Sturgeon cautions Trump for scrapping environmental deal

Donald Trump has come under fire from Nicola Sturgeon for ditching a legal agreement he made with the Scottish Government to prevent his golf course damaging the environment.

Scotland’s First Minister warned the US President Elect that he had to abide by the law like everyone else. “Nobody can escape the environmental responsibilities that the law imposes on them and that’s true of Donald Trump as it is of any other business owner,” she told a Bauer Radio phone-in show.

When Trump was given permission to build his controversial golf links on a prized nature conservation area at Menie on the Aberdeenshire coast, he promised to set up and fund an expert group to oversee compliance with a raft of conditions to protect wildlife.

But now the Trump organisation has unilaterally “dissolved” the group, provoking anger and condemnation from experts and wildlife campaigners. He has repeatedly “bullied or ignored” the Scottish planning system, according to one leading critic.

Trump’s golf course was given planning permission in December 2008, after Scottish ministers intervened to overturn Aberdeenshire Council’s rejection of his application. The legal agreement that enabled it to go ahead included a commitment to establish and finance the Menie Environmental Management Advisory Group (MEMAG).

Involving two government agencies, Scottish Natural Heritage and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, Aberdeenshire Council and others, MEMAG started meeting in December 2009. Its remit was to advise the Trump organisation on the “minimisation” of environmental damage and “full compliance” with planning conditions.

When Donald Trump wrote to the Scottish Parliament’s Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee in April 2012 to complain about wind farms, he highlighted the importance of the group. The golf course at Menie was constructed to the highest standards under the “strict supervision” of MEMAG, he said.

Trump’s representatives, however, often failed to turn up for meetings. According to the minutes of MEMAG meetings shared by Aberdeen Voice, his Scottish spokeswoman, Sarah Malone, gave her apologies to meetings in April 2011 and May 2012.

At the May 2012 meeting MEMAG described the Trump organisation’s failure to attend recent meetings as “unfortunate”. It agreed to write to the organisation “noting the need for representation at MEMAG meetings”.

MEMAG last met in January 2013, and its fate has become increasingly uncertain since then. Aberdeenshire Council decided in December 2013 that the group should be reviewed, and has written to the Trump organisation pointing out that MEMAG remains a legal requirement.

To date the council has not had a response. After questions from two councillors last month, the council said it written again to the Trump organisation.

But the Trump organisation has now made clear that MEMAG has been killed off. “Having successfully completed its scrutiny role for the construction of the championship golf course, MEMAG was dissolved,” said George Sorial, executive vice-president and counsel for the Trump organisation in New York.

Sorial insisted that the golf links had not done much harm to the Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) it was built on. “More than 95 per cent of the SSSI remains untouched and the ecological diversity of the site remains intact,” he said.

The golf course covered part of a rare mobile sand dune system, protected under law because of its natural importance. The Ferret reported in September that part of the course had been damaged by wind-blown sand.

The Aberdeenshire Green councillor, Martin Ford, accused Trump of failing to show any respect for the “amazing” dune system. “What was actually an SSSI was to Mr Trump a low-cost development opportunity,” he said.

For the past ten years, Mr Trump has in turns either bullied or ignored the Scottish planning system . Mr Trump has also repeatedly had to make retrospective planning applications for development carried out without planning permission.”

According to Ford, a veteran Trump critic, the suggestion that MEMAG had been dissolved would be news to the council. “The obligation to maintain MEMAG is a continuing one,” he stated.

Aberdeenshire Council said it had told the Trump organisation that “there was no time limit on the duration of MEMAG”. It pointed out that if Trump wanted to scrap MEMAG it would have to have to make a formal application to change the legal agreement it had made.

“To date the council has not been advised of the preferred option to deal with this matter,” said a council spokeswoman.

Dr Tom Dargie, Trump’s adviser on the Menie sand dunes from 2006 and 2009, described the demise of MEMAG as “extremely worrying”. He pointed out that the group was modelled on successful environmental advisory bodies for oil and gas terminals in Aberdeenshire and Shetland.

“No MEMAG input since 2013 means no information on habitat and species change in the crucial early years of golf course operation at Menie,” he said.

