Bunkered. But there may be a way out

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While the Trump controversy is polarised between development or ecology, the choice is not quite that stark.

SO, WAS the First Minister transported to his meeting with Trump organisation officials in his First Ministerial limousine, or by local public bus as befits a humble MSP? Did Jim Mackinnon, the administration's planning supremo, get a telephone call saying "First Minister on phone" or just "Alex Salmond"? Was Salmond grossly interfering as the former, or merely meddling as the latter?

Forgive me if I have been unable to find a magnifying glass and Hubble telescope powerful enough to discern the intricacies of the First Minister's alleged misdemeanours on Trump's planning application. How have we allowed an issue of profound importance for Scotland to degenerate into pebbledash politics at its worst: the niggardly fishwife prattle of some blighted Brigadoon?

This has been all the more regrettable because this planning application has raised fundamental questions. The issue is not about the minutiae of ministerial protocols or a stark choice between wildlife conservation and a golf course (Dubai's golf course, created out of barren desert, is now populated by flamingos and a range of sustainable wildlife). Nor is it even about that crude caricature of Scotland being "bought and sold for American gold" (tell that to our hoteliers, or the thousands employed in Scotland by the likes of IBM, State Street and Citigroup).

It is about what sort of Scotland we are, and in what direction we wish to move. Do we wish a bias to development – or a future in which environmentalism and "green" concerns are determining factors in everything we do? If we are serious in our environmental commitment, why can we not stick to the rules we have ourselves chosen to apply? It may feel to many that we have arrived at a Rubicon: that the choice we now have to make here will determine whether our priority is to establish Scotland as an environmental leader or to lift our sustainable growth rate: one or the other. But is the reality really as stark and as polarised as this?

From a pro-development point of view, the First Minister is right to be concerned about Scotland's reputation abroad. Our planning system must be fair, and seen to be fair, with applications, whether from domestic or overseas investors, considered on their merits.

The concern over the Trump application, challenging though it was to the local area development plan, was that it was seen to be prejudged, an impression unfortunately reinforced by the casting vote of an environmental activist who, for the past 15 years, has chosen not to board an aeroplane. There were also reasonable grounds for doubt as to whether the casting vote represented the true wishes of Aberdeenshire Council as a whole. And, whether we like this development or not, it is one of sufficient scale to have a wider impact on Scotland and its appeal as a global leisure destination.

There has been, I sense, a huge element of hypocrisy in the criticism of the First Minister. Supposing that the vote of the planning committee had been allowed to stand and that no move had been made to "call in" the application. The First Minister, and the SNP administration as a whole, would have been subjected to a hail of criticism for complacency, dereliction of duty and allowing a major investment of global note to slip through their fingers. The Conservatives would have been up in arms, led, I have no doubt, by David McLetchie gleefully pointing out the loss of jobs and investment.

And the Lib Dem leader, Nicol Stephen, largely invisible when he was enterprise minister, would have been moved to a soporific eloquence. Is it not the job of the Scottish Government to promote inward investment and boost Scotland's sustainable growth rate? These taunts would have turned to tantrums had Trump gone straight to Northern Ireland and had his golf-complex proposal warmly embraced – as it may well still be. For a country striving to be an economic success story, we would have been a laughing stock.

Yet, there is another Scotland, one that wants to see the country as a pioneer in environmental care and protection, and that would prefer Scotland to be seen as a global standard-bearer for "green" issues. This is the global zeitgeist, and Scotland would enhance its international reputation immensely by pursuing green policies and putting all development plans through the hoop.

The Trump application pinions us on this fundamental issue. And it is one on which we must find a way through if we are not to condemn Scotland to a future as an irrelevant backwater. There has to be somewhere in between total victory for one side or the other. And there is.

Development is required to pass increasingly stringent environmental standards. The problem with the Trump proposal was less development per se than that it was out of kilter with what the local authority had previously agreed for the area, and that, in Florida-style appearance if not in scale, it had a dated, 1980s feel to it. Not all environmentalists are opposed to development. Not all in the pro-development camp would be prepared to back this plan to the last grotesque "Disneyland" gargoyle.

How different the outcome would have been had Trump's "golfopolis" been drafted with the help of local architects, producing a submission that featured housing designed to the highest environmental standards, that had as its centrepiece a clubhouse and hotel using Scottish wood and materials and that was at the leading edge of environmental design. Golf tourneys would flock to a site that was visually pleasing, made a virtue of its sensitivity to local ecology and made visitors feel good about being there.

There may yet be such an outcome. But we need to focus on the bigger issue of the application. If we do not, the needle on this gauge between triumph and disaster will veer to an end where no-one wins.