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CHARLES BANNERMAN: Highland Council officials are depriving people of Inverness of their historic centre of local democracy

By Charles Bannerman

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Inverness Townhouse in the evening...Inverness Town House locator.Picture: SPP. Image No. ..
Inverness Townhouse in the evening...Inverness Town House locator.Picture: SPP. Image No. ..

Last month this column expressed certain bright hopes for what the newly elected Highland Council might achieve, but a mere six weeks into the new term, the dead hand of officialdom has already started consigning such optimism to the scrap heap.

I always thought we went to the polls to elect councillors who met to make decisions and then instructed paid, often very well paid, council officials to carry them out. But already we’re finding that, dictated by officials and not members, Inverness’s magnificent, historic and expensively refurbished Town House has been abandoned as the venue for Inverness area committee meetings for the soulless Glenurquhart Road Highland Council chamber.

The excuse offered to our elected representatives is that the Town House, following its recent £4.2 million publicly funded exterior makeover, can no longer accommodate “modern” council meetings, with IT issues apparently central to the alleged problem.

That, quite frankly, is downright lame and if the pandemic showed anything, it was how technically easy holding remote meetings is. But it also showed that remote meetings aren’t a very good way of decision making compared with face-to-face engagement. Any surviving remote element simply reduces our councillors’ capacity to make decisions on our behalf, creating a power vacuum which I’m sure officials are more than eager to fill.

The historic chamber in our expensively upgraded Town House, where the British Cabinet moulded the future of the UK in 1921, has a lot more to offer taxpayers than occasional cameos as a pre-civic reception boozer. The pivotal issue is that council officials are depriving the people of Inverness of their historic centre of local democracy.

Charles Bannerman. Picture: Anders Hellberg
Charles Bannerman. Picture: Anders Hellberg

They are also imposing more of the creeping centralisation that has become such a malignant feature of public life. If Invernessians, through their councillors, want their local decisions made at their city’s democratic centre, then council officials need to be told that, rather than convert the place into a luxurious office for... council officials.

By most accounts last week’s meeting, eventually at Glenurquhart Road, was a complete shambles, with some councillors not even clear about the venue. Chaos was inevitable since it was also suddenly moved forward two days, which is always guaranteed to challenge proper representation. And from this morass, there also emerged a new Provost (by a single vote) and a whole proliferation of new jobs for the boys and girls where we now seem to have more deputies than sheriffs. Do they all get publicly funded bling and robes as well?

Ironically, the last Inverness area committee meeting I remember at Glenurquhart Road was the catastrophic rammy in August 2019 which finally inflicted the Gathering Place on a deeply unwilling electorate. This saw council chief executive Donna Manson suffer the ignominy of touring the public gallery trying to justify a measure in which officials similarly played an undemocratically prominent part.

We’re therefore quite used to council employees usurping decision making which should fall to our elected representatives.

Inverness needs its own city council run by its own city councillors, and without the interference and dictatorship of a bunch of meddling Sir Humphreys. And until we get that, council officials must accept that they are there to do what they’re told and not to dictate policy to those whom we, the electorate, have appointed on our behalf.

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