by Colin Campbell
WHILE a core of councillors and senior officials have been obsessed with building the Gathering Place on a beauty spot adjacent to the Ness Islands for the past three years, 200 yards downriver the Infirmary Bridge has been left to rot.
Now the council has issued a warning that this key access link may have to close for months for repair work.
That announcement understandably caused consternation among people who use it regularly.
But the state of the bridge should not have come as any sudden surprise to Highland Council.
Inverness news and views has learned that the condition of the Infirmary Bridge has caused concern since a Little Mix pop concert in July 2018, when a council engineer saw departing fans swinging from side to side on it, and immediately raised the alarm.
Officials who were alerted then found they were unable to say how many people should be allowed on the bridge at any one time, a significant oversight at a time when thousands were regularly descending on the Bught for an increasing number of big name pop concerts.
Senior officials then started swapping correspondence to try and work out what to do about the deterioration of the bridge. Not much, it would now appear.
Meanwhile, at the same time in 2018, as many people are all too aware, the furore over plans to build the £300,000 Gathering Place upriver was furiously gathering pace, as the drive to ensure the creation of a wall and concrete “artwork” was pushed ahead as if it was the most important riverside scheme ever devised.
What should have been the deeply worrying wear and tear on the Infirmary Bridge, month after month, didn’t publicly rate a mention.
After the Little Mix concert it was decided that the bridge would be closed for major events to stop large numbers of people using it. But even that decision left members of the public bamboozled.
Initially it was decided it should be shut off before and after major events at the Bught to block large numbers of people using it at any one time.
But then that was changed to before, during and after events, a stipulation which some within the council thought ridiculous and which caused a great deal of anger.
The bridge was barriered off with people demanding to know why they couldn’t cross it for hours at a time when there was no-one on it. INV was told: “We had folk pulling down the barrier or climbing around it. We also had stewards abused by irate members of the public who were prevented from crossing an empty bridge during events because the Roads Department insisted that it was shut.”
Meanwhile the sound and fury over the Gathering Place upriver was reaching a crescendo, hitting Def Leppard decibels of noise. This riverside “artwork” took up countless hours of council staff time. It was the most hotly debated riverside item on the Inverness council agenda. Around 3,000 people – who knew nothing of the decaying, rotting state of the Infirmary Bridge – signed a petition protesting against the concrete “artwork” ruination planned for a riverside beauty spot.
A special meeting of Inverness councillors took place on August 20 of last year to decide on the future of the Gathering Place, and was personally addressed by council chief executive Donna Manson. She had already warned of the “reputational risk” to the council if it didn’t go ahead.
Amid fervent demands from some councillors that the much reviled Gathering Place should go up, there was no mention of the reputational risk to the council if the Infirmary Bridge should fall down.
It was decided at this vital meeting that the £300,000 Gathering Place must be built, despite the huge level of public opposition to it.
While all this was going in the rot and rust on the Infirmary Bridge was really setting in.
No more was heard about the Gathering Place until January when it was announced it would be built “in the spring”. But no further information was forthcoming, well before the coronavirus arrived.
Then, as the virus threat appeared to be receding, it was suddenly announced on Tuesday, July 14 that the Gathering Place would be built as a “priority project” in August/September with a team of workmen being drafted in to drill boreholes “to allow the completion of structural calculations” on the riverbed adjacent to the Ness Islands that very day. They swung into action. Inverness news and views photographed them as they delved into the waters.
Meanwhile, there was no team of workmen being drafted in to see what they could do about the ongoing, rapidly worsening decay of the Infirmary Bridge.
In the latest twist the council announced that the Gathering Place would not be built in August/September, but again would be built “in the spring”. Just to clarify, that’s next spring this time.
The Gathering Place then slipped off the agenda.
It was replaced, in terms of riverside focus, by a sudden announcement at a meeting of Inverness councillors two weeks ago that “urgent repairs” costing a minimum of £550,000 are required for the Infirmary Bridge and failure to carry them out could result in its closure in the near future on the grounds of health and safety.
The rate of deterioration is being “closely monitored” and further inspections will continue to be undertaken which will inform any decision on the timing of the closure. Inverness Provost Helen Carmichael told the Inverness Area Committee: “Public safety is paramount and members support a temporary closure of the Infirmary Bridge until a funding solution can be found for its repairs.”
A “funding solution” is necessary because the council doesn’t have the money to do the necessary work. How long a solution will take to find appears to be anyone’s guess.
Closure of the bridge link would cause huge public inconvenience.
Two weeks ago we asked: “How do ‘urgent repairs’ become so urgent when there has been no mention of them before? You don’t need a degree in engineering to know that the structural deterioration of a bridge doesn’t happen overnight.”
Now it emerges that the council has been fully aware of the state of the bridge since just after that Little Mix concert in 2018, if not before it.
But while there is no doubt about the massive priority that’s been placed on building the Gathering Place since then – in addition to spending thousands on widening the riverside footpath by 18 inches for “social distancing” – it’s impossible to know how much concern there’s been over the decaying state of the Infirmary Bridge.
In the dire circumstances not much – and certainly far short of enough – would be a reasonable estimate.
The Gathering Place has been a riverside fiasco from first to last.
The obsession with building it while the Infirmary Bridge was left to decay and rot to very near the point of closure gives added weight to the view that those supposed to be managing the Ness riverside have been preoccupied with wholly unnecessary and unwanted “artwork” while neglecting the absolute basics.