With attention fixated on fake ‘Gathering Place’, essential gathering places were left to rot

by Colin Campbell

AS pre-election bribes go, Nicola Sturgeon’s assumption of the new role of Scotland’s playleader in chief is one of the more acceptable.

One of a number of giveaways she’s announced involves a £60 million fund “to renew every playpark in Scotland, so that all children have access to a place to play in their own community”.

Parents and children in the Highlands in particular will not be concerned – quite rightly – about the First Minister’s timely motives for pledging to fix swings and roundabouts. They’ll just be glad that they have an assurance from someone that the work will be done.

Playparks are places for fun and games and gathering…and far too many in Inverness and the Highlands were allowed to fall into near ruin.

Because they can have scant confidence in anyone else.

Whatever else can be said of Sturgeon, she’s not the person to blame when playparks are allowed to disintegrate through neglect into rusting childhood scrapyards.

Playparks are one of the most basic responsibilities of Highland Council and the councillors who live near or close to them.

And in this region there has been an abysmal failure to face up to the requirement to maintain them at a good standard.

Last month the council announced that playparks in Inverness and elsewhere were to be closed after being deemed dangerous.

Workmen were removing play equipment or closing play areas in various locations. Parents were understandably furious, saying that the facilities are particularly vital during the pandemic.

The Inverness Courier reported: “Aird and Loch Ness councillors Margaret Davidson, Helen Carmichael and Emma Knox were taken by surprise by temporary parks closures in their ward. In a joint statement, they said: ‘We have had discussions about the situation and are waiting for a detailed breakdown of why each affected play park is closed. Then, we can plan together to get them open and available as soon as possible.’

“Maxwell Park at Cradlehall is one of the affected play areas. Inverness South councillor Duncan Macpherson is unhappy about closures next to Duncan Forbes Primary School and at Maxwell Park in Cradlehall.”

As we said at the time, this professed “surprise” and “unhappiness” was all very well. But, clearly councillors had been falling down on the job. To have all these playparks fail simultaneously was incredibly unlikely. If they did not fail simultaneously then clearly some had been more dangerous than others for a while. If the council knew that some were dangerous and decided to take no action then the question has to be asked – why?

A contributor to Inverness news and views brought further clarification with information that a Highland Council committee report on playparks was presented to councillors last December 17. The report highlighted “that the current repairs and maintenance/replacement backlog is estimated to be £3.436m across our estate of 339 play parks. Options are presented for discussion”.

Our contributor demanded to know: “How can any councillor imply that they knew nothing about this? They got a copy of the report and it was delegated to the area. They must stop seeming to pretend they knew nothing when it is clear that they did know.”

So Nicola Sturgeon is now riding to the rescue of Highland Council after its chronic neglect of play facilities for children with a £60million funding pledge. And more importantly, she is riding to the rescue of kids who for months have been stuck at home with nowhere safe to play.

Amid all the election sound and fury, some good news at last.

However, there is something else which is all too obvious. Last Thursday we had the worst-ever April Fool’s Day clanger dropped on us when the council announced that work will begin this week on building the £300,000 wall and concrete pathways “Gathering Place” at a beauty spot adjacent to the Ness Islands.

Councillors Helen Carmichael, Margaret Davidson, and Duncan MacPherson may have been “surprised and unhappy” about the closure of playparks on their own doorsteps but they won’t have been caught on the hop by the Gathering Place announcement. That you can bet on.

They have all spoken out in favour of it and voted in support of it. Building this thing, classed as “artwork” that virtually no-one wants or sees any purpose in, has become a council obsession over a three-year saga. This is going ahead because it was decided that something – anything – had to be built on the riverside after public rejection of the “Tilting Pier”. It’s become the ultimate council vanity project.

It’s costing a fortune and no-one will ever know how many hundreds or even thousands of council staff hours have been spent on dragging it to fruition amid endless analysis, debate, dispute and protests over the past three years.

People aren’t going to “gather” at the Gathering Place because concrete has replaced grass at the riverside there. That’s an obvious council fiction peddled to try and provide justification for it.

However, parents and children really would like to be able to gather virtually every day at playparks across Inverness and the Highlands. Playparks are created for fun, games – and gathering. If councillors are so keen on people “gathering” then the condition of playparks should have been first and foremost on their minds. Instead, many were left to rot.

If councillors and officials had spent more time keeping an eye on the state of playparks instead of endlessly obsessing over their pet vanity project on the riverside for the past three years then kids wouldn’t have been so shamefully let down.

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