A storm erupted seven years ago in the north-east corner of Scotland when plans for Donald Trump’s “greatest golf course in the world” were rejected.
The scheme on the Menie estate in Aberdeenshire had been heavily backed by business leaders. But being built so close to a site of special scientific interest, it breached several of the council’s planning policies.
The decision from the Aberdeenshire Council’s Infrastructure Services Committee was final and sparked a remarkable turn of events including a ‘call-in’ from the Scottish Government and a high-profile public inquiry, before the decision was overturned.
Trump went on to buy Turnberry on the opposite coast and nowadays he is more concerned with the Scottish Government’s policies on wind power. However Martin Ford, the man who had the casting vote on the crucial decision, is still stopped by people on the street to ask if he is the man “who stood up to Donald Trump”.
At the time of the decision, Ford was a Lib Dem councillor and deputy leader of the council. He was relieved as chairman of the committee by the council leadership, but any claims he had ruined his political career forever have proved very wide of the mark. Seven years on and now a member of the Scottish Greens, he is still very much a political contender.
He is a relative newcomer to the party – joining in 2009, six months or so after leaving the Lib Dems – but arrived in time to witness the huge rise in his party’s fortunes following September’s referendum.
Speaking as the Greens gathered for their annual conference, bolstered by more than 4,000 new members, Ford says this surge in members is “altogether of a different order”.
He says: “The last time anything like this happened was probably the formation of the Alliance [between the Liberal Party and SDP] in the early 1980s. This is truly extraordinary growth.”
These new members don’t just demonstrate greater public support, but more resources to fight elections and a wider pool of potential candidates to stand. Ford predicts this will make the party a stronger presence and says there is “every reason to look forward to a considerably increased electoral success”.
The first test of this is May’s General Election, where Greens would traditionally have the least chance of winning in all the seats they contest and Ford says: “Whereas a decade ago nobody, including people within the Green Party could see any prospect of getting a Green MP elected in Scotland, I don’t think that’s true at all anymore.
“If you look at the European results, the votes in some council areas in the last council elections and the number of members, one has to say realistically that there is a high probability there will be a Green MP in Scotland within a decade, possibly a lot less time than that.”
Ford trained as a botanist and moved up to Aberdeenshire from England in 1988 to work at the North of Scotland College of Agriculture, and it was mainly environmental issues that first brought him to politics.
He stood for the Lib Dems for the Aberdeen North seat in the 1992 General Election knowing he had no chance of getting elected but saw it as an opportunity to raise important environmental issues.
It was in 1999 when he joined Aberdeenshire Council when his party were growing in prominence in the region.
Standing up to Trump is still what Ford is best known for. He wrote a piece in the Journal of Irish and Scottish Studies, ‘Deciding the Fate of a Magical, Wild Place’, setting out his experiences of two months of intense public pressure.
Ahead of the now famous decision he had spent a three-hour session with the council’s head of law, preparing for all possible outcomes.
Council officers had recommended approval based on the scheme’s economic benefits, but the environmental impact meant it was rejected – although it needed Ford’s casting vote to do so.
While the committee would have expected a refreshed application or an appeal, Trump said that was it and business leaders and politicians in Aberdeenshire feared the North East had lost a huge investment and employment opportunity for the area.
The decision was overturned after the public inquiry, but in the immediate aftermath, much of the attention focused on the councillor who had used his casting vote.
Ford received thousands of emails, on what was an incredibly divisive issue and he says the issue had an immediate impact on the council, a “tribal and bullying culture” developed and an authority that had been “consensual to a fault” changed.
“For many years the council had been, frankly, worthy but dull. Suddenly it was neither,” he says.
“Even on the most sensible of proposals, if it came from someone who was on the wrong side of the argument that had come to define the council, it wouldn’t be given the time of day,”
For him, personally, the issue was “testing” for both him and his wife Gina.
“Parts of it were unpleasant, there’s no point in pretending about that. My wife was not a public figure, she couldn’t speak out, but she found the public statements being made about her husband very hurtful.”
He, on the other hand, was not afraid of speaking out, and in fact said he ensured he did it as much as possible to explain the committee’s decision.
“There was no question they could ask me I didn’t want them to ask, nothing I could hide away or a secret that we didn’t want to come out.”
A public offer was made to Ford by the Scottish Green Party to join its ranks at the height of the Trump episode. But it was not until nearly two years later he signed up.
Politicians changing their allegiance is nothing new – at least two Tory MPs have now switched to UKIP, sparking by-elections.
But Ford stresses he did not change parties in the same manner, only finally resigning when the party did not take action against the “illiberal and undemocratic behaviour” of some of the leading Aberdeenshire group members and maintains it was “extremely difficult” to leave a political party he had been in for 20 years.
The Trump saga, though, was not the only disagreement he had with party policy and he concedes that with the 2010 Coalition in Westminster with the Conservatives, he may well have left the party at a later date.
Ford had continued to sit as an independent until re-election in 2012 and with the authority now halfway through its current term – and some of the key players during the Trump saga no longer there – he says the atmosphere has once again changed.
And he is equally optimistic for the Green Party’s prospects at a local level in the region.
He says: “The realistic prospect has to be now that there is every reason why we could expect multiple Green councillors on Aberdeenshire and Aberdeen City Council after the next local government elections.
“That’s also an exciting prospect and one that can only be good for those councils and the area and it’s something to look forward to.”
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