In what would be one of the most ambitious and expensive foreign projects undertaken by Donald Trump’s family business since he assumed the presidency, his company has commissioned a detailed masterplan to develop as many as 225 properties, as well as leisure facilities and shops, on an expanse of rolling farmland adjacent to Turnberry’s lauded Ailsa course, a four-time host of golf’s Open Championship.
Given the Trump Organisation has yet to formally submit a planning application, it has not announced the project or publicised its intentions. But Scotland on Sunday has obtained a series of documents prepared on its behalf by an architectural practice and one of the nation’s leading planning lawyers. Together, they spell out the company’s grand ambitions for the 114 year old resort, arguably the most prestigious of all Trump’s properties.
A key selling point put forward by the Trump Organisation’s architects is the creation of “high-end private residential homes for retirement living,” which it says would offer "permanent tranquility and respite” and help address a “social need” amongst an ageing population.
It characterises the development as a response to “an ever-increasing demand for investment opportunities,” and one it says would bolster employment and economic growth in the south west of Scotland.
While planning officials in South Ayrshire have refused requests to rezone the land in question, the prospect of Trump’s firm pursuing an expansion far bolder and bigger in scale than anything it has previously proposed at Turnberry has sparked concerns and renewed questions about Trump's financing.
The secretary of Turnberry’s community council warned there was no need for housing on the land owned by the Trump Organisation, and said there was a “narcissistic” dimension to what is “just another real estate development.”
Patrick Harvie MSP, co-leader of the Scottish Greens and a longstanding critic of Trump, said his firm had shown itself to be “an irresponsible and environmentally damaging developer,” as well as a “bad neighbour,” and urged officials to reject its advances.
“His personal finances have never been transparent, and rather than letting him help himself to another piece of Scotland's tourism industry, we should be going to court to seek an Unexplained Wealth Order, to start casting some light on his business dealings,” he added.
The Trump Organisation did not respond to repeated enquiries from Scotland on Sunday about the coastal retreat project, including how much it intends to spend, or whether the coronavirus crisis has impacted on its plans.
Masterplan drawn up by Trump’s architects
Having been closed since March as a result of Covid-19 restrictions, Turnberry’s golf courses reopened for play on 3 July, and its accommodation will begin welcoming guests again this Wednesday. With enhanced hygiene and safety measures in place - including temperature checks for employees, suppliers, and contractors - Trump’s firm has been pushing ‘staycations’ in its promotional blitzes, advertising its cluster of self-contained, self-catering holiday cottages to a reticent tourism market.
Those cottages, located off the A719, buttress a gnarled strip of tarmacadam which has long fallen into a state of disrepair, with weeds poking through its cracked surface. It is mostly frequented by dog walkers and horse riders, or repurposed as a makeshift car park during tournaments at Turnberry.
In its heyday, it served multiple units of the Royal Air Force, who used it to train in aerial gunnery during both world wars. But if the Trump Organisation’s masterplan is any guide, another battle may be looming.
The coastal retreat is earmarked for a 120 acre expanse of farmland next to the disused airstrip. It is among parcels of land acquired by Trump when he purchased Turnberry from Dubai-based Leisurecorp six years ago. If the jewel in the crown was the Turnberry resort itself, the Trump Organisation has not been blind to the potential which lies elsewhere.
The Scotsman revealed how, as recently as 2018, the company floated the idea of building several dozen properties on an area further to the north, but its request to rezone the tracts of agricultural land failed to convince planners. At the time, the company did not respond to enquiries about the decision’s impact on future investment plans.
It is now clear that, far from being dissuaded, the Trump Organisation grew more determined than ever to build around the prestige property. As one source at Turnberry put it: “Trump strayed into the rough, but he didn’t go out of bounds.”
A month after The Scotsman reported that planners decided against redesignating some of Trump’s landholdings for a development of 87 dwellings last October, his company’s commissioned architects, Covell Matthews, produced an “outline indicative” masterplan. It did not scale down those plans; instead, it went the opposite way, detailing an expansion unprecedented in Turnberry’s history.
It describes how the Trump Organisation has taken inspiration from the “heritage inspired architecture” of places like Luss, Braemar, and Alloway for the “coastal retreat and a new heritage community.”
The 15 page document proposes the creation of a "network of neighbourhoods," consisting of residential homes, holiday homes available for sale or part ownership, retirement villas, rental cottages, and luxury serviced apartments. The properties would be built across three phases, with around 75 units constructed at each step, similar to the staged ‘Trump Estate’ housing development greenlit last September at Trump’s inaugural Scottish resort in Aberdeenshire.
