mood of the times, a mood which is liable to prevail long into the future. There is no possibility of any structure being built this year. Fresh council elections are due to be held in May, 2022, and with a possible clearout then of the project’s most fervent advocates, campaigners are now more confident than ever that a hugely expensive and unpopular scheme, which almost seemed jinxed from the start, could be consigned to history.

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