Donald Trump’s golf development at Menie Estate near Aberdeen is something I’ve followed since the plans were first announced. I’ve watched events unfold since the Trump plan was first rejected by Aberdeen Council Planning Dept., on the grounds of its unsustainable impact on the (protected) landscape aspects of Balmedie Beach, an action which cost Councillor Martin Ford his job as Chairman of the Infrastructure Services Committee. He was subsequently voted out of his position by 26 votes to 10, as it was his casting vote that had caused the Trump plan to be rejected initially. At the time the leader of the SNP group on Aberdeenshire Council, Joanna Strathdee, said:
“Aberdeenshire Council needs to restore the confidence of the business and wider community in the planning process and show the world that North East Scotland really is open for business and serious about inward investment.
“I have worked with Cllr Ford for over eight years now and he has my utmost respect.
“However, as chair of one of the most important and powerful committees in the council charged with the economic development of the North East, it was clear that Cllr Ford’s position was untenable.”
There followed the quite unbelievable ‘calling in‘ of the Planning Application by First Minister Alex Salmond, and subsequent approval of the controversial Trump development plans. This approval removed any obstacle to the destruction of what is in fact a SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest), of UK and European environmental importance, a wild and fragile dune system, and protected precisely for these reasons.
SSSI designation is a significant piece of environmental legislation designed to provide considerable protection to landscape features and anything that lives there. It is not insurmountable however, but any decision to overturn the protection afforded by SSSI status would have to be for extraordinary and compelling reasons. (There is a precedent for the building of a golf course within a SSSI, as described by Andy Wightman below.)
Following Freedom of Information requests, the Scottish Government responded to explain their handling of the planning application by Mr Trump, releasing as much correspondence as they deemed suitable and appropriate.
What I had not seen until this week was the award-winning Anthony Baxter documentary ‘You’ve been Trumped’.
And which I would not have seen had the BBC caved in to demands from Mr Trump’s lawyers to drop the broadcast. Bear in mind also that this is a film that has been shown in cities around the world, winning 10 awards from film festivals and environmental documentary organisations. However it was refused a screening in the Edinburgh International Film Festival, the organisers claiming it was not of sufficient quality.
Coincidentally the Scottish Parliament is located in the very same city.
I have to say I was shocked by Anthony Baxter’s film.
Shocked at the degree of environmental damage being perpetrated, apparently in excess of the planning consent obtained according to residents interviewed; shocked at the callous and slanderous behaviour of Mr Trump, (publicly calling local residents “an embarrassment to Scotland….living like pigs….”); shocked at the Police behaviour towards the journalists/filmmakers; and shocked that such behaviour has been permitted in my country apparently in the name of ‘economic development’.
And all this in the constituency of First Minister Alex Salmond.
If you’ve not yet seen the documentary you might well ask why does all this matter?
Well let me give you a Scottish perspective. We Scots value our home land. We live amongst some of the finest landscape in the world. It’s no wilderness, but rather a managed environment, but one with many wild places and significant wildlife. Which is precisely what the SSSI designation is designed to protect.
But it is also a landscape that is regularly bought and sold, complete with sitting tenants. See the website and blog of land reform commentator and activist Andy Wightman, author of ‘Who Owns Scotland’ for further elaboration on this, and observations on the ease with which foreign, often absentee, landlords can obtain considerable control over the lives of local communities and the land that surrounds them.
Wightman has produced an illuminating independent report on the Trump development, available for download as PDF here which makes compelling, if sobering, reading. He opens with a description of a golf course……
I will start by telling you a story about a golf course build in spectacular dunes on the wild Scottish coast. It was financed by a wealthy American and designed by a famous golf architect. The course is the only one in the UK to have been built wholly within a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and, working with Scottish Natural Heritage, the designers have created a remarkable course, built by hand which enhances the wildlife of the site. Over the 259 acres of the course, a mere 7 were disturbed during the construction. The owners are investing in a local hotel in the nearby town and have been welcomed by the local community. The course is the first 18 hole golf course in the UK to receive certification by GEO, the Golf Environment Organisation who described it as the “world’s most natural golf course” and an “exemplar of sustainable golf course management, going beyond what is required to produce an excellent links golfing experience.”
Welcome to Machrihanish Dunes in Kintyre.
But this report is not about Machrihanish Dunes, it is about another golf course which has been developed in very different circumstances and which GEO described as constituting “a complete failure to protect one of the last few remaining wild sand dune systems in north western Europe.”
In concluding his report on the Trump development Wightman states:
Perhaps this vanity project will indeed end in tears on a rock of hubris and recrimination. If it does, at least the long suffering residents of the Menie Estate will be able to live in peace once more and those responsible for bringing about this saga can reflect on their role and consider whether this is in fact the kind of sustainable development we want in the new Scotland.
Land ownership, and access to the land in Scotland has always been a thorny issue. Well it was until the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003, which guaranteed a responsible right-to-roam, something that previously had been enjoyed as a ‘tradition’ but which had ‘uncertain’ legal status. For a full background to the complexity of land ownership and the manner in which this ‘stewardship’ has been systematically abused historically in Scotland I can recommend reading some of the work of Professor James Hunter CBE, FRSE, PhD. (Avoid reading any of his books if you are prone to high blood pressure.)
