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Charles Bannerman: Plenty for our new council to tackle to win back public

By Contributor

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The Gathering Place in Inverness.
The Gathering Place in Inverness.

By this evening we should know who will be representing us on Highland Council for the next five years following yesterday’s elections, and congratulations to them all. But how big is their task, and what issues face this new intake?

Well, before they even attend a meeting, I hope they remember that their ultimate responsibility is to the people who elected them, and not the political parties and groupings under which so many of them stood yesterday. Their overwhelming role is to serve the public, not to become passive tools of party political interest.

Some council functions are Highland-wide, others local. I’ll concentrate on the latter, but must first give top priority to Highland’s abysmal bottom ranking performance among 32 Scottish councils in recent league tables for primary school literacy and numeracy. A bandwagon-free solution to this alarming deficiency trumps just about everything else.

There are of course other whole-council problems, many relating to the huge area covered. This raises the quite separate question of that area being far too large and, although not a council decision I have long believed that it needs split in reforms which should include an Inverness City Council.

On then to more local questions, where The Gathering Place, probably the most publicly unpopular council project at least since Bridge Street in the 1960s, instantly emerges with distaste. The eyesore is regrettably complete and, unless they intend to blow it up, perhaps the Inverness area committee will now be arranging an official opening? Or perhaps not.

But although duly imposed, there still remains a strange, inverted “legacy”, which defines what this new council must learn from the previous one’s blunder. Firstly, they have to comprehend the huge public relations hole that’s been dug. The Gathering Place has done more damage to public perception of Highland Council and confidence in it than anything else I can remember. Hearts and minds need won back. And if anything ever epitomised how party politics transcend public interest, it’s how this decision, albeit far from uniquely so, was split along party lines. Councillors also have to realise that when public opinion is calling them loud and clear, they have a compelling need to respond. So, irrespective of woolly strategic plans and other jargonised guff whispered in councillors’ ears by officials, it’s those who pay the piper, or rather the Council Tax, who must call the tune. Councillors belatedly saw sense and removed the Lego Brick Road round the castle. Addressing potholes took a bit longer and progress has been interrupted, but people clearly want them sorted. So do it.

Outwith gems of improvement such as lower Academy Street, the city centre remains an offensive tip. It’s just ghastly to behold and has been for years.

Returning exiles are as horrified as those of us who endure this daily.

Apart from these well known causes celebres, I’m sure that readers across the area will have lots more of their own to add.

But the urgent and abiding message must be that you absolutely must reconnect with the local population whose confidence in you, and in your willingness to act on their priorities, has taken a severe battering in recent years.

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