Links loss stirs site fear

Ministers insist that approval of plans for a golf resort in Aberdeenshire sets no precedent but green groups fear that it will encourage harmful proposals on key wildlife sites, says Ben Willis.

Last week's decision by the Scottish Government to grant outline planning consent for a golf resort on the dunes of the Menie Estate in Aberdeenshire is certainly a triumph for the scheme's backer Donald Trump.

However, the move has prompted almost universal dismay among environmentalists, who fear not just the loss of an ecologically valuable site but a wider threat to the integrity of Scotland's natural heritage. Opponents of the scheme maintain that the benefits brought by the development will come at a huge cost to the natural environment.

Announcing its decision to override Aberdeenshire Council's earlier refusal of the Trump Organisation's application (Planning, 7 November, p2), the Scottish Government seems to have been entirely won over by its economic argument. The scheme, which will provide two golf courses, 950 holiday flats and 500 open market homes, will bring key investment and jobs to north-east Scotland.

The Foveran Links were designated a site of special scientific interest (SSSI) because the area supports a unique ecosystem that thrives in the dunes' constantly moving sand. According to conservation bodies at the forefront of the campaign against Trump's plans, the golf resort will stabilise the dunes and in so doing remove from the site the very features that give it interest.

"This is probably the most extensive area of mobile shifting sand in the UK and possibly the most important in north-west Europe," explains Scottish Wildlife Trust (SWT) head of policy Jonathan Hughes. "When the sand moves it creates deflation hollows, which support a very interesting vegetation community. The proposal to stabilise the dune system means that all the interest will effectively be destroyed and the reason for the site's designation lost."

RSPB Scotland and the SWT are especially disappointed that the Scottish Government and the Trump Organisation missed the opportunity to reach a compromise. As part of their campaign, the two charities hired a golf course designer to draw up alternative plans with the aim of showing that the scheme could proceed almost as Trump envisaged but crucially avoiding the SSSI.

However, Trump's planning team has shown no obvious interest in investigating this less environmentally damaging alternative to his scheme. Nor does the Scottish Government seem to have considered insisting that the developers do so as a condition of planning permission.

"Trump was playing a game of brinkmanship and the Scottish Government was scared of losing the investment if it didn't give him just what he wanted," says Hughes. "It should have shown leadership and said: 'We want this investment, it's important to the economy, but the developers must protect the site's key environmental asset.'"

The Scottish Government rejects such claims, arguing that the environment was given full consideration. "The inquiry reporters came to the overall conclusion that the economic and social advantages of this prospective development at national, regional and local level are such as to justify, uniquely, the adverse environmental consequences caused by a development on this scale and in this location," a spokesman insists.

Despite this emphasis on the unique circumstances, opponents are alarmed by its implications for other SSSIs in Scotland. The latest figures from Scottish Natural Heritage show 1,456 SSSIs in the country, covering around 13 per cent of the land area. There are real fears that by giving Trump's scheme the go-ahead, ministers have opened the door to projects on supposedly protected sites.

The decision to approve the development came down to a weighing up of the environmental, social and economic pros and cons under NPPG14 on natural heritage. "Our concern is that this signals a change in the government's approach to applications on designated sites," says Aedan Smith, head of planning and development at RSPB Scotland.

"We are very worried that it might set a precedent for other SSSIs. NPPG14 states that development should not be permitted where it would affect a designated site of national importance unless any adverse effects are clearly outweighed by social or economic benefits of national importance. In this instance, we do not agree that environmental harm was clearly outweighed."

With a recession in the offing, Hughes sees a danger that developers proposing schemes purportedly in the national economic interest will be given free rein, regardless of the environmental consequences. "It sends dangerous messages that SSSIs could be up for grabs if you write a big enough cheque," he maintains. "I think that the government needs to send a clear message that this is a one-off and will not be replicated elsewhere."

The Scottish Government asserts that its decision does not mark a change in its stance on protecting the environment. "Every planning application must be considered on its individual merits and with regard to the facts of the case," a spokesman says. "The environment was given full consideration in this application. There is no reason to suggest that the decision on the Menie Estate application would have any bearing on any unrelated proposal."

But Hughes believes that the decision has done severe damage to ministers' stated objective of pursuing sustainable growth in the country. "I can't see how the government can look environmentalists in the eye and say: 'We're all for sustainable economic growth,'" he contends. "It had a clear opportunity to demonstrate its professed commitment and then ignored it."

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