But not all Highland landowners are rogues. Many care deeply about the landscape, taking seriously their role as custodian of both the landscape and the lives of their tenants. One multimillionaire landowner’s enlightened behaviour towards access and landscape protection was notable. Dutchman Paul van Vlissingen, owner of Letterewe Estate, signed The Letterewe Accord which gave walkers and climbers freedom of access to his estate asking only in return that they respect the land. This remarkably perspicacious act predated the Scottish Parliament’s own right-to-roam legislation by more than ten years. And walkers and climbers respected van Vlissingen’s wishes, and his land, ‘our’ land. There is an excellent obituary to Mr van Vlissingen written by Sunday Herald journalist Ian Fraser which will paint a fuller picture, here.
I was professionally involved in the roll out of the Scottish Outdoor Access Code, a constituent part of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act, and was employed by Scottish Natural Heritage to prepare and deliver (heavily visual) presentations explaining the Code and its implications. Which, fortunately, gave me a particularly good working knowledge and understanding of the Act to be able to ‘defend’ myself when challenged by landowners. Yes, despite my legal right to (responsibly) access the Scottish landscape there remains many landowners, and land managers, who persist in acting as if anyone seeking to exercise their legal right of access is a trespasser. I’ve worked as a photography guide for more than twenty years and EVERY year since the Land Reform Act came into effect I have been challenged and on a few occasions threatened whilst out with groups. One notable incident occurring in the Cairngorms National Park where I finally had to threaten an Estate Manager with the Police as his aggressive behaviour was outrageous. He was most unhappy that I knew my rights, and he was forced to back down and leave us in peace.
Which brings us to Mr Trump. He bought a Scottish estate, promised to create thousands of jobs, promised considerable environmental improvement. However even viewing ‘You’ve been Trumped’ with a sceptical eye, one would be hard pressed to see anything other than the power of money being used to ride roughshod over environmental concerns and human rights. Was Baxter’s documentary biased, as has been alleged by several critics? Well if you’re offered the opportunity to participate and respond on numerous occasions, as Mr Trump was, and reject the offer, as he did, you can hardly criticise the resulting film for failing to be objective.
Following a complaint to the BBC, Mr Trump has received the following response:
BBC Press Office
The following statement has been issued by the BBC.
You’ve Been Trumped is an award-winning film that has been screened at festivals around the world. During the making of the film, Donald Trump declined the opportunity to take part.
We are confident that Donald Trump was offered sufficient right to reply in accordance with BBC Editorial Guidelines. Donald Trump chose not to participate but the film-maker took care to reflect his views on a number of different occasions in the film.
What concerns me, and many other Scots (as well as observers in other countries) is the closeness of the relationship between the Trump organisation and the Local Authority Planning Department, and with various other agencies including the local press and the Police. Filmmaker Anthony Baxter’s letter to Grampian Police Chief Inspector Mackay will paint a fuller picture of his concerns over the treatment meted out to him and his colleague.
Rob Edwards blog carries a fuller exploration of “Trump’s difficult relationship with Grampian Police”, and the linked PDF’s of the Grampian Police correspondence with Trump’s representatives which are accessible at page bottom will provide more detail. I have some sympathy for the Police, who appear to have been caught between a rock and a hard place, but their behaviour regarding the arrest of Baxter as a working journalist is completely unacceptable.
Andy Wightman has detailed some of Mr Trump’s less-than-truthful utterances here, as well as providing many other links to a range of pertinent discussions around the Trump development and the behaviour of his staff.
So there we have it, the spectrum of land ownership and behaviour by the wealthy in Scotland, with Mr Trump at one end and, perhaps it would be fair to say, Mr van Vlissingen at the other. Both are authors too. Mr. Trump has authored or co-authored several titles, mostly about entrepreneurship, such as Trump University Entrepreneurship 101: How to Turn Your Idea into a Money Machine’ (ISBN 0470467185). And Mr van Vlissingen? In 2001 he wrote Ondernemers zijn ezels (ISBN 90-5018-295-X), which I believe can be translated as Entrepreneurs Are Jackasses. One wonders if he had any particular entrepreneurs in mind.
And as a Scot, watching the SNP angling for devolution and ‘self determination’ I have to confess I am concerned. If the Trump affair is an example of what Scotland can expect from the SNP under Salmond and his colleagues then I will not be voting for them.
I have seen no sign of any comment yet from the SNP following the public outcry over the events depicted in ‘You’ve been Trumped’. Twitter has been awash with requests for a response from the SNP, just go to #Trumped and you can join the fray, and watch and wait.
What Mr Salmond did say however, at the opening of the SNP autumn conference, was:
“Delegates, conference, in 2014, the nonsense ends.”
If only that were true.
Scotland’s environment and its people are its most valuable assets. Both have suffered at the hands of Trump. The sadness of it all is that there is a lingering impression he was assisted in this by the very people in whom we place our trust, and perhaps also our political destiny. On the evidence of the Menie debacle, I fear our future under the SNP may, like Trump’s golf course, be built on sand. Mr Salmond has seen fit to remain tight-lipped on the matter thus far. As an erstwhile SNP voter I find this silence unacceptable.
The few remaining residents of Menie and the people of Scotland, deserve much much more from a party whose banner slogan is “Together we can make Scotland better”.
A good starting point in the process of making us ‘better’ would be a full inquiry into the Trump development, so that whatever ‘ailments’ beset it can be identified to ensure no such ‘sickness’ occurs in Scotland ever again.
(If you can bear it, see some splendid stills work by Brian David Stevens, which will show you what has been lost, and for insight to the ongoing development and how it has affected the landscape and people I can recommend the compelling photographic documentary work of Alicia Bruce, and Sophie Gerrard.)