Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Bad day at Balmedie

The Scottish Government’s decision to approve Donald Trump’s proposals for a £1bn development on the Menie Estate in Aberdeenshire is entirely predictable, but none the less depressing for that.

If nothing else, the decision has given a powerful boost to the Scottish cliché and platitude industry. The SCDI announces that “it sends a signal around the world that Scotland is open for business and investment”, just in case we thought the country was closed. In similar vein, the chief executive of the council confirms that “we are in business in Aberdeenshire”, while the Scottish Chambers of Commerce brays that this is “great news for Aberdeenshire, great news for Scotland and great news for the UK”. Of course, this drivel is turned out by bored press officers but it is still embarrassing stuff which will come back to haunt the business and civic leaders who allow it to be issued in their names.

The Scottish Government’s economic strategy states that “the challenge is to improve Scotland's environment today and for future generations, while significantly reducing Scotland's negative impact on the global environment”. It notes that “countries around the world are wrestling with how to break the link between economic growth and environmental impact” and concludes sternly that “securing sustainable economic growth needs new thinking and new approaches”. This week’s decision – which puts short-term gain before the long-term interests of the environment and the community – suggests that these noble sentiments are no more than cynical window-dressing. We are being invited to celebrate a project which – in its contemptuous disregard for a habitat and a landscape of outstanding value – is a throwback to discredited old thinking and old approaches.

The issues raised by this disastrous decision go far beyond Trump and his army of self-serving advisers (I am railing against clichés, but it is hard to avoid mentioning the happy band who have boarded the gravy train). Admittedly, the man’s ego has been placed centre stage. An article on
www.trumpgolfscotland.com which describes Trump as “the ultimate American success story” is, rather sweetly, signed by the man himself, and visitors entering the new resort from the A90 will drive along Trump Boulevard. Every Trump scheme is a vanity project and there is something disarming about this unabashed self-celebration, and something remarkable about the way Trump has transformed himself from a figure of fun into a national saviour.

It is not easy to get past the personality but we should try. The real significance of this deeply depressing episode is that fits in precisely with a pattern of seduction, credulousness and intimidation which are the defining features of dozens of failed large-scale regeneration projects. In his brilliant book, Megaprojects and Risk, Bent Flyvbjerg analyses the reasons why major infrastructure projects fail to deliver the promised benefits: costs and risks are routinely under-estimated while outputs are consistently overstated. The Menie project, though big, is not a true megaproject, but the principles are the same. There is, as the Treasury continues to point out, an endemic optimism bias in the regeneration game.

How does it happen? Seduction is the first stage. The promoter (which may be a public sector body, a major corporation or a wealthy individual like Trump) seeks to position the project by talking up its most attractive features, and ignoring or discounting everything that is less palatable. In this case, Trump and his mouthpieces talk endlessly about the golf course and the resort – which have the potential to attract high-spending visitors to the area – but never mention the fact that in financial terms the project only works because it includes 500 luxury homes. Try finding any mention of them on the website or in the press releases. At the same time, the benefits are ruthlessly hyped: £1bn of investment, the greatest golf course in the world, 6000 jobs. Those of us who have worked in this field for a long time know that such numbers are, at best, speculative and, at worst, made up. Project promoters always trade in gross figures, not the much smaller net numbers that are the true measure of a scheme’s value, and they are always predicated on a “perfect calm” of benign conditions and good fortune.

It is understandable that promoters want to present their projects in the best possible light, and I do not want to malign their motives, even if some are guilty of mendacity and cynicism. But the role of the public sector – when asked to grant planning consents or to contribute taxpayer’s money – should be to subject these claims to a robust and dispassionate appraisal. This does not mean being anti-development or hostile to business, but the community is entitled to know that the full range of economic, social and environmental factors has been taken into account before a decision is made. Too often, this simply doesn’t happen: the seductive power of the project outweighs every other consideration and the promoter’s rhetoric – and his untested claims – are accepted uncritically.

The credulousness of politicians, officers and naïve local media makes them easy prey for a professional PR machine. These days, the most mundane development proposals (for shopping centres, office developments and housing schemes) are routinely described as “unique” – a claim which is then relayed back in press releases from development agencies and local councils. Not the least of the ironies in this case is that while there is nothing remotely unique about the Trump proposals (golf course, hotel, lots of houses) the dune system that will be destroyed is genuinely unique and absolutely irreplaceable.

