History is repeating itself and neatly doing so 10 years later. Scotland's governing party has again shown that it is more interested in kowtowing to celebrities than in respecting the wishes of communities.
With its decision to back a proposal by Judy Murray, mother of the tennis-playing brothers, to build a monstrous development in honour of her sons, the SNP government has demonstrated its contempt for majority opinion in the area concerned. We should not be surprised, for this is the most centralising administration in the history of modern Scotland. But we have every right to be shocked – both by the decision itself and by the casual manner in which local democracy has been held in contempt.
Mrs Murray wished to create a 'legacy' immortalising the achievements
of Andy and Jamie. To this end she conceived the idea of a tennis centre of six outdoor and six indoor courts, in the hope of encouraging more young people to take up a game that has never been popular in Scotland and is not popular even now. Fair enough; legacies are all the rage. Why should Mrs Murray be denied hers?
But the scheme turned out to be much more than a tennis centre. The plan just approved by the Scottish government – Advantage Murray in the deciding set – looks suspiciously like one of those hideous American-style resorts, the sort of place favoured by such low people as Donald Trump. It is to include, as well as the tennis courts, a museum devoted to Andy and Jamie (I jest not), a six-hole golf course, a 150-bed hotel, and luxury housing.
Who needs any of this? Scotland is rotten with golf courses (many of which are struggling for survival), the idea of exclusive pads for the rich is repellent, and it is unclear whether a market exists for another large hotel or whether this one will be any better than the dreary collection we have already. But all that is beside the point to some extent. If this is how a proud mother wishes to spend her and other people's money, if this is her strange notion of a legacy, it seems churlish to stand in her way.
A problem arises, however, over her choice of location. It is an area of protected greenbelt separating Dunblane and Bridge of Allan. For many years, local people have jealously guarded the asset on their doorstep, successfully resisting various attempts to rip it up. So when Mrs Murray came along with her grandoise plan to ensure that Andy and Jamie are never forgotten, there was consternation, even horror, at the prospect of her 'country park' (as it was now being called) and the forecast that it would attract 270,000 visitors a year.
The planning authority, Stirling Council, received 45 letters in support of the scheme and more than 1,300 opposing it. The council said that it had never before received such a volume of objections. Allowing Mrs Murray to go ahead would have undermined the local development plan, destroyed the treasured greenbelt, put intolerable stress on a fragile road system, and robbed Dunblane and Bridge of Allan of their distinctive physical identities. For all these reasons, Stirling Council rejected the scheme – despite its endorsement by such luminaries as Sir Alex Ferguson and Colin Montgomerie.
Bitterly disappointed, Mrs Murray appealed to the Scottish government. At that point, new balls were summoned. The plan went to a public inquiry heard by a reporter, Timothy Brian, appointed by the Scottish government. His verdict was damning. He condemned the project for being contrary to policies which aim to protect the greenbelt and special landscapes, avoid inappropriate development in the countryside, and reduce dependency on the private car. He was, furthermore, unconvinced that a location away from Scotland's main centres of population was the best place to build a tennis centre. Mr Brian recommended that the appeal against Stirling Council's decision should be dismissed.
And that seemed to be game, set and match – until the local government minister, Kevin Stewart by name, decided he knew better than the local planning authority, the substantial body of local objectors, and his own disinterested inquiry reporter. He said he had concluded that the development was 'of regional and national significance' and gave it outline permission. Of course this was not an outcome determined by Kevin Stewart, whoever he is. It had the hand of Nicola Sturgeon all over it.
Now, where have we heard something like this before? Let us not forget – as if we ever could.
It is 10 years since President Trump, as he then wasn't, came to Scotland to announce his intention to build a golfing resort on the sand dunes which formed part of the Menie estate, a site of special scientific interest in Aberdeenshire. It mattered not a jot to Trump that the dunes were unanimously acclaimed by environmental groups as one of the 'crown jewels' of Scotland's natural heritage. Nor did it seem to matter to Trump's close friend Alex Salmond, the local MP and Ms Sturgeon's predecessor as first minister, who was reported to be wining and dining with Trump in New York.
Aberdeenshire Council threw out the plan in November 2007. This exercise of local democracy counted for nothing, just as it was to count for nothing when Stirling Council did the same a decade later. The Menie scheme was 'called in' by the Scottish government, which decreed that it would be 'in the national interest' for it to be reconsidered (note how little the language has changed: now we have a project 'of regional and national significance'). Surprise, surprise, that well-known state guardian, John Swinney, announced that it should go ahead after all. But on that occasion, as on this, the influence of the first minister was heavily detectable. Only the name had changed.
While Alex Salmond was appearing on television to declare that the supposed 'economic benefits' far outweighed any environmental concerns, Trump's bully boys were building a massive wall of earth round the home of a local objector, David Milne, while Trump himself accused another objector, Michael Forbes, of living like a pig. About his close friend's disgraceful behaviour, the first minister had nothing to say. It was only later, much later, that he decided Trump was 'a complete and utter nincompoop.' By then, the rare dunes had been sacrificed to the over-riding needs of the Pringle sweater brigade.
These episodes, with their disconcerting parallels, tell us a great deal about the present administration: its lack of sensitivity to precious landscapes, its desire to cosy up to the rich and powerful, its indifference to informed opinion, its excessive regard for the great god sport, its use of empty rhetoric to defend cynical decisions. But most worryingly they tell us that local democracy is now regarded as a cheap, dispensable commodity. It would not be in the least astonishing if the Scottish government secretly longed to dispose of the tiresome inconvenience of local government and had everything decided in Edinburgh. Hang about. It could happen yet.