by Colin Campbell
WORK began yesterday on the Ness riverside Gathering Place in a move which was roundly condemned as being staggeringly ill-timed as Inverness emerges, gradually and chaotically, from lockdown and the coronavirus crisis.
There was an outpouring of anger across social media and in correspondence to Inverness news and views over the decision to start work this week, with many people already opposed to the scheme incandescent over the timing.
Jobs are at risk, businesses are struggling to survive, the city centre is in bollard-and-barrier swamped chaos, and the expectation was that the council would target all its resources on essential work needed to try and restore some kind of normality to the Highland capital.
The move in the midst of all this to now begin work on hugely contentious £300,000 riverside “artwork” was described by one of the more moderate critics as: “A decision beyond belief.”
The move to start work on the Gathering Place began with a decision taken by councillors at a special meeting last August. The meeting was held after widespread concerns had been raised that the decision to proceed with such a major development on the riverside had been taken by officials behind closed doors.
However, discussion time was severely curtailed and limited debate and information on the many Gathering Place concerns and questions raised. Members of the public who attended the meeting described the way it was handled as a travesty.
The decision was propelled forward by a recently arrived chief executive with no natural affinity to the cherished Ness riverside who was concerned that any move to scrap it would cause “reputational” damage to the council.
In the view of many present at the meeting the reputation of the council over the way the project had been handled was already in tatters. And they were much less concerned about “reputational damage” to the council than permanent scenic and environmental damage to the riverside.
Monday’s shock announcement that work on the scheme would begin on the day immediately after a press release which was only made available to the public at midnight eliminated all time or scope for further protest to gain momentum.
It had strong echoes of the council decision to release a planning application for the scheme on the afternoon of the last working day before Christmas, 2018, at a time when it was guaranteed to receive the absolute minimum of public attention or scrutiny.
Yesterday it emerged that the councillor most closely associated with the area, Bill Boyd, had not even been informed that work was about to begin, and only heard about it from some members of the public.
But after years of dithering, delay and confusion, the council had struck decisively with the implicit message to thousands of objectors to the scheme who only learned about it yesterday: “Work has begun, it’s taking place before your eyes, there’s nothing you can do about it, and there’s no going back now.”
That decision and its timing would have been taken at the highest levels of the council.
It also opens the door to speculation that the coronavirus crisis is a factor in the latest developments.
After the August 20 meeting nothing happened and silence prevailed. In January the council said work would start in the spring, without giving any schedule or date. Spring arrived and, before the coronavirus crisis began, still there was nothing. The dithering, delay, and uncertainty drifted on.
As we headlined an article here on Monday, which appeared hours before the council announcement: “Five summers of sound and fury and plans to ‘enhance’ the riverside have got nowhere.”
But this week that changed dramatically.
And the key question is: what has brought about the sudden surge in council resolve to announce details of and build the Gathering Place at the height of the coronavirus crisis, when so much else needs to be done, and people have so much else to distract them?
Many, rightly or wrongly, have reached a conclusion about that. And have had no hesitation in joining the dots.
If the coronavirus crisis did influence the decision to plunge ahead with the scheme in a way designed to “bury bad news” – and there is no way of knowing whether it did or not in this wretched saga – it takes council cynicism over the Gathering Place to a shameful new level.
One thing, however, is certain. Grim-faced council chiefs will very soon be providing fresh updates at Glenurquhart Road on the severity of the financial crisis they’re facing – with no money even to hire newly-qualified teachers and the prospect of drastic cuts to come in essential services.
And while they’re doing so a mile away along the riverside a huge sum of council and common good fund money will be being spent on a £300,000 scheme to concrete over a natural beauty spot in a vanity-project opposed by thousands and supported by virtually no-one.
The council has indeed acted decisively at the height of the coronavirus crisis – in a way that is already generating widespread criticism, anger and disgust.