Aberdeenshire Council has granted full planning permission for the building of a second Trump golf course that could lead to further damage to a protected Site of Special Scientific Interest.

The decision on 16 October means the Council has decided not to act on the advice of Scottish Natural Heritage to force Trump International Golf Links Scotland Limited (TIGLS) to revise its plans so that there is no further harm to sand dunes within the Foveran Links Site of Special Scientific Interest.

Councillors on the Formantine Area Committee voted on 24 September 2019 to recommend that permission should be granted for the new application.

The decision letter indicates that permission was given because the new golf course at Balmedie, Aberdeenshire, “will contribute towards the significant social and economic benefits expected to be delivered by the wider development proposals within the Menie Estate”.

According to accounts published by Companies House, TIGLS has recorded a loss of between £1 million and £2 million every year since its first golf course at Balmedie was opened in July 2012, amounting to a seven-year total of £9.5 million by 2018, the last year for which figures are available.

TIGLS submitted the application for the MacLeod golf course, named after Donald Trump’s mother, in 2015. Scottish Natural Heritage wrote several times to the Planning Department at Aberdeenshire Council to warn that parts of the proposed new course would be too close to the coast and may need to be protected against erosion. It rejected responses from TIGLS as inadequate.

In its letter of 17 March 2017, Scottish Natural Heritage stated: 

“Our advice on the likelihood of coastal-edge retreat is not changed by the additional information submitted. There is stark recent experience of a different aspect of coastal-edge dynamism – the February 2016 sand-blow from the coastal edge onto parts of the 4th hole of the adjacent Championship Course. In this instance the response was soft engineering, however it remains likely that in future, coastal-edge dynamism would repeatedly disrupt and increasingly threaten elements of the golf course (whether tees, greens or areas stabilised to support them). This could lead to pressure for hard engineering which in turn could negatively affect Foveran Links SSSI.”

However, the Council has now decided to reject the advice from Scottish Natural Heritage and instead accept the assurances of TIGLS that it has sufficiently mitigated any future risks to the dunes. 

The ‘Report of Handling’ that companied the decision letter on 16 October 2020 states:  

“Whilst it is acknowledged that future coastal erosion events at Balmedie are inevitable, the scale, timing and intensity of any events is impossible to predict. The Planning Service considers that whilst the concerns raised by SNH and others are acknowledged, the developer has adequately considered the potential impacts and ultimately the coastal location of the proposed golf course, which has been previously accepted in principle by way of the extant consent and site allocation in this location, is deemed to be acceptable. In the event of any future coastal erosion episodes which impact the golf course, any mitigation or course reconfiguration proposals required to adapt to the changing landscape, would have to be considered on their own merits against relevant legislation applicable at that time.”

However, Aberdeen’s framework for adaptation warns that the coastline north of the city, including at Balmedie, is vulnerable to the impacts of climate change:

“Sea level rise has been gradually increasing but this rise is set to accelerate over coming decades. Along with storm surge conditions, this brings threat of coastal flooding, with potential consequences for existing coastal properties, infrastructure, businesses and recreational facilities. Erosion and retreat in soft parts of the coastline is a dynamic, natural process but it can affect people and places.”

The issuing of the decision letter by Aberdeenshire Council means that the Scottish Government cannot now call in the case. On 5 July 2018, I wrote to Roseanna Cunningham MSP, the Cabinet Secretary for the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, asking her to “investigate whether Trump International Golf Links Scotland in Balmedie has broken the law by causing environmental damage to the Site of Special Scientific Interest at Foveran Links in Aberdeenshire”. I received a response from the Planning and Architecture Division of the Scottish Government on 15 August 2018, declining to take action and indicating that it was “a matter for Aberdeenshire Council”.

The refusal to intervene is despite claims by the Scottish Government to be prioritising protection for the environment. For instance, ‘The Environment Strategy for Scotland’, published in February 2020, states: “It is essential to understand the impacts of our economic activities on Scotland’s natural capital, and to design our business models to regenerate rather than deplete it”.

The report of the Infrastructure Commission for Scotland in January 2020 noted: “The high quality of Scotland’s natural environment and the quality of life it supports are considered to be a major selling point for the Scottish tourist sector”. It concluded: “In view of its important role, we agreed that natural capital should be recognised within the definition of infrastructure, covering both “green” and “blue” (aquatic) infrastructure”. It recommended: “The Scottish Government should publish by 2023 a system wide Scottish Infrastructure Needs Assessment covering all infrastructure sectors defined by the Scottish Government and we recommend the inclusion of natural infrastructure”.

The potential future threat to the Foveran Links Site of Special Scientific Interest comes as Scottish Natural Heritage is considering the removal of its protected status because of the damage that was caused by TIGLS during the construction of the first golf course.

On 4 October 2019, I wrote to the Chair of Aberdeenshire Council, Councillor Bill Howatson, stating: “In view of the fact that TIGLS has failed to comply fully with the conditions of the planning agreement and may have inflicted unauthorised damage to the Foveran Links SSSI, I urge Aberdeenshire Council to carry out a review of this case, and to ask Scottish Natural Heritage to suspend any decision on de-notification of the SSSI until the Council has completed its considerations”. I have not received a reply.

The decision about the future of the Site of Special Scientific Interest has been delayed and is now due in December 2020.

Bob Ward is policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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