If you hadn’t known there were consultations about Trump’s further plans for the Menie Estate, you were in good company. Few people found out about it in time to meet the deadlines to submit opinions to a pre-planning application lodged by the Trump organisation. Those who asked for information on the proposals which the legal notices offered were treated with less than timely and less than courteous regard. Suzanne Kelly reports.
Donald Trump has always let his presence in Scotland be known.
There was the unprecedented way Holyrood intervened in the Menie Estate carve-up.
There was Trump’s attempts at wind farm derailment, with Trump famously declaring at a Holyrood hearing ‘I am the evidence’ against wind farms.
The man couldn’t fly into Aberdeen Airport without red carpets and escorts (cost to taxpayer for unprecedented police presence c. an estimated £2,000 per visit).
Issues of the local newspapers (presided over by Trump’s Scottish VP Sarah Malone Bates’ husband Damian Bates) normally carried glowing accounts of the course, the food, the allegedly tasteful décor, the concrete fountain at MacLeod House and/or advertisements of some sort.
But when it came to asking the public for their thoughts on going ahead with 850 homes, 1900 leisure units (whatever exactly that means) and a second golf course (with the first one hardly at capacity or even near it), the Trump organisation’s normally insatiable lust for publicity was positively flaccid.
What could have caused this sudden coyness? How were the people who found out about the pre-application consultations treated when they asked for details of the plans? What kind of information was available? Where did Aberdeenshire Council’s planning chiefs stand on the matter?
The legal notices advertising the plans appeared in the Evening Express on Monday 20 April. Unless someone were looking for a 40th birthday classified ad, a used pushbike, or a part time job delivering the Evening Express, chances are the back section of this local paper was not the place they’d turn to find legal notices on the most contentious planning development Scotland has ever seen.
But with Aberdeenshire Council’s blessing (after the fact and possibly before it – this is yet to be determined) two small, discreet advertisements announcing the pre-application consultations appeared in the back of the paper, and went largely unnoticed.
The people who did see these ads learned of the proposed 850 homes, 1900 leisure units and second 18 hole golf course. The ads made an invitation to either attend an open event at MacLeod House, or to obtain further information from Cameron McKenna’s Mr Jamie Hunter by email.
This particular exercise is not to be confused with the actual planning application; it is a small exercise, but an important one.
If there were no objections to the pre-planning application, and only positive comments were submitted, Trump would be able to claim a small but important victory over the opposition. Could it be that the Press & Journal and the Evening Express’ editor (married to Trump’s VP it should be remembered) decided this important news was not newsworthy – to keep the many opponents of the proposals in the dark?
By the time concerned local residents got wind of this pre-application consultation, it was nearly too late to make an objection by 5 May to the 18 hole golf course. But several people intended to do just that. Writing to Jamie Hunter for the ‘further information’ offered, they waited patiently to receive something. And waited.
The Clock Was Ticking
On the afternoon of 4 May, Hunter was sent an email requesting information on both proposals.
It was assumed that since the advertisements promised information would be forthcoming if requested that someone had bothered to prepare at least an outline of the proposals that could have been emailed swiftly and with very little administration needed.
Over 24 hours elapsed since information was requested, but no information or even a holding email arrived.
The Hunter Cornered
When chased on the last day for submissions for the required information in advance of the deadline, Jamie Hunter had enough. He fired off a rather angry email – but no information on the schemes.
His lack of attention to what should have been a simple matter of forwarding information by email became the subject of a complaint and he was one of the addressees on this complaint. Hunter’s answer displays what hardships and strains he was under; it was all just too much for one man to deal with (it would be interesting to learn how many emails and how many people he had to see to determine how arduous his task was).
“I note that I was afforded 28 minutes to respond between your first and second emails yesterday.
“I was at that time consulting with the members of the public, residents and community councillors etc who appear to have seen the widespread national and local coverage in March as well as the adverts for the consultations themselves placed in the Aberdeen Journals more than two weeks ago.
“Obviously the purpose of consultation is to garner views from interested parties. The information you seek has in fact been open for consideration at the consultation events.
“The reason the telephone was not answered yesterday (twice within 26 minutes by your own timing) was because I was at the consultation event, as you will have known from the out of office notification. On the basis of your emails I assume you would prefer that I was available to respond to you on a near instantaneous basis rather than discussing the application with interested parties at the event.
“I would be grateful if you could advise which version of the public notice you are referring to which states that there were or would be ‘information packs’, given that so many of your requests for rejection etc are apparently dependent upon their existence. We are planning to send copies of the display boards from each of the events by .pdf as a copy has today been requested by one of the community councils.”
Happily for Hunter, if not so for the would-be commenters on the course, the 5th was a bank holiday, making the deadline somewhat ambiguous, and making it imperative to get something in.
