by Colin Campbell
On July 13 we reported an update on the progress – or lack of it – in the Tilting Pier/Gathering Place saga. Under the headline Five Summers of sound and fury, and plans to ‘enhance’ the riverside have got nowhere, we said: “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 budget deficit running into tens of millions of pounds.”
The very next day Highland Council provided its own update on the Gathering Place: “Once 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.”
That shock announcement – that this should be deemed a priority post-lockdown with so much else needing attention – stunned us and very many other people as well.
That is, with one big caveat. When it comes to Gathering Place announcements, the council’s track record is they’re not worth the paper they’re written on.
And so it has proved yet again.
Yesterday the council announced that the work has been “delayed”, yet again, until “the spring”.
So, as we correctly predicted on July 13, the Gathering Place will not be built this year. There have to be huge doubts whether there it will be built in the spring either. There have to be huge doubts, now more than ever, whether it will be built at all.
It now looks with increasing certainty that the long drawn-out battle against this reviled riverside monstrosity has been won.
It’s well over a year since councillors with a blatantly obvious lack of enthusiasm finally voted for it to go ahead, at a special meeting last August 20.
They had been assisted on their way to reaching that decision with the vigorous encouragement of council chief executive Donna Manson, who claimed it would cost the council £190,000 if they didn’t build it. Despite repeated requests, she has not since provided any detail as to how that extraordinary figure was arrived at. In one of the most tone deaf statements ever from a Highland Council boss, she also claimed it would cause “reputational” damage to the council if the project didn’t proceed.
Members of the public present were left aghast by her disregard for the rather more important concern about the scenic and environmental damage the wall and concrete Gathering Place travesty would cause to the Ness riverside.
As I said at the time, it seemed relative newcomer Ms Manson, had more affinity with the council car park than she did with our cherished riverside.
Immediately after the announcement two months ago that the riverside “artwork” would be built as a priority project despite everything else the council had to contend with at this time, OpenNess campaigner Helen Smith, who organised a 3,000-strong petition against it, memorably described it as: “A decision from a parallel universe.”
Amid a torrent of public criticism, that accurately and vividly summed up the reaction of many people.
So we now have yet another “delay”, announced yesterday by Arts Group chairwoman Isabelle Mackenzie. That’s the third “delay” this year alone.
Last January the council declared it would be built in the spring – that was last spring, not next spring, for the avoidance of blundering confusion. But as January and February passed no further detail emerged – well before the coronavirus became a factor.
And now the July announcement of an August/September start date has proved to be equally worthless.
So how seriously should the next “in the spring” target date be taken? In fact, does it have any credibility at all?
Highland Council is facing a budget deficit of more than £30 million and, as we’ve repeatedly said in recent weeks, it’s difficult to think of any circumstances where splashing out hundreds of thousands on “artwork” virtually no-one wants would look anything other than hopelessly, dreadfully misguided.
Even the name of this jinxed-from-the-outset venture works against it. Building “A Gathering Place” at a time when no-one’s supposed to be – and people in fact are legally banned from – “gathering” anywhere? As we headlined our most recent report last week: Pandemic gathering place would expose city to scorn and ridicule.
And that’s not going to change anytime soon.
Factor in more confusion and delay and a start date “in the spring” getting knocked back, even only a few weeks, and it would mean the riverside still being a construction site during the 2021 tourist season, which even the handful of people still backing this thing would recognise can’t be allowed to happen.
By next year we’ll be closer than ever to the next council elections, due in early 2022.
After this appalling fiasco and boundless waste of time, resources and a vast amount of money with nothing at all to show for it, these can’t come soon enough. The pursuit of this £300,000 vanity project – the ultimate vanity project – has been the worst example of councillors repeatedly tripping over their own egos that I’ve seen since I started covering council affairs in Inverness in 1975. Fresh faces need to come in and there should be a clearout of those most centrally involved.
But even cutting them some slack – deserved or otherwise – would Provost Helen Carmichael really want one of her final duties in office to be the excruciatingly embarrassing one of officially opening this pitiful attempt at artwork, for which there is no public support but only widespread public opposition?
Does Isabelle Mackenzie, in the few months before, hopefully, she decides to quit, really want her prime legacy to be this travesty which more than one councillor suggested to me should be branded “Mackenzie’s Folly” if it ever did see the light of day?
And is Donna Manson still so fixated on the “reputational damage” to the council if the thing’s not built, or over the past year has she come to know Inverness better, and now realises how much our beautiful and unspoilt riverside means to so many people here, and to understand why people want it to remain unspoilt rather than be “developed”? And certainly not be used as an experimental playground for “subversive artists” coming up with any old junk they please?
After delay after delay after delay – and it can’t all be conveniently blamed on the coronavirus – it now looks as if those most centrally involved have finally faced up to reality and accepted that the riverside should not be concreted over at inordinate expense and a glorious beauty spot should be left alone.
For now, we’ll have to wait to see what happens, “in the spring”. If the council can’t bring themselves to admit they’re scrapping it, then continuous delay is probably their best option. Delay it until after the next council elections. And then an influx of new members will take one short sharp look at it and conclusively dump it, as should have been done a long time ago.