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The Annual Scottish Political Event: "Deciding the Fate of a Magical Wild Place" by Councillor Martin Ford - Edinburgh meeting of Tuesday 22 January 2013

Martin Ford (left) with Britain's first elected Green parliamentarian Robin Harper (in his trademark scarf) and CILT's current Scottish chairman Derek Halden (right)d

Martin Ford (left) with Britain's first elected Green parliamentarian Robin Harper (in his trademark scarf) and CILT's current Scottish chairman Derek Halden (right)

© John Yellowlees, 2013

Bringing his own red carpet, Donald Trump offered Aberdeenshire the greatest golf resort in the world - and threatened to pull out if he did not get his own way. Having promised 300 jobs, he then delayed and submitted an outline planning application for two courses, a 450-bed 5-star hotel, a driving range, 950 timeshare units and 500 houses for sale on the open market in what was the largest application ever received by Aberdeenshire Council.

The 452 hectares of development would be on the Menie Estate, an area of arable farmland and dunes, wetland, grassland and heath between the A90 and the coast north of Aberdeen. The planning application excluded certain pockets in other ownership, notably the 9.5 ha smallholding that belonged to Michael Forbes, and these Trump at first tried (unsuccessfully) to buy incognito.

The northern third of the dune area of the Estate comprises the southern third of the Foveran Links Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), and included the Menie Sand Sheet, 11 ha bare sand migrating north 5-7m each year under the influence of a prevailing south-easterly wind. As the sand moved north, low-lying erosion-resistant surfaces were exposed that were colonised over time by dune slack vegetation. The ecology of the site was thus shaped by the movement of the sand, so stabilisation to allow golf course construction wasn't 'preserving the dunes' as Trump claimed, it was destruction of the site as a dynamic system.

Daily exposure of Trump's plans in the Press & Journal brought fluctuating claims as to the number of construction and permanent jobs, and confirmed his all or nothing approach to gaining planning permission that if he didn't get the housing or SSSI he would walk away. In September 2007 planning officers found that the application breached the Council's housing and environmental policies but recommended approval for the economic benefits. Following a site visit and public hearing on 27 September 2007, on 20 November the Council's Formartine Area Committee voted 7-4 in favour of Mr Trump's plans and passed the application to Aberdeenshire's Infrastructure Services Committee for the Council's final decision on whether to grant outline consent.

The Council had received more than 3000 letters of representation, 2:1 in favour, the vast majority being the identical products of organised campaigns. The Infrastructure Services Committee considered Mr Trump's application on 29 November 2007. There was a very thorough two-and-a-half hour debate during which 12 of the 14 mostly very experienced councillors spoke.

The 500 houses were to be in the middle of nowhere, on land that would never normally have been allocated for housing. Half of the main golf course was proposed to be on the legally protected SSSI. However, despite the clear breaches of many environmental and housing planning policies, the option of departing from the development plan on grounds of economic benefit had to be carefully considered - and it was. Committee members all agreed building the proposed resort would generate some economic activity, but there was scepticism as to how much. The jobs on offer were mostly low-paid, seasonal, service ones whose holders would send as much as possible of their income to their home countries - the nearest town Ellon just did not have the unemployed to fill the vacancies. SSSIs could be found on golf courses elsewhere, but this one was designated because the sand moved. The Committee applied the tests of sustainable development to the proposal and most members concluded it failed to meet the criteria.

When the committee tied 7-7 between deferral and refusal, Martin as chairman used his casting vote to carry the refusal option. Anyone listening to the debate would have well understood that this was a negotiating position for the Council, an attempt to get a better application, not a final rejection of the whole idea. The reaction the next morning, however, was enormous: one councillor who had voted against was assaulted by a neighbour angered by the Council's decision, the Evening Express ran a headline 'You Traitors' above photographs of the seven councillors who had voted for refusal.

The paper also pictured the councillors with their heads morphed into turnips and published their Council e-mail addresses. Martin received 600 emails that day, of which 450 said he was wrong, 150 that he was right and 3 acknowledged that it was a big issue! By the afternoon mass panic had set in, with a special Council meeting announced for 12 December and a pledge from the leader of the Council to do all she could 'to keep the application alive'. in fact, the Council could not reconsider the decision and this was confirmed by legal advice.

First minister and local MSP Alex Salmond immediately met Trump's representatives at a hotel in Aberdeen on the following Monday afternoon. At the end of that meeting, an appointment was made for Mr Trump's representatives to meet the Scottish Government's chief planner in Edinburgh the next day. Following that meeting, the chief planner phoned finance secretary John Swinney who agreed to call in the application, an unprecedented move for an application a Council had already decided to refuse. Trump was delighted, but the BBC disclosed Salmond's meeting leading a major political row. At the special Council meeting on 12 December, Martin faced a vote of no confidence. Since Aberdeenshire Council was no longer the planning authority for the Trump application, the special meeting decided that, as a consultee, the Council should express its support for Trump's plans. Martin was voted from office by the opposition as most of the administration councillors refused to vote.

In February 2008 Swinney announced a public local inquiry which was held in June and July 2008 and the report written with record speed, allowing the Scottish Government to announce on 3 November its approval subject to agreement on the details with the Council. However from there on things were not to prove so simple : in early 2009 Trump sought to compulsorily purchase the Forbes's and other properties, seeming genuinely affronted that the owners did not wish to sell their homes to him, but in 2011 he abandoned this charge having become embroiled in a battle with the Government against an offshore windfarm. Only the golf course has been built, by an Irish contractor, and there is no evidence as to whether the rest of the development will ever proceed.

Thus the most controversial application in Scottish planning history had high-profile supporters, but the processes through which it was considered were seen as unfair by both sides. Presented as filling the economic vacuum left by the eventual decline of North Sea oil, it seemed however to represent merely the substitution of one set of unsustainable jobs by another. There was no meeting of minds between those who saw wasteland being replaced by employment or a vanity project destroying a priceless and irreplaceable natural landscape. in favour of an artificial, manicured environment. In effect, the application was a test case for some much bigger decisions about the future development of the north-east and the wider world.

Report and photograph by John Yellowlees.

 

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