Hunter’s position seems to be that because the information was at the consultation events then there was no need to comply with the ad’s offers to send information as well. Not everyone would have been able to make their way to Menie. Furthermore, one attendee at the event asked for written information, to be told words to the effect ‘there are no information packs per se’. So, not many points awarded for information sharing on this exercise.
As to Hunter’s conclusion that a ‘near instantaneous basis’ for response was being irrationally made, I think he’d find that in other arenas not answering emails within a day when a deadline was involved would be considered rather unprofessional; perhaps things are a bit more laid back at his firm Cameron McKenna.
Cameron McKenna were asked to comment on Hunter’s email; no response has yet been received. One will be sought, allowing of course a generous lapse of time so as not to pressurise any sensitive souls in the legal profession.
The response to Hunter reads in part:
“You were allowed a day to answer a simple email. My emails did not even get the courtesy of a holding email in return, and with your firm not answering its phone, with a deadline looming,
“I am interested learn that your phones go unanswered by anyone else and don’t go to voicemail or an answering system of some sort if you are unavailable. This still does not explain the gap in replying to my email of at least one business day while the deadline approached.
“I am sorry if you are confused by my choice of language in requesting information from you; I assumed that as the legal notices attached advise readers to email you for information, that some form of briefing note/information pack/document/dossier/report had been created with the details of the planning applications in question, perhaps reflecting the public exhibition.
“People have advised they attended the public exhibition and requested information in a paper format, only to be told that ‘no information packs were available per se’ – that is the genesis of my use of the expression ‘information pack’. I am sorry you were unable to deduce that I was after the ‘further’ information the legal notice told me I could obtain by emailing you.
“I certainly hope that some form of information briefing note was created for the public – whatever you may wish to call it. Had I and at least one other person who emailed you (who likewise did not have a response from you) had such a document, then we would have been able to give detailed representations about the proposed development before the deadlines expired.
“It is also unfortunate, in the eyes of the person who attended the exhibition that they could not take away any form of information to digest the proposals in depth and over time.
“As the notices give virtually no specifics of the proposals, I would have thought being prepared with at least a general document/information pack/whatever pleases you to call it would have been a given, basic, common sense approach to adopt.
“Perhaps someone can explain whether or not there is a legal requirement to supply information when a legal notice tells me information will be available?
“I am interested in how this consultation was managed by your firm. Are you saying you were the sole person responsible for answering any emails, letters and the only person at the consultation to talk to the public? Again, I would have still expected an answer before now to my email of (even allowing for the bank holiday). Were you greatly deluged with correspondence to answer?
“Some organisations have assistants helping to answer phones, emails and letters; and some organisations use laptop computers so that people working on location have access to their emails. Some institutions also use voicemail, answering machines, or supply a general phone number to call rather than the extension of a person as obviously busy as you must be.
“As to the notices’ claim that ‘written comments on the proposals are welcome’, this certainly seems at odds with my experience in receiving any reply, any useful information, or indeed a respectful reply as to the failure to supply information in a timely manner.”
Another opponent wrote Hunter a holistic email, which read in part:
“I am sorry that I missed the small notice in the Evening Express on 20 April 2015, and therefore did not attend the public exhibition. Perhaps it was your intention that most people would be unaware? The Evening Express has a very small circulation in this area. Why was there no mention on the Trump International Golf Links page on Facebook, or in the Press and Journal which is much more widely read?
“When considering an planning application Aberdeenshire Council Planners do not normally allow reference to any other application. In this case, however, I do think cognisance should be taken of the performance of the Trump organisation with regard to the existing course.
“Accounts lodged at Companies House detail the Trump resort losing £1.82 million for 2013, following a loss of £1.75 million for 2012. Reservations for rounds of golf are low. There is therefore no evidence of demand for a second golf course, the present one being underused. The golf course has not in any way delivered the promised jobs.” (Ms. M Murray)
It’s Not Over Until It’s Over
The deadline came and went. Don’t let that be the end of it. Anyone who feels they would like to have commented one way or the other should go ahead and do so anyway (or so I feel), writing to Jamie Hunter at Jamie.Hunter@cms-cmck.com; their local councillors (see www.writetothem.org ) and perhaps copying Aberdeenshire (try Elaine.firstname.lastname@example.org ).
Tell them whether or not you feel this was a robust, transparent exercise. Tell them that you will be keeping an eye open for the actual planning application, and that you want to make a representation then.
The existing first golf course hardly delivering what it promised to do in terms of jobs or tourism. Trump is so adamantly against wind farms that he threatens to pull the plug on the development; this shows him to be rather less than constant. Furthermore, there is a case to be made that not all Trump developments the world over get completed as originally planned. Therefore does it really make sense to continue to destroy countryside for this project?
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