The relentless barrage of lavish claims boxes officers and politicians into a corner and discourages them from asking awkward and unwelcome questions. Alliances are forged with landowners and local businesses who are likely to profit directly from the scheme; over time, challenging it becomes an act of disloyalty: the Aberdeenshire councillors who voted against Trump were branded “traitors” by a local paper. A successful campaign enlists the media: all the Scottish papers have slavishly followed the Trump line that this is a golf resort: how many people know that 500 luxury houses form the ballast of the scheme? Despite occasional bum notes (Trump should really try to stop calling the Balmedie dunes “the product”) the shock and awe of Trump’s media assault has succeeded brilliantly.

Sometimes unwittingly, promoters, politicians and officers collude to ease the passage of projects which would wither away under the light of proper scrutiny. But despite this dissenting voices still emerge. Local residents who can see beyond the (often illusory) promise of financial gain and realise that something precious may be lost; concerned environmental and community groups; and even local politicians who are brave enough to carry out their responsibilities. In Aberdeenshire, Councillor Martin Ford has been a brilliant and courageous advocate for the objectors: cool, knowledgeable and unemotional, but he has had abuse heaped on him from all quarters – a spectacle that will surely deter other potential refuseniks. Low level opposition can be tolerated, but if it threatens to gain momentum the promoter may decide to deploy some old-fashioned intimidation. There is nothing subtle about most of these techniques: objectors are derided or demonised, the community is threatened with the loss of benefits – which will almost certainly have been grossly overstated – and, as a last resort, the promoter (a picture of injured innocence) threatens to take his project somewhere else where it will be appreciated – in this case, Northern Ireland. Enter the Reverend Paisley in plus fours, brandishing a sand wedge.

The effects would be comical if they weren’t so serious. Aberdeenshire is one of the most prosperous communities in Britain, and this part of the shire is a suburb of Aberdeen, one of our wealthiest cities; unemployment levels are vanishingly small. Servicing the requirements of the Trump project for construction workers and low wage catering and housekeeping staff will put the local labour market under strain: local businesses will find their best people being poached, but a project of this scale will also require an influx of migrant labour to overcome shortages and skills gaps. There is nothing to suggest that Aberdeenshire needs the Trump scheme, but the prospect of losing it suddenly appears catastrophic. Trump is a pantomime villain but the history of this scheme is a morality tale which highlights the systemic failure of the political process – and the planning system in particular - to protect what is most valuable in the built and natural environment, or to promote excellence in architecture and design.

We do need to build – to make new places to live, work, learn, create and relax – but we need to ask why for the most part we do that so badly and why the quality of most new development is mind-numbingly poor. We also need to ask how a scheme that no one except the developer needs, and that will trash a precious ecological and landscape resource to make way for a development of unrelieved banality has become a national priority. It is a scheme for a country with low aspirations and lacking in confidence, and we should all be ashamed that it is happening here.




Dave Thompson said...

Great to see you blogging and thanks for this great contribution - even though I think you are completely wrong - Trump is a great man with genuine Scottish ancestry.

However you have been a hero of mine on the Scottish regeneration scene for many many years and I wish you well.

Dave Thompson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
wim said...

John - thanks for this excellent post and I'm sure we all look forward to more in the near future.

Nick Wright said...

Not only has the government been seduced, as you say: it has also said loud and clear that the plan-led system - that we're being told to espouse in the new planning reforms - can be over-ridden where the seduction is sexy enough.

If the government really want the planning reforms to change things for the better in Scotland, it needs to lead culture change by example. How can it really expect us to go through the difficult process of culture change if the message we get from them is plus ca change ?

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john said...

Trump can build a golf course anywhere in Scotland without having to evict people in a modern day clearance, and ruin a nature reserve and SSI. His actions are petty and spiteful. He also lied about his original plans. Aberdeen coucil and the scottish govenrment are selling off Scotland's jewels to the highest bidders. This is a false economy, how about investing in new technology instead, such as hydrogen or renewables?