‘Nobody here knows anything about this development’
For Jane Lutz, a retired university professor who serves as the secretary of Kirkoswald, Maidens and Turnberry Community Council, news of the Trump Organisation’s plans come as a surprise.
She grew up in the area, and lives in the neighbouring village of Maidens, a pretty fishing harbour set in a natural cove which remains popular with daytrippers and families drawn to its static caravan park. Turnberry lies a mile south, and is a place of cherished memories for Lutz; she freely used the resort’s swimming pool when it belonged to the state-owned British Transport Hotels, and gathered in the hotel lobby with her school choir to sing Christmas carols.
The resort, she says, is a key part of the region’s history, but the Trump Organisation’s goal of creating a new “coastal retreat” has remained a secret known only to a select few individuals and companies.
“Nobody here knows anything about this development, despite the fact the community council has to be consulted in law about planning issues,” she said.
“The Trump Organisation has never asked to give a presentation here, and whether it’s the harbour trust, the bowling club, the church, the school, or the old people’s club, no one knows a thing about this.”
She and others in the community are mindful of the need for inward investment in a remote, rural nook of Scotland and are attuned to its status as a draw for holidaymakers, whether it be visiting Boys Brigade units setting up camp on the foreshore, or well-heeled professionals in pastel-coloured polo shirts who maintain second homes in the area.
But having scrutinised the Trump Organisation masterplan, she points out that “there is no need for housing on the land,” and questions what economic benefits it would bring.
“It seems that Trump’s firm is trying to ride two horses at once,” she reasoned, “It describes it as a tourism resort but also a housing development. There are no metrics, just statements - there’s nothing behind this document, and it’s proposing a housing development which is completely outside the planning framework.”
Another Maidens resident, Frances Brown, keeps her horse in a field near to where the housing is planned. “The Trumps already have chalets and cottages, and they’re never fully occupied, so why build more properties?” she questioned. “The idea of a retirement village is very much a US idea, but it’s not part of the culture here. We certainly don’t have Florida’s weather.”
Further spending at a property which has lost £43m under Trump
Nowhere is it specified in the documents how much the Trump Organisation intends to spend on the development. The masterplan, submitted to planning officials at South Ayrshire Council, argues it would “generate further opportunities and growth for the local economy.”
It adds: “Trump Turnberry is an important asset for South Ayrshire and this proposal represents an opportunity to enhance that asset, providing economic growth and employment and further enhancing the reputation of Trump Turnberry and South Ayrshire.”
Another document, prepared by Mark McMurray, a planning partner with CMS, states that “substantial investment” has already taken place at Turnberry, and that the new venture would “boost the reputation” of the region.
What is self-evident is that the Trump Organisation plans to spend considerably more money on an asset which has remained stubbornly in the red. Accounts filed with Companies House show Turnberry’s corporate vehicle, Golf Recreation Scotland Limited, has lost nearly £43m since Trump’s 2014 purchase, and it is reliant on £114.9m in loans from its parent undertaking, the New York-based Donald J Trump Revocable Trust.
The resort will also have to bear the brunt of Covid-19. Even after reopening this week, it is anticipated occupancy rates will not be able to exceed around 40 to 50 per cent, in part due to social distancing. The Trump Organisation’s executives in Scotland told The Guardian last month it had utilised coronavirus emergency funding schemes. The company did not respond to questions from Scotland on Sunday about what financial assistance it has received.
The masterplan, in any case, paints a picture of how it sees Turnberry changing to meet market needs - not just as a place where people can enjoy a round of golf or an overnight stay, but somewhere to retire to permanently.
The document states that the Trump Organisation’s expansion into the second home and holiday home markets represents a “natural extension of its current trading assets,” and would enhance the resort’s future as “a global leader in the leisure and tourism market.”
It goes on: “Trump Turnberry is exceptionally well placed to be a forerunner in the retirement property market through the creation of an industry leading luxury retirement proposition.
“The provision of high-end private residential homes with world-class golf, leisure and recreational services, and facilities on its doorstep, will set Trump Turnberry apart as the destination of choice for discerning travellers, golfers and those in pursuit of permanent tranquillity and respite.”
