Scotland's gullible politicians are the victims of a colossal Trump try-on
The tycoon's plans are about luxury holiday homes, not fairways. It will be an environmental outrage if they go ahead
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Friday June 13 2008
There is one thing missing in Manhattan: a decent pitch-and-putt course. There is nowhere you can pull out an old hickory mashie niblick, take a breath of fresh air, and chip the little monster 30 feet into the cup. I reckon the most convenient place would be on Fifth Avenue, say at the corner of 56th Street, say number 725. You need only bulldoze it flat, lay down some grass, give it a light roller and off you go, a world-class putting facility.
The trouble is some reactionary Hebridean wetback has a hut on the spot and won't sell. He says Trump Tower has been in his family for years and has been listed by the city of New York as a site of special anthropological interest, long used for marrying and counting money. Damn your putting green, says he. Have you no respect for heritage?
You have to feel sorry for Donald Trump. He came to Scotland this week to spend 97 seconds being pictured in front of his mother Mary Macleod's birthplace on the island of Lewis, and then flew his private jet across Scotland to an inquiry into his plan for a billion-pound property development by the sea at Balmedie. That the site should be occupied by a cussed fisherman and a nature reserve of European importance was the kind of thing, as George Bush would say, "I leave to my lawyers".
Trump's project, which has some local businessmen understandably salivating, is to build a five-star hotel, 500 houses, 950 timeshare flats and something called Trump Boulevard, with two 18-hole golf courses next door. Like all such projects, the publicists talk of creating 300 jobs, then 400 jobs, then 6,000 jobs, and investing £300m or £400m or, if you like, £1bn. On any showing this is a massive development on what is a beautiful and deserted three-mile stretch of Scottish coast.
Whenever Trump has a scheme he talks up golf, the famous "Trump sweetener". Here he claims to have surveyed 201 links sites (golf courses on sandy shores) and concluded that the Menie estate covering the Forevan sand dunes near Balmedie was the best.
There is no question that the 1,400 acres of beaches, grassy hillocks, burns, dells and sweeps of reed-tufted sand are spectacular. They constitute a rare "dynamic dune" system in which sand moves under a 400m "dome" according to prevailing winds, to Scottish Natural Heritage "the largest and most superlative example in north-western Europe". It is a coastal ecology comparable with the Lyme Undercliffs or Portland Bill in Dorset.
Trump does not quarrel with this. He admits to being "overwhelmed" by the majesty of the site, by "the valleys of the dunes, the access to the ocean, the views of the ocean, the elevations". He confesses that "I have never seen such an unspoilt and dramatic seaside landscape". Which is precisely what makes it "the perfect setting" for a mini-city and six-storey hotel with customised boulevard. The rich have no time for irony.
While I wish Trump no special harm, I suggest that his supporters look him up on the Dealscape website. Here they would find their hero specialising in talking up world-class golf courses, some of which mysteriously change into housing estates and casinos or just vanish. Aberdeen is not alone but is running alongside projects at Meadowlands, New Jersey, Fresno, California, and others. In all these cases Trump seems to attract furious opposition.
At Balmedie he encountered Michael Forbes, fisherman and smallholder with a mother in a caravan, immovable from his isolated house next to the projected Trump Boulevard. When Trump finally offered him £750,000 to get out, a supportive Cambridge businessman and ecologist, Tony Bowman, offered him £1.5m to stay.
Then the British taxpayer subsidised the Aberdeen Renewable Energy Group to locate 33 giant wind turbines offshore, plumb in front of Trump's "magnificent view of the ocean". Finally the local council's planning committee rejected the plan on the chairman's casting vote. His decision so enraged the pro-Trump faction that it engineered his sacking.
The rejection was instantly called in for public inquiry by the Scottish executive, after much backstairs shenanigans with the first minister, Alex Salmond. The Scottish executive had already declared Trump "thoroughly good business for all concerned" and even appointed him "ambassador for Scotland", thus hopelessly compromising the public inquiry on which Salmond will have to adjudicate.
Trump's appearance in Aberdeen on Tuesday was reminiscent of his British doppelganger, Alan Sugar, whom he plays in the American version of The Apprentice. He was accused of not reading his own environmental assessment, which was hardly surprising as it told him to build well away from the dunes. He had promised to "stabilise" them, which is just what you should not do to a dynamic dune.
Told that his plan covered a designated site of special scientific interest, he reversed his former eulogy and declared them "sort of disgusting", covered in beach garbage and dead wildlife. He implied that 25,000 birds had been slaughtered by golf-hating local savages, whereas he had "received many, many environmental accolades and awards".
As a last straw Trump has been told that the dunes enjoy a right to roam. He says this is out of the question. People wanting to "sunbathe" would hardly do so when they might be "smashed by a golf ball". Anyway, if local people did not like his billion dollars he would take them elsewhere.
The proper response to the case of Trump v the Balmedie dunes is to say that, under devolution, it is Scotland's business. The massed ranks of Scottish nature and wildlife bodies may declare the project "damaging, unacceptable, irreversible and not outweighed by any overriding strategic need or national interest".
They may say the destruction of the dunes makes a mockery of Scotland's pledge to promote biodiversity and "contravenes almost every planning policy, environment policy and government strategy in the national canon". They may argue that the development could perfectly well proceed behind the dunes, were Trump not so obsessed with getting his hands on the coastal strip.
The truth is that Scotland is a victim of another colossal Trump try-on. This project is primarily about luxury holiday homes, not fairways. Scotland's gullible politicians have been taken in by a New York billionaire with big shoulders and a rolling gait. He boasts (in Vanity Fair) that "if Jack Nicklaus tried to do this he'd have zero chance ... but I am who I am and my mother is Scottish".
If that is what Scotland wants - and hundreds of miles of Ireland's coast have been wrecked in like manner - then that is what Scotland should get. But every environmental outrage committed in the name of quick commercial gain, whether claimed for "jobs" or "investment" or "modernisation", is later regretted, from the Algarve to the Amazon forest. I am sure Trump could persuade Salmond of the "jobs" in a Trump Tower on Edinburgh's Royal Mile.
The point of environmental planning is not to capitulate to short-term market forces but to channel them to the public good. There can be no public good in building over the Balmedie dunes.