Mark your calendars – the stage is being set for one of the most compelling pieces of political theatre that the Scottish Parliament is ever likely to play host to. On 25 April, the American property tycoon and TV impresario Donald Trump will descend on a Holyrood committee room to give the Government both barrels over plans to construct an 11 turbine offshore wind farm facing the £750m luxury golf estate that Trump is building – and has now put on hold – on the Menie Estate in Aberdeenshire. The only thing that can be guaranteed is a full house; Trump never gives anything less than a bravura performance.
Those watching the spectacle would do well not to focus solely on the top billing, however. No one will recognise the woman appearing alongside Trump, but the presence of Susan Crosthwaite on the panel facing the Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee should send a signal that the latest round of transatlantic acrimony could have an impact far beyond a dispute over a spoiled view from the golf course at Menie.
Crosthwaite’s life is tourism. Alongside her husband Robin, she has owned and run the fivestar Cosses Country House at Ballantrae in rural Ayrshire since 1990. She sits on the Ayrshire Chamber of Commerce’s tourism and business forums, and is a member of the Ayrshire Food Network. When Crosthwaite became convinced that VisitScotland wasn’t being active enough in promoting her region’s tourism industry, she set up the Southern Scotland Marketing Initiative to help fill the gap. She was, until last December, a vice chairman of Wolsey Lodges, the luxury franchise that Cosses Country House is a part of, but had to step down from that role when her latest passion started to take up a significant part of her time.
That new commitment is the reason why Crosthwaite will be sitting alongside Trump at the Scottish Parliament: she is chairman of Communities Against Turbines Scotland (CATS), the group adopted by Trump as the local vehicle for his campaign against wind farms in Scotland. Some reports claim the tycoon is prepared to put a £10m war chest behind the fight; whatever the sums involved, much of the money would be spent by CATS, making it Scotland’s first and best-financed nationwide anti-turbine campaign group.
Crosthwaite outlines how CATS plans to make life uncomfortable for politicians, planners and wind power developers, in a national campaign that could see an unprecedented single-issue intervention in Scotland’s local elections. CATS aims to identify councillors in areas where its member organisations are active that have supported wind turbine development, and target them with “a massive advertising campaign”.
The financing would come from overseas: “This is one of the areas that Donald Trump will help us by doing some advertising,” Crosthwaite says.
Another area that CATS is discussing with the Trump organisation is the idea of a ‘flying squad’ of planning experts that the group could dispatch across Scotland to wherever a new wind farm application was made, providing local opponents with the resources they would need to block developments. “We would have a group of retired planners or people who’ve worked for Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) who would go out and help groups and individuals who are objecting, because the only way we will do anything is by working with the system that we’ve got,” Crosthwaite says. “We have to work with the current planning system.
“At the moment, it’s very heavily on the side of the developers and the Government, and it’s very hard for groups to get the relevant information they need, particularly on Section 36 applications, and it costs them a lot of time and a lot of money that they don’t have, so the balance isn’t fair. What we would like to do is help ‘upgrade’ the objections, because if the planners get the right kind of objections, with the right references from SNH and Historic Scotland, this is somewhere where we can really help make a difference. The Scottish Government can’t go on just rubber stamping [applications] and going against democracy.” While no final agreement has been reached and no money has yet changed hands, if Trump puts forward the resources to back CATS’ plans, Crosthwaite will have Conservative MEP Struan Stevenson to thank for his intervention.
“Donald Trump came to us as a result of Struan Stevenson doing an article in the Sunday Post,” she says. “Trump asked how he could get involved, and Stevenson suggested that he got in touch with CATS because of the very large network of groups that we liaise with.
“At the moment, [Trump] has very much raised CATS’ profile through the media, which is good, and we’ve provided him with access to relevant information and contacts. We’re in discussion about ways to move forward,” Crosthwaite adds. When asked if she expects Trump to make good on his pledge of funding, Crosthwaite says: “I think there’s hope for the future. On the single issue of wind turbines and their impact on the tourism economy, we are working quite closely with the Trump organisation, and they are going to support us in certain things.” The group’s ambitions belies its infancy.
Formed on the back of a public meeting in Ballantrae in August 2011 that drew 100 local people, as Stevenson and Labour MSP Graeme Pearson, CATS instigated the first Scottish National Wind Farm Conference, bringing together almost 300 groups from across the country that had previously focused on opposing local turbine planning applications. The new group’s national character is reflected in the membership of its committee: representatives of the East Fife Turbine Awareness Group and No- Tiree Array sit alongside Crosthwaite in deciding Scotland-wide strategy.
“We have hundreds of groups and people on our database that we contact on a daily basis.
We act as a voice for most, if not all of the action groups throughout Scotland, and we’re in communication with many of the groups south of the border as well, and we are aspiring to have a UK conference,” says Crosthwaite. “It’s very much a cross-party initiative; it’s an issue that will only be solved if members from all the parties come together and lobby their colleagues to do something about it.”
As dramatic as CATS’ rise has been, Crosthwaite’s journey from concerned citizen to activist campaigner has been equally swift, with a local newspaper article in January 2011 convincing her that she had to take action. “I’d always been aware that turbines and tourism didn’t go together, but I didn’t understand the volume of turbines until the Carrick Gazette printed a map of the turbines that were operational, consented, in planning and in scoping for the area. It was at that point that I realised something had to be done.”
Crosthwaite insists that her concerns over the impact on the local area are more than just aesthetic – the development of turbines poses an existential threat to her business. “I bring high spending visitors into Scotland,” she says, highlighting the importance of businesses like hers to the local economy, but also the fragility of the market: her guests have the resources to be selective, and to take their custom elsewhere if they so choose.
“I think it presents a real threat to tourism businesses. The problem is that this goes back for years and years, to when the Scottish Parliament was set up and it was decided to have a Minister for Tourism and Energy as being the same person,” Crosthwaite says. The arrangement makes for an impossible balancing act between competing interests. She cites the Scottish Government report, The Economic Impacts of Wind Farms on Scottish Tourism, carried out for the Tourism Policy Unit by academics at Glasgow Caledonian University’s business school and a Glasgow-based consulting firm, Cogent Strategies International, as an example.
“Even the research done in 2005, that was published in 2008, that is frequently referred to on the impact of wind farms on tourism, that was done when there were only a few wind farms, and I think the choice of who they used to do the research affected the questions that were asked and affected the outcome. If you did that research today, you would get a very, very different outcome.”
Crosthwaite claims the dividing lines in the wind turbine debate are shifting. The conflict has taken on a ‘green on green’ character, with local people who are often highly sensitive to environmental concerns – her own business holds a silver award from the VisitScotland Green Tourism Business Scheme – pitted against other environmentalists with a different set of priorities. Crosthwaite also says the issue can’t be considered solely a rural matter any longer. “I think that’s changing. If you look at the letters that are in The Scotsman and The Herald, they’re against wind farms and they’re coming from people who live in cities. I think there are a lot of people who do not understand the issue at all; they don’t understand how the [electricity] grid works, they believe Alex Salmond when he says the wind is free.”
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