by Colin Campbell
PLANS to press ahead and build the Ness riverside Gathering Place were condemned last night as belonging to “a parallel universe”.
With Inverness city centre swamped with scaffolding, barriers and bollards as traders desperately try to win back trade, the chaos spread outward yesterday with the installation of fencing along the riverside.
At the same time the council released a statement announcing that initial work on the Gathering Place will begin today (Tuesday).
Yesterday’s announcement stunned members of the public and the OpenNess group, which has campaigned fiercely against the Gathering Place.
Helen Smith, who raised a petition against the scheme which was signed by 3,000 people, told Inverness news and views: “In what parallel universe is this going to be a ‘major visitor attraction’?
“What design are we actually getting? The attached drawing (included in the press release) doesn’t match the drawings submitted with the Fishermen’s Hut in May. And surely there are better capital projects the council could be pursuing to create jobs and services which people actually need and want.”
The councillor for the area, Bill Boyd, told INV he had been contacted by “infuriated” members of the public aghast at the timing of the news.
He said he himself had only heard about the work yesterday, and not from the council.
He said: “In the current circumstances the waste of money, time, and distraction of official attention is bordering on madness.”
The Gathering Place – a wall and concrete pathways on a natural, unspoilt stretch of riverside adjacent to the Ness Islands, will cost around £300,000, with much of the money coming from council funding, the Inverness Common Good Fund, and Highlands and Islands Enterprise.
At the same time, council chiefs are warning of an upcoming budget deficit of anywhere between £60 million and £80 million, with the implied threat of drastic cuts in essential public services.
The council statement said: “The public artwork, My Ness, like other contracts, was paused during lockdown in line with national guidance, however construction projects, which are valuable to the local economy and jobs, can now take place.
“The Council has authorisation from the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, through a Licence issued under the Water Environment (Controlled Activities) (Scotland) Regulations 2011 (as amended) (CAR Licence), to undertake all works and these are due to begin this week.
“The next phase of the contract will involve the drilling of a maximum of 3 bore holes, to allow the completion of the structural calculations. The work to drill the bore holes is not expected to take more than 1 day. This is planned for Tuesday 14th July.
“Once this preparatory work has been completed, work to install the art installation is programmed to commence on site August/September 2020. Work on site is expected to take 12 weeks to complete. The project remains compliant with all previously issued statutory consents.
“Chair of the Working Group, Cllr Isabelle Mackenzie said: “This significant public art project aims to create a major new visitor destination along the banks of the River Ness in Inverness. As has been agreed through meetings of the City of Inverness Area Committee. Their input has been invaluable allowing us to proceed with the enhanced disability access.
“We are at each stage checking all necessary precautions are taken to protect the local environment. We look forward to see work starting on the installation very soon, especially at a time when we are beginning to emerge from lockdown and valuable construction works are able to get underway, and thank the project team for all the work to progress us during this stage.
“We will all soon be able to meet with our friends and families once again and My Ness (the Gathering Place) will give a focus for people to meet and enjoy the tranquility and peace of the riverside.”
Many of those who signed the petition against the Gathering Place were last night unaware of the shock move to start work today. It has been widely condemned as “an appalling waste of money” and “the concrete destruction of a natural beauty spot”.
But the timing of the announcement – at a time when people are emerging from the confusion of lockdown, with thousands of jobs at risk and businesses struggling to survive – is liable to be seen as staggeringly misplaced.
The expectation was that the council would target all its resources and money on essential work and services with the coronavirus crisis still ongoing.
In addition to almost weekly forecasts of a massive looming budget deficit, people are being affected on a daily basis.
Last Friday it emerged the council doesn’t even have enough money to employ newly qualified teachers, and some have warned they may need to leave the profession as a result. The Inverness Courier reported: “Newly qualified teachers have written to Highland councillors appealing for funding to be secured for jobs. A spokeswoman on behalf of 30 teachers said that without work, they will be forced to leave the profession. Filling vacant teaching posts has been suspended due to coronavirus.”
The decision at this time to pour a vast amount of money into hugely controversial riverside artwork is liable to be seen not only as wasteful but highly provocative and inflammatory.
Inverness news and views, in an article on the issue which appeared yesterday hours before the Gathering Place announcement, said: “It’s possible that some of the most fervent advocates of the Gathering Place – arts group chairwoman Isabelle Mackenzie and Provost Helen Carmichael among them – may decide to force it through before bowing out. That they will be motivated by a desire for these vanity-project plans which have attracted so much public opposition over five long years to finally shape up the way they want them.
“The hope, however, must be that these councillors set aside any such inclinations and act responsibly in the public good. Any rational person would see it’s impossible for the council to start work on a £300,000 riverside artwork development while claiming it has a coronavirus budget deficit running into tens of millions of pounds. But during the past five summers of the Tilting Pier and Gathering Place fiasco, council rationality on the issue has been in very short supply.”
And with yesterday’s announcement, the supply of rationality dried up completely.