Elsewhere, it elaborates: “This is not a traditional hotel and tourism offering, but is responding to an ever-increasing demand for investment opportunities through the purchase, and part ownership, of private holiday homes in world-class tourism and leisure resorts.”
There is no detail of proposed house prices in the document, but newly published research by Getagent, the estate agent comparison site, found that out of 25 of the UK’s top golf resorts, Turnberry was the only venue where surrounding house prices were lower than the regional average. While prices in South Ayrshire as a whole stand at £133,738, the average is £91,950 in the KA26 postcode taking in Trump’s property.
‘I would have the right to build at least a thousand houses on Turnberry, if I wanted to’
In other pages of the masterplan, colourful language is employed to emphasise Turnberry’s storied history, invoking Robert the Bruce and referencing “centuries of legend and folklore.” Time will tell if the Trump Organisation can write the next chapter of Turnberry’s history with its retirement enclave.
The masterplan stresses that the documentation submitted so far is designed to “give an indication of what a future development could look like based on advice from the Trump Organisation’s architects and wider professional team, including environmental and landscaping experts.”
It states that future development proposals would be subject to a “further detailed masterplanning exercise” involving professional consultants, and would likely be taken forward in a “series of chapters.”
Previous custodians of Turnberry have toyed with building on land around the golf courses, but declined to take plans forward. They included Starwood Hotels, whose then chief executive, Vasant Prabhu, told a 2008 investors’ conference it had explored redevelopment only to conclude “it wasn’t really going to be attractive.”
Since they took over one of the world’s most celebrated golf venues, the Trump family and their executives have invested considerable time and energy into going the extra mile. As long ago as May 2016, Trump claimed he had the right to embark on a large-scale housebuilding drive.
“It’s pretty simple,” he told Reuters. “My golf holdings are really investments in thousands, many thousands of housing units and hotels. At some point the company will do them. Hopefully, I won’t because I will be president, but we’re in no rush to do them.
“I would have the right to build at least a thousand houses on Turnberry, if I wanted to, again, if I wanted to. Right now I am doing something far more important than building houses.”
Since then, the 74-year-old’s second son, Eric, an executive vice-president with the Trump Organisation, has spearheaded efforts to develop the landholdings. In November 2018, Ralph Porciani, Turnberry’s general manager, told The Scotsman that Eric had personally mapped out its assets.
“What Eric has done in the last year is zone the land out that he thinks is the best fit for it and basically notify the council that it’s our plan to do it,” he explained. “Does Turnberry want to do it? 100 per cent yes. The Trump Organisation have it in their radar and are quite excited.
“It’s land that’s used for the odd bit of cattle grazing. We rent the land out to a farmer so he maintains it, it just sits there ticking over. I’d hope it would be welcomed and we would be able to do it, because I think it’d bring a lot to the area.”
Porciani said at the time any development was not imminent, but formed part of a long term strategy. “Whether they’re a year away, two years, or five years away or maybe even longer, we’ve got no timeline as yet,” he explained.
‘The land is not zoned for housing and there are no plans to change the zoning’
At a sun dappled Maidens harbour, Peter Henderson takes a seat at a picnic table and gazes out over the mouth of the Clyde, a view framed by the ridges of Arran’s Corbetts. It is a calming sight, and perhaps a welcome one. A little over a fortnight ago, the Shetland native and SNP councillor was unanimously elected as the leader of the local authority in South Ayrshire, a position which will require difficult decisions in the months and years ahead given the extraordinary dual challenge of coronavirus and Brexit.
The prospect of Trump’s plans becoming reality depends in large part on his council. The Turnberry masterplan was submitted as part of a consultation for its new local development plan (LDP), a framework guiding where development should and should not take place over the next decade.
The process of finalising the LDP remains ongoing. In their response to the submissions by the Trump Organisation, planning officials said that “the policies contained within the modified plan provide an appropriate framework for the consideration of tourism and leisure related proposals.”
The Trump masterplan had asked for the land by the airfield to be rezoned for “significant leisure, recreation and tourism” use, but as was the case with the initial, smaller housing proposal two years ago, the planners have not acceded to the request.
Nor did they concur with Covell Matthews that there should be an amendment of a tourism planning policy which would offer ‘positive support’ for proposals which might enhance the status of Turnberry as an Open venue. Instead, the existing policy, which will generally not allow development deemed to ‘negatively affect’ that very status, will remain in situ.
Henderson, who lives a few hundred yards away from the site of the proposed development, and represents Turnberry as part of his ward, stressed that he cannot properly assess a development until a planning application is lodged. He is, however, in agreement with his planners over the LDP.
