Stalwart who vigorously led campaign against the Gathering Place runs for office in May elections

The £300,000 Gathering Place rapidly degenerated into a riverside slum.
by Colin Campbell

HELEN Smith, who launched and led the public campaign against the Gathering Place, has decided to run for office in the May council elections. She will stand in the Inverness West ward.

Mrs Smith initiated a petition against the riverside plan, which was announced three years ago.

Her petition gained 3,000 supporters, many of them expressing vehement opposition to the scheme to concrete over a natural riverside beauty spot with a curved wall “artwork”.

She told Inverness news and views yesterday: “I’ve decided to seek election for a number of reasons, because there is so much good and positive work that can be done in Inverness. But there’s no doubt one reason is that I want to ensure the views of people are heard and listened to and taken heed of when Highland Council is making decisions which affect our daily lives, and have a major impact on Inverness. We’ve already seen all too clearly what happens when the views of the public are not listened to. It’s there staring us in the face on the riverside.

“I will challenge the current climate of secrecy in council decision-making. We must have much more openness, and fewer decisions made behind closed doors.”

Mrs Smith, a long-time Inverness West resident, and a group of others organised a series of meetings and events to publicise and oppose what they saw as a ruinous desecration of the riverside. It was a sustained and determined campaign which attracted mass support.

But in the end, these protests were brushed aside by the council.

And as a result we are left with a giant concrete slab on the former beauty spot location, one which looked bad enough to begin with, and which is all too quickly degenerating into a disfigured riverside slum.

Helen Smith led the campaign to try and block the Gathering Place.

At a time when money for many people is in such short supply, the council decision to ignore all protests and spend more than £300,000 on this debacle isn’t looking any better.

And if the graffiti artists start turning their attention to it again – as they already have a number of times – it will get a whole lot worse. Councillors were repeatedly warned about the threat of vandalism at the site. This they also chose to ignore.

But while not all but too many councillors were taking leave of their senses, Helen Smith and members of the OpenNess campaign group clearly anticipated what an appalling decision this was and would turn out to be.

They got it exactly RIGHT.

And the council got it disastrously WRONG.

This travesty was literally bulldozed through by Inverness councillors who had completely lost touch with, and in some cases seemed completely indifferent to, the feelings of thousands of members of the public.

Helen Smith harnessed the opposition to the Gathering Place with the petition she organised.

The feelings of multiple signatories were there online for councillors to read and digest.

And yet they were completely, shamefully ignored.

Some people may say, “Yes, it was a serious blunder, but it’s done now. Time to move on.”

And they’d be right.

But move on with the same people who were responsible for making that blunder, the one Helen Smith and so many others pleaded with them not to make?

Surely Inverness can do better than that.

Time, surely, for change. Which should begin at the May elections.

Mrs Smith is a modest, unassuming woman. I’ve admired the countless hours she and other members of the OpenNess group have spent in trying to protect our Jewel in the Crown riverside. But for their efforts, who knows what other damage would have been inflicted on the riverside in addition to the Gathering Place.

She is now engaged in a number of other projects to benefit the local community, which she will no doubt outline in her campaign literature.

Whether or not she will be elected is entirely in the hands of voters in Inverness West.

But on a personal level, although my anger and frustration over the inexplicable folly bordering on madness behind the decision to build this incredibly expensive concrete slab on a cherished riverside beauty spot has dissipated, I still find it a source of irritation every time I walk or cycle past it.

And the same old question rears its head: How could they have been so stupid?

If Helen Smith, who did so much to oppose the Gathering Place, was voted onto the organisation which built it, it would at the very least offer hope that in future a balance offering more rationality and common sense in decision-making would be struck.


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