As finance boss quits before ‘black hole’ budget, will council dig another one on the riverside, and pour £300,000 of concrete into it?

by Colin Campbell

HIGHLAND Council budget leader Alister Mackinnon suddenly resigned this week after spending most of the past 12 months looking into a black hole.

This hole varied widely in depth and dimensions throughout 2020, so much so that at times Mr Mackinnon may have felt like jumping into it and asking council maintenance staff just to shovel ground in on top of him.

Another black hole? The idyllic site planned for the Gathering Place which would turned into a building site for a wall and concrete pathways.

The black hole, as it was colourfully described, and otherwise known as the budget gap for council spending, started out last February at £20.5 million. Two months later, after the virus struck, it had widened and deepened to a guesstimated figure of no less than £80 million. At a press conference Mr Mackinnon and other senior councillors and officials gravely described this as “the nightmare scenario”.

But the ground beneath their feet had not finished shifting yet.

The estimated budget black hole, the council announced a few weeks later, had by then risen, or deepened, to £97 million, about the size of indenture which might be created in the landscape if a small meteor hit the Highlands.

At this point Mr Mackinnon must surely have wished he could just step into it and be swallowed up.

But then on July 22 came an even more dramatic announcement. The budget black hole would, according to latest estimations, not be £97 million after all, but would be £32 million.

All this speculation based on estimates and projections was by then becoming very difficult to follow.

In fact at this point it became clear that any further black hole announcements from Mr Mackinnon and the council’s financial experts were, with these kind of variations, next to worthless. Maybe at this point they should have stepped aside and let the council maintenance workers take charge of the budget. Their calculations might have made more sense.

Now Mr Mackinnon has stepped away from the black hole “for personal reasons” and will have nothing more to do with it.

His departure just weeks before the council is due to deliver its annual budget is being seen by some as a minor calamity. He’s been the main man after all. Well maybe it is, or after the wholesale confusion of the past 12 months, maybe it’s not.

Amid all these seemingly chaotic goings on, I confess there’s only one hole I’m particularly interested in.

It’s the one still planned to be dug along the Ness riverside adjacent to the Ness islands for the foundations of the Gathering Place.

At a time when nothing related to council black holes or budget shortfalls seems remotely assured, the one certainty seems to be their determination to shovel £300,000 in public money into this hole along the riverside. And then cover it over with a wall and concrete pathways.

After multiple postponements and delays, the last we heard was that construction of this hideously wasteful riverside ruining monstrosity would definitely begin in the spring. Well it may not seem like it in the current harsh weather, but spring is not far away.

It’s likely this year’s coronavirus budget will be an even gloomier affair than normal, with warnings or announcements of cuts, cuts and more cuts.

Businesses struggling through lack of financial support and people who have lost their jobs may be well past caring about the council and their black hole budget. Very unfortunately, they’re in enough of a hole themselves, which is what the focus should really be on.

So in these desperately difficult times for so many will a small council clique still have the blind, stubborn audacity to pour £300,000 into that horrible hole of a project on a beautiful, natural and unspoilt stretch of riverside? It’s highly possible.

A tiny group of vanity driven councillors have been in a hole of their own making for the past three years and they’ve yet to stop digging themselves in even deeper.

Alister Mackinnon stepped out of his role of his own accord. If only the zealous clique driving on the Gathering Place would do the same.

We’ve had enough of holes created by the council. They should leave the riverside alone, stop wasting time and money on it, and go to hell with their Gathering Place hole.

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