Unconvincing smokescreen

The latest attempt at diversionary waffle by SNP MSP Alex Neil (click on headline to view today’s Press & Journal on this) in which Neil wholly inaccurately claims that Nicol Stephen had launched a “cowardly attack” on Jim McKinnon, the Scottish Government’s chief planning officer, is, I suspect, simply designed to try to deflect from the serious questions the SNP government has to answer in relation to McTrumpgate.

What did Nicol Stephen actually say? Well, let’s quote word for word from the parliamentary official report :

Nicol Stephen: Aberdeenshire Council will confirm that it had to ask for the Trump representatives to leave the chief planner’s room during a phone call last Tuesday. This is a serious situation for the First Minister and his Government. Every step of the way, there has been contradiction, concealment and cleverness from his Government on the issue. It smells of sleaze. Will he now establish an independent inquiry to investigate what happened in those 48 hours last Monday and Tuesday, to find out why the developers were present with the chief planner on the very day that their application was called in and to examine what pressure the chief planner was put under by ministers to take the potentially prejudicial actions that now jeopardise the project? Does he understand that few people will now believe that his Government is a fair and proper body to decide the application in an open and transparent way?”

Err…so what Nicol Stephen actually did was to bring into the public domain the fact that the Trump representatives were present when McKinnon picked up the phone to the local authority and Nicol Stephen also called for an independent inquiry on the whole issue, an inquiry that I suspect would be widely welcomed across Scotland.

Alex Neil’s attempts at “attack being the best form of defence” will get the SNP government nowhere – the issue has run far too far for the smoke and mirrors of Alex Neil to stop this particular story running and running.

The following BBC report (see http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/scotland/north_east/7142696.stm) highlights some of the legitimate concerns that will not go away :

BBC Scotland asked the Scottish Government a series of questions surrounding phone conversations between its chief planner and the chief executive of Aberdeenshire Council over the Trump application.

Those government responses, received in an e-mail three minutes after the start of first minister’s question time, stated that members of the Trump team were not in the room with the chief planner.

However, Aberdeenshire Council later said they had been.

The Scottish Government then admitted that members of the Trump organisation were in the room with the chief planner at the start of the first of two phone call conversations, but not when the discussion took place.
Here are the initial questions we asked of the Scottish Government and the responses received.

Question: Who was in the room with the chief planner when he placed the first of the two calls he made to the chief executive of Aberdeenshire council on 4th December to discuss the Trump organisation’s planning application for the Menie estate?
Answer: No-one other than the chief planner and David Ferguson, head of planning decisions. The Trump organisation were not in the room.
Question: Was it appropriate for members of the Trump organisation to be in the room during this call?
Answer: The Trump Organisation were not in the room.

OK then, we now know that at the time of the first call to the Chief Executive of Aberdeenshire Council was made, the Trump people were in the room. The fundamental questions in relation to this aspect are now surely (a) why did the Scottish Government initially indicate otherwise, only “clarifying” matters when it became obvious that its version was at odds with that of Aberdeenshire Council and (b) exactly why were the Trump people in the room at the time McKinnon picked up the phone to the local authority? An independent inquiry into the whole matter, including the actions of the First Minister, is now absolutely vital.

Salmond struggled badly at FMQs this week. Alan Cochrane, Scottish Political Editor of the Daily Telegraph summed it up perfectly :

“Mr Salmond got a terrific pasting on the issue at Question Time yesterday from Nicol Stephen, for the Liberal Democrats.”

Daily Telegraph 14/12/2007

As always, Annabel Goldie was on good form :

“The First Minister has failed to comply with the ministerial code. He has made inappropriate use of Scottish Government facilities, and he did not display the visible neutrality that is required of any Government minister when they are dealing with a planning matter. Astonishingly, as the First Minister, he was not even-handed, he was cack-handed. Either that is ignorance or arrogance, and ignorance is not a condition with which I associate the First Minister. [Laughter.]”

Cllr Martin Ford, Aberdeenshire Council

I have met Martin Ford on only a few occasions but he has always struck me as an able and committed local councillor. He has, in my view, been treated dreadfully badly by those Aberdeenshire councillors who failed to support him today.

I simply do not have enough local knowledge of that part of Aberdeenshire to form a reasoned view as to the merits of the Trump Organisation’s proposals but to remove a Committee Chair simply for having an opinion that is different from your own is quite frankly utterly disgraceful.

If you follow that stupid logic, all elected members must always support the officers’ recommendation on planning applications or face the sack. If this applied in Dundee, as one of the more vocal councillors on planning matters in defending his constituents’ interests in the West End, I wouldn’t last five minutes. Thankfully, our own authority continues to accept the right to disagree, to question, to complain on planning matters. Long may that continue.

On the subject of the First Minister’s role, I think it is summed up by Nicol Stephen’s comments:

“These meetings raise serious questions about the First Minister’s judgment and whether he acted appropriately.
“The First Minister has a clear conflict of interest and should have played no role in the planning process.
“His actions have been at best unwise and are potentially seriously prejudicial. The sooner the First Minister makes the position clear with a full statement of the facts the better.
“He needs to come clean about his discussions with the Trump Organisation and senior civil servants.”