The Scottish Government is under fire for repeating mistakes made with Donald Trump following revelations that it has been secretly trying to help another “pushy” US property developer.
Documents released under freedom of information law disclose that the rural economy minister Fergus Ewing’s most senior civil servant has intervened “in a facilitative role” on plans for a golf development that threatens to destroy a nature conservation area on the northeast coast near Dornoch.
The US developer, Todd Warnock, has been given high-level access to Ewing and his officials, which critics warn could undermine the integrity of the planning system. This is comparable to what happened with Trump’s golf resort at Menie in Aberdeenshire, they say.
Warnock, an investor from Chicago with property in Dornoch, has teamed up with US golf billionaire, Mike Keiser, to propose a £10 million championship golf course at Coul Links, near the village of Embo in Sutherland. They submitted a detailed planning application to Highland Council in September.
This prompted objections from two government environment agencies and most major conservation groups. Coul Links is highly protected by law because its unique sand dune network is home to a series of endangered plants, insects and birds.
But internal emails released by the Scottish Government, its wildlife agency, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), and the development agency, Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), reveal that the developers have been given invaluable assistance behind the scenes.
SNH, which objects to the development, started to feel the pressure in January 2017. Its then chief executive, Ian Jardine, described Warnock as “very pushy” and said that both Warnock and Ewing had telephoned the SNH chairman about Coul Links.
Then one of the Scottish Government’s highest-ranking civil servants, £115,000-a-year director-general for economy, Liz Ditchburn, decided to get involved. She asked SNH for details of its duties to balance environmental protection with economic development.
In March Ditchburn visited Coul Links and convened a meeting at St Andrew’s House in Edinburgh for the developers to present their plans to officials. Although Warnock missed the meeting because bad weather delayed his flight from the US, his representatives told him it was “very constructive” and “positive in all regards”.
In a response to Warnock, Ditchburn agreed the meeting was “very useful and constructive”. In May, after a call from Warnock, her official complained to SNH that it had ruled out a plan to “offset” damage at Coul Links by improving the environment elsewhere.
In August 2017, following a conversation with Ditchburn, Warnock met the Scottish Government’s director of environment and forestry, Bridget Campbell. He also had a meeting with Ewing at Atlantic Quay in Glasgow.
HIE had previously emailed Ewing offering to host a meeting with Warnock in August 2016. The enterprise agency’s interim chief executive, Charlotte Wright, praised Warnock, saying his plans “auger well” for the local area.
In an internal memo to Scottish ministers Ditchburn described her role as “facilitative”. Her aim was “to maintain effective lines of communication between the relevant parties and identify and assist with any difficulties as they arise,” she said.
But Ditchburn’s high-level intervention is known to have caused disquiet amongst some civil servants. Ministers and officials are meant to remain strictly neutral on planning applications that they could end up helping to make decisions about.
“Parts of government and our public agencies appear to be unbelievably eager to facilitate another American billionaire golf developer’s single minded plan of building on another protected Scots wildlife site” Anne McCall, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) compared what was happening over Coul Links to the “embarrassing debacle” ten years ago when Trump was given permission to damage protected sand dunes on the Aberdeenshire coast. “We are in the incredible situation of seeing history repeating itself,” said RSPB Scotland director, Anne McCall.
“Some parts of government and our public agencies appear to be unbelievably eager to facilitate another American billionaire golf developer’s single minded plan of building on another protected Scots wildlife site.”
Their actions would undermine public confidence in the fairness of the planning system, she warned. “In these circumstances we can now see why the developer is so confident that his proposal will go ahead despite the fact it would breach multiple planning and environmental policies.”
The Green MSP Andy Wightman also highlighted the “sorry tale” of the Trump golf saga. “There is a serious risk that the integrity of the planning system is compromised,” he said.
The Scottish Wildlife Trust pointed out that Scotland was committed to UN targets to protect nature conservation sites. “Unfortunately some factions within the Scottish Government and its agencies don’t appear to have read the brief and seem to be pro-development at any cost,” said chief executive, Jonny Hughes.
“Scottish Government gave high-level privileged access to the developers. This lack of transparency is clearly disappointing for all those who care about our irreplaceable natural heritage.”
“Any suggestion that these efforts were anything but a transparent, constructive and thorough pre-planning process is simply not true” Todd Warnock, property developer
According to the Scottish Government, Ewing had met Warnock once and officials had met him or his representatives four times in 2017. “It is entirely appropriate for ministers and officials to meet with potential developers, prior to an application being submitted,” said a government spokeswoman.
“This government is committed to creating the best possible business environment in a Scotland which is cleaner, greener and healthier. It is therefore important for government to engage with individuals, companies and organisations with an interest in economic development opportunities.”
She added: “The Scottish Government encourages all those with views on the proposed development to make them known to Highland Council, who are currently determining the application. Ministers cannot comment on a live planning case.”
Warnock stressed he was working tirelessly for a golf development that would provide substantial economic benefits and genuine environmental stewardship. He had met with politicians, officials and others, and hosted six public meetings locally.
“Any suggestion that these efforts were anything but a transparent, constructive and thorough pre-planning process is simply not true,” he said.
“We look forward to continuing to work with the Scottish Government, the relative statutory bodies and the entire Scottish community in order to ensure we have a successful project for all.”
The Trump golf debacle
Donald Trump’s initial bid to build a golf resort on protected sand dunes at Menie on the northeast coast was narrowly rejected by Aberdeenshire Council – but this was overturned in December 2008 after an intervention by Scottish ministers.
Trump had courted successive Scottish governments, and put pressure on ministers to back his development. At the time he was on friendly terms with the then First Minister and local MSP, Alex Salmond.
Now, however, the two have seriously fallen out, and are sworn adversaries. In November, Salmond accused Trump of breaking his promises to invest in Scotland.
Trump’s original £1 billion plan included a second golf course, a 450-bed hotel and nearly 1,500 homes, but none of these have so far materialised. He has built one course, a clubhouse, a 16-bedroom “boutique” hotel and some lodges.
In November last year The Ferret reported that the government’s wildlife agency, Scottish Natural Heritage, was considering stripping Menie of its conservation status because of the damage done by the golf course.
Dr Jim Hansom, a coastal geomorphologist from the University of Glasgow, said the area should be de-notified as a site of special scientific interest. “It’s been ruined from a virgin, undeveloped wilderness site, into something that’s relatively manicured,” he told the BBC.
In 2016 correspondence released under freedom of information law revealed that Trump’s managers were having difficulties protecting golf greens from encroaching sand. Not even the then would-be US president could defeat nature, critics said.
Photo thanks to Mark Foxwell, Scottish Wildlife Trust. A version of this story was published in the Sunday Herald on 4 February 2018.