“I couldn’t believe it,” said Susan Munro, one of Donald Trump’s famed and much-troubled neighbours on the northeast coast of Scotland. “It was the first time they listened to me and did something. It was a historic event.”
In an unprecedented move, Aberdeenshire Council has told the outspoken US property tycoon what to do with his controversial golf course - and he’s done it. It’s a sign that, slowly but significantly, the way the local authority is treating Trump is becoming more robust and challenging.
This week Trump is launching a public consultation on his plans to build a second 18-hole links golf course at the Menie estate on the Aberdeenshire coast. He will need planning permission from the council to go ahead with the development.
Munro has lived in Leyton Cottage at Menie for 30 years. Since Trump’s £750 million golf resort was given the go-ahead by the Scottish government in 2008, she has been threatened, along with other neighbours, with the possibility of compulsory purchase and plunged into a series of conflicts over the development.
Contractors have piled huge mounds of earth around her house and garden, to hide them from golfers. She claims the embankments, which have been planted with trees, have blocked her view, cut out natural light and increased the risk of flooding.
“I can’t see a damn thing here, I really can’t. It’s awful. I’m trapped, it’s like a wall all around me,” she told the Sunday Herald last week. “I’m not getting any light. If the trees grow, I won’t be able to see the sky.”
She pointed out that there was now nowhere for water to escape to when it rained, and that her access road had already been washed away once. “A week of rain, and my house will be flooded,” she said.
Trump didn’t have planning permission for the embankments, but applied for retrospective consent for them. The Sunday Herald revealed in June that he has made five applications in 18 months for consent for construction work he has already completed, and was being asked by the council to make a sixth.
Despite opposition, Aberdeenshire Council approved the embankments, but asked Trump to lower them, and replant some of the trees. His contractors appeared at the start of the month and doubled the height of the east embankment at the bottom of her garden from about two to four metres.
When Munro noticed a digger and a dumper truck shifting the earth, she went to speak to the drivers. “I was annoyed,” she said. “Trump had been told to halve the size of the bank, and he doubled it. He just does what he wants, if he can get away with it.”
She contacted a planning official at the council, who promised to visit the next morning. Two local councillors came to see what had happened, and the Montrose filmmaker, Anthony Baxter, who is making a documentary in the area, also started asking questions of officialdom.
Munro said she was “astonished” by the council’s response. “Normally I’m kind-of ignored,” she said. “Before when I tried to contact them, there was nobody to speak to. I was quite shocked.”
With a few days, the diggers were back at the bottom of Munro’s garden removing the earth they had just put there. The embankment was lowered back down to the height it used to be.
“That was a turn-up for the books,” commented Munro. “I wonder if he’s being good, kowtowing to the council so that he can get permission for his second golf course.”
Trump has yet to lower the height of the other embankment to the south, or to replant the trees as the council requested. He’s also been asked to remove three lampposts from an adjoining car park. “There’s still a long way to go,” Munro said with a sigh.
One of the councillors who visited Munro was Paul Johnston, the leader of the Democratic Independent and Green Group on Aberdeenshire Council and vice-chairman of the local planning committee. “I was very surprised to see an increased height to the mounds of earth next to Leyton Cottage,” he said.
“This was after the council had approved Trump’s retrospective planning permission only on condition he reduced the mounds to more acceptable levels along with the removal of lights and trees.”
Johnston was convinced that Trump had been forced to act by the council, following the complaints by Munro and others. He thought this was the first time the council had compelled Trump to remedy a breach of planning consent.
“It is now up to council planners and officials to ensure that Trump’s other unconsented activities are examined and further enforcement or applications are made,” he added. “People will judge Aberdeenshire Council by its approach to enforcement and how it deals with potential breaches of planning consent.”
The council confirmed that it had been “in discussions with the Trump Organisation regarding a section of embankment at a neighbouring property that was higher than permitted in the planning permission.” Said a council spokesman: “The developer agreed to address this and we can confirm the area of land has been reduced to the level permitted.”
The council’s head of planning, Robert Gray, previously told Baxter that Trump had sought an extension of the time required to reduce the height of the other embankment to the south. “That application will be progressed in the normal manner and is yet to be determined by Aberdeenshire Council,” he said.
Another controversy is emerging about the sidelining of an expert committee meant to oversee environmental aspects of Trump’s development. The Menie Environmental Management Advisory Group (MEMAG), set up as a condition of planning approval, has not met since January, and its future is uncertain.
“I’m not sure it still exists,” one of its members, a retired Aberdeenshire Council senior planner Allan Garvie, told the Sunday Herald. He was “disappointed” that the Trump Organisation and the local community had failed to turn up for meetings.
According to the council spokesman, MEMAG was a “continued requirement”. He said: “In order to further meet its obligations a review of the group's remit is being carried out to ensure it is best placed to consider any future environmental matters relating to the site.”
George Sorial, the Trump Organisation’s executive vice president in New York, said the review was being jointly conducted by the council and the developer and its outcome would be available “in due course”. He dismissed concerns about the embankments around Susan Munro’s home.
“All these matters have been discussed and agreed upon with the council,” he said. “There will be additional landscaping proposals submitted in connection with our detailed application for the areas around our existing facilities and the second golf course.”