Larger-than-life New York developer Donald Trump flew 3,000 miles to urge an inquiry to give consent to his plan for "the world's best golf course" at Balmedie on the Scottish east coast. It was a bombastic performance. David Quinn reports from Aberdeen
He didn't really need to say it, but the opening formalities of the planning inquiry into Donald Trump's proposals for a £1bn golf and leisure resort at Balmedie in Aberdeenshire required him to. "My name is Donald J Trump and I am a real estate developer and investor from New York City," announced the 62-year-old, worth an estimated $2bn-$3bn.
Trump was the first - and will no doubt be the most memorable - witness at the inquiry, which began on 10 June at the behest of the Scottish government after his scheme was turned down by Aberdeenshire councillors late last year (see below).
Trump emerged just before 10am into the main conference hall, a vast, brightly lit room with hundreds of seats, all empty except for the first three rows. From here, around 30 opponents of the scheme and far fewer supporters stared at a horseshoe of tables at the front of the room, where Trump, flanked by his legal team, sat to the right of the three recorders, headed by James McCulloch. For the cross-examination, Trump had to traverse the room, passing in front of hundreds of files of evidence stacked behind the speakers.
Opponents claim Trump wants to flout the agreed development proposal for the Menie Estate with his plans to put 500 private houses and 950 holiday homes on the site. And conservation groups want him to change the design because it takes in a site of special scientific interest, a coastal dune system, called Foveran Links. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and Scottish Natural Heritage believe the dunes would be irreparably damaged by the scheme.
Last week, Trump claimed that, far from damaging the "doons", his plans "will have environmental benefits". He even claimed that the golf course would improve on nature itself: "That can happen."
Modesty is not Trump's forte, and so far as this development is concerned, nor is compromise. The SSSI forms a central part of the proposal and moving the golf course to avoid it would be to pursue what Trump called a "half-assed" development. "If we were to be refused permission to develop on the southern end of the SSSI, I would withdraw from this development because it would not, and could not, fulfil my vision of doing something outstanding," he said.
Trump spoke in a permanent bellow and bragged that the scheme was "fully financed". "If we got permission today, I could start it this afternoon," he said, with typical hyperbole. "The banks are in very bad shape at the moment but I'm using my own money. I don't even have a mortgage on the property."
And if the housing market does not pick up quickly, the residential element could be postponed, since the overall development is not dependent on house sales.
Despite his belligerence, Trump was occasionally caught off guard by his interrogators. At one point, he claimed that the development site was a "total mess, with garbage all over it", and expressed confusion over the environmental lobby's objections. This prompted an acerbic response from David Tyldesley, a town planner representing the RSPB, who asked Trump during cross-examination: "As the owner of the land, did you not feel compelled to clear it up?"
Liberal Democrat councillor Martin Ford - who threw the casting vote against the scheme last November - also tried to tackle the man dubbed The Donald by ex-wife Ivana.
Ford accused Trump of displaying ignorance about the environment - it turns out that Trump bought the site without visiting it, and was unaware of its SSSI-status. "Nobody's ever told me how to buy property before. I think you're the first person. I've done pretty well out of property, but thanks for your advice," Trump retorted.
The billionaire is not a man to bother with the fine detail, preferring to rely on his legal team, led by Colin Boyd QC and representatives from law firm Dundas & Wilson. Trump openly acknowledged that he had not read key documents presented to the inquiry, including evidence put forward by his own environmental advisers. "I perused them, but I had so much to read. You can only read so much," he later told journalists.
Trump admitted he was frustrated that his plan was being taken to public inquiry, but claimed not to resent the process. "Any time you build, you have opposition," he said. "I could do without the fight. I'd love not to have it but I don't resent coming here to give evidence." He believes "the craziness" surrounding his visit to Aberdeen is "a liability for me, although it's an asset for Scotland".
Whatever cynics might say to that, Trump is clearly committed to the development of "the greatest golf course anywhere in the world". Whether he will be allowed to build it in Aberdeenshire is another matter.
The inquiry is scheduled to run until the start of July, at which point the Scottish government will make its judgment. Following his charismatic performance in Aberdeen last week, few would bet against Trump getting his own way.
"World's Best Golf resort"
"The best golf course in the world" includes:
- Two 18-hole links
- A clubhouse and facilities
- A hotel, conference centre and spa
- 36 "golf villas"
- 950 holiday homes in four blocks
- 500 private houses
But even Trump - who made the 3,000-mile journey from New York to Aberdeen in his private Boeing 727, emblazoned with Trump in gold letters - is at the mercy of rising construction costs.
He claims that the scheme will cost 25% more to build this year than it would have done last year.
In the hearing, he stressed that he would walk away if the inquiry went against him, and would recoup the value of the undeveloped land by selling it on.