“The land is not zoned for housing and there are no plans to change the zoning,” he said. “The community’s response would all depend on what’s in the plan. South Ayrshire has one of the oldest demographics in Britain, and I’ve nothing against that, but then again we’ve got to keep young people here. Is a plan going to provide opportunities and retain people in the area?
“You also have to remember all the services that might be required. There is a doctors in Girvan and a doctors in Maybole, but if we increase the demands on the health and social care service, how do we cope with that?”
There is, however, an important caveat in the council’s response to the Trump masterplan. Planning officials are proposing to modify one of the strategic policies so as to reference “net economic benefit” when considering planning applications. It means that if and when the Trump Organisation brings forward a formal application, it will be able to argue its financial merits. That could prove to be significant.
When presented with the company’s argument that it would be investing in the area, Henderson said: “Turnberry is a big employer in this community, and not just the greenkeepers and caddies, but the local businesses that provide supplies, and not everyone who plays Turnbery wants to stay there, so other hotels benefit. We have to take that into consideration.”
A further LDP consultation runs until August, and the plan will be scrutinised by the Scottish Government before coming into force. If the Trump Organisation lodges more detailed plans, their merits would be assessed alongside the context of the finalised LDP.
Asked for his views on the masterplan, Harvie was unequivocal in his opposition. “South Ayrshire Council would be well advised not to let this business influence their LDP, and to be up front and open with the local community about the issues being decided,” he said.
“Our planning system is so unfair that people often find that by the time an application is submitted, a wealthy developer has already exerted so much influence that their objections are too late, and that's one reason why housing is so often built to meet developers' greed rather than social need.
“Beyond this particular development, we should be very wary of allowing Scotland's reputation to be further associated with the toxic Trump brand. The man himself is a delusional bully, an advocate of climate denial and other dangerous conspiracy theories, and he has actively promoted the views of fascists, including in the UK.”
Allan Dorrans, the SNP MP for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock, said he was not aware of the Trump Organisation masterplan, and had received no representation from the company or its representatives.
He said that many of the Turnberry’s employees were local, and it was “generally seen as a good employer,” adding: “Whilst any development which benefits the local and national economy is welcome, it would need to be considered in light of the impact on the environment and local community.”
Jeane Freeman, the health secretary and SNP MSP for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley, said: “My office has not been contacted by the Trump Organisation or Trump Turnberry regarding this matter."
Frustrations over Open Championship
While the Trump Organisation has encountered vocal opposition in Aberdeenshire, its relationship with communities and stakeholders in South Ayrshire has been notably less abrasive. That is in part due to employment opportunities and widely acclaimed improvements to Turnberry’s golf offering and renovations to its accommodation. Another factor, Lutz believes, is a “lack of organisational capacity” in a sparsely populated rural area.
“There’s not the strong community feeling that there used to be when villages drew their identity from fishing or agriculture industries,” she explains. “It has become fragmented, with retirees, second home owners, and people on very, very low incomes.”
But questions are being asked by local representatives, not least how, if at all, the Trump investment strategy would improve local infrastructure left creaking by the 1,700 or so lorries traversing the notorious A77 every day.
That is one of the barriers to Trump’s burning ambition for Turnberry to welcome back the Open, a tournament it last hosted in 2009. Martin Slumbers, the R&A’s chief executive, has said Turnberry remains in the pool of venues, but has indicated a need for “much more detailed conversations” with the Scottish Government about infrastructure, because “it’s difficult to get people there.”
Lutz says those questions will intensify if hundreds of properties are built. “What are the externalities to development?” she pointed out. “It would put pressure on health, social services, and infrastructure - it’s not just the condition of the A77, there is a major problem with flooding on the A719. Who would pay for those improvements?”
Having grown up around Turnberry and witnessed the ebb and flow of the area’s fortunes, Lutz insists that she is ready to assess any formal planning application fairly.
“I think the Trump Organisation will pursue these plans. Whether it gets approval is unclear, and it depends on a number things, including ultimately, the say of the Scottish Government,” she suggested.
“I’m not going to be holier than thou and oppose Trump for the sake of it. If he does come up with something that’s appropriate in scale, I would consider it.
“But the scale of our ambition in Turnberry at the moment is trying to get a bus shelter installed. If Trump’s company is planning on buying more gold chandeliers, will any of that money come back to our community?”
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