‘MEMAG is a condition of planning consent and the complete inertia between Aberdeenshire Council and the Trump golf resort bodes ill for any future development in Scotland involving sensitive habitats, threatened species and protected sites.”

Dargie warned that Trump’s attitude could be copied by different US developers hoping to build another disputed golf course at Coul Links in Sutherland. They could promise environmental responsibility but then ignore it after winning planning permission “without fear of sanction”, he argued.

According to the Scottish Wildlife Trust, Trump’s golf course at Menie had “devastated” a “spectacular” sand dune system, including a third of the SSSI. “It’s extremely concerning that the group set up to monitor the environmental impact of the course appears to have been quietly wound up,” said the trust’s head of policy Dr Maggie Keegan.

This “would potentially be in breach of legally binding conditions,” she warned. “It also begs an important question of who has been monitoring the site for the past three years.”

Dr Graeme Baxter, a researcher at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, who has investigated MEMAG, pointed out that the Trump organisation had assured everyone that that the group would provide the required “independence and scientific integrity” to protect the environment at Menie.

“Sadly, the existence and the effective operation of MEMAG appears to have been reliant on the whims and the finance of the Trump organisation, so the true environmental impact of the golf course remains unclear,” he said.

“What’s particularly disappointing is that there is little evidence of Aberdeenshire Council having pursued this issue with any real rigour.”

The Scottish Government declined to get involved in the argument. “The fulfilment of such an agreement is a matter for the developer and Aberdeenshire Council,” said a government spokesman.

Trump’s history of planning breaches

Scrapping a group meant to protect the environment is not the first time that Donald Trump has breached planning rules.

Since 2012 he has built at least nine structures at his golf course at Menie on the Aberdeenshire coast without planning consent – and then applied for retrospective permission for them.

They include a fountain, a car park, walls, signs, a soakaway, a bag drop and accommodation. There have been particular controversies about two flagpoles flying the Saltire.

In December 2015, Aberdeenshire Council ruled that the 25-metre flagpoles at Menie were “a breach of planning control”. It required the Trump organisation to apply for retrospective permission to “regularise” the position.

One of the flagpoles, near the Macleod House hotel at the golf course, was subsequently allowed, as it was deemed to be screened by surrounding trees. But the council rejected the second, near the golf clubhouse, as “overbearing and out of proportion in its setting”.

The council ordered Trump to take down the flagpole, but he appealed to the Scottish Government. In November the government planning reporter, Claire Milne, overturned the council’s objection, and allowed the flagpole, complete with its gold ball at the top, to stay.

She concluded that that flag was not “obtrusive or out of proportion to the scale of the existing buildings or its immediate surroundings”. The flag did not damage the “overall integrity and character of the landscape”, she said.

But her ruling was condemned by Trump’s neighbour, David Milne, who can see the flagpole from his home. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s just another tick-the-box exercise that reporters have gone through to give Trump his way,” he told The Guardian.

“That flagpole is hideous, unnecessary and inappropriate, completely out of scale to the location and the building.”

The Aberdeenshire Green councillor, Martin Ford, has criticised Trump’s attitude towards the Scottish planning system. “I can think of no other developer who so routinely relies on retrospective applications for planning permissions,” he said.

To date there have been no public arguments over planning problems at Trump’s other Scottish golf resort at Turnberry on the South Ayrshire coast. He bought the famous courses and their hotel in 2014, and renamed them “Trump Turnberry”.

According to one report, though, he has upset local golfers by raising the annual fee for playing at Turnberry by 38 percent, making people pay £700 more a year. Members complained that they had been given a “take it or leave it ultimatum”, while the Trump organisation declined to comment.

Minutes of MEMAG meetings

MEMAG media release

Donald Trump’s letter to the Scottish Parliament

The Ferret is grateful to Aberdeen Voice for sharing the MEMAG minutes and other documents. A version of this article was published in the Sunday Herald on 11 December 2016.

Cover image thanks to Michael Vadon, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia CommonsPhoto of Trump links at Menie thanks to Alanatabz, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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