In part two we heard how 14 councillors voted on whether to allow US property magnate Donald Trump to build a £1bn golf resort in Aberdeenshire – and the vote came out level.
When committee chairman Martin Ford used his casting vote to reject permission, it sent shockwaves throughout the north-east.
Here in part three, we reveal the inside story on what happened next.
Witnesses recall a stunned public gallery after the Infrastructure Services Committee vote result that everyone had been waiting for, with baited breath.
“The atmosphere was electric,” said ISC member Paul Johnston, while another ISC member Jim Gifford added: “All hell broke loose. There was just a circus.”
Their ISC colleague, Fiona McRae: “I remember the ripple of shock. It reverbed around the table. I thought ‘oh my God’.
“The senior planning officers – there was a significant paling of their complexions.”
Aware of the hubbub, ISC chairman Martin Ford ordered a brief coffee break.
Another ISC member Graeme Clark could see who the metaphorical fingers were pointing at.
He said: “We could see there was a good chance Martin would receive a hell of a criticism just by virtue of being chair.”
Neil Hobday, who was the first to come up with the golf resort idea, was dumbstruck – as were his associates.
He said: “We thought a deferral was our worst-case scenario. It came as a huge shock to us.
“We were outvoted by councillors we knew were anti-development. It was a surreal sense of something had happened by sleight of hand.”
Evaluating the moment Ford was told the vote was tied, the then Gordon MP Lord Bruce said: “Most people would have probably adjourned for a few minutes to have taken advice (from council officers).”
Trump’s right-hand man, George Sorial said: “Martin Ford did not even take a moment.
“If you really were a fair arbiter of fact, you take five minutes, you take 10 minutes.
“How about this? ‘Let’s reconvene tomorrow – I want to get this right’.
“We’re talking about a project that has an investment in the hundreds of millions of pounds.
“I just thought it was crazy – how do you have a committee that has an even number of people? You’re almost setting yourself up for a problem.
“This was compounded by the fact that the chair gets to vote twice. It was fundamentally unfair.”
Furious reactions to the vote
Journalists scurried out of the room and staged an impromptu press conference in the Council Chamber anteroom.
Another ISC member, John Cox, left the ISC meeting room.
He didn’t return – abandoning his obligation to stay for the remainder of the meeting as an ISC member.
He told us the decision was a surprise and “got his back up”.
“Cox was hacked off the way things had gone and definitely didn’t stay for the whole meeting,” said another ISC member Jim Gifford.
Another ISC member, Albert Howie said: “I was angry with the whole thing. I couldn’t see the sense in stopping someone spending that kind of dosh in the area.
“I said to the TV cameras it was the worst decision I had seen made in my time as a councillor.”
George Sorial gave a memorable interview at that point, giving his furious reaction to the decision.
He told reporters: “I think it sends out a devastating message that, if you want to do big business, don’t do it in the north-east of Scotland.”
Fiona McRae said: “It was a huge stooshie. Sorial was tetchy.”
Ford said: “The way Sorial’s comments were reported set the agenda for the subsequent debate.”
Explaining why he made those comments at the time, Sorial told us: “It was a combination of shock, anger and confusion about what we would do next.
“Somebody threw a question at me and it was what came out of my mouth at the time.
“It wasn’t our intent to cause damage and cast a really negative reflection on the area.”
As controversy grew outside the committee room, the meeting resumed.
Another ISC member, Ian Mollison said: “You could almost feel through the walls the way things were going with the media interviews outside. I was a bit taken aback by all of this.”
There were 12 more agenda items, including a decision on who would represent the council at a fish and chips awards night in Peterhead.
Ninety minutes later, the meeting was done, but most onlookers left after the golf resort controversy.
Martin Ford said: “I don’t think anybody had been sent from London to cover the fish and chips story.
“I can’t remember anything about any of the other agenda items. Afterwards I was feeling exhausted.”
Ford recalled talking to a group of Robert Gordon University students who had been sitting in on the meeting to learn about the council.
He said: “The students were saying ‘my God, this was so traumatic, this was amazing – there were people cheering, people in tears. Goodness me I’m going into local government if this is what it’s like.’ I said – ‘it’s not like this all the time’.”
Ford said he used his casting vote to maintain the status quo – an “unwritten rule” for casting votes.
But Jim Gifford claimed the status quo was the area committee’s decision to grant permission.
Gifford said: “If he was casting his vote based on the current situation – that was the current situation.”
Reaction to Trump vote ‘off the scale’
After the meeting, Ford headed upstairs at Aberdeenshire Council’s Woodhill House headquarters and spoke to the council’s PR team.
He fielded questions from media outlets all around the world without the PR team’s help.
Council policy meant they could only coach councillors who have backed council recommendations.
In this case, the ISC had voted against the recommendation in the planner’s report.
“If the decision is not the one the officers recommended – you’re on your own, mate,” said Ford.
Then followed a conversation with the council’s chief executive Alan Campbell – the man who had helped Trump’s team table the proposal.
Ford said: “He was sat there, not looking very happy.
“I opened the conversation with ‘I appreciate you will probably not agree with my decision and I understand there will be a public fuss. This is very controversial but the bottom line is I think the council has done absolutely the right thing’.”
His reply – as told by Ford – painted a picture of the massive impact the ISC decision was to have on the council.
“Mr Campbell said ‘the next time there’s a local government reorganisation and Aberdeenshire Council disappears, the only thing anybody is going to remember my council for is what you did this afternoon’.”
We approached Alan Campbell for this series and he did not wish to participate.
As if the day hadn’t been long enough for Ford, he had an evening committee meeting before his wife picked him up.
He said: “I went home, I had a look at my emails, and went to bed.”
What followed was not pretty – and would change many lives forever.
“On the scale of controversy, this was stellar. I knew I was going to be at the centre of a row, but this was off the scale,” said Ford.
After the ISC meeting, George Sorial and Neil Hobday headed to the Marcliffe Hotel, where Sorial was staying.
Sorial told us they were greeted by a crowd of about 150 business leaders.
He added: “They were waiting for me and Neil – including (then Aberdeen FC chairman and housing developer) Stewart Milne, and (Marcliffe owner) Stewart Spence.
“They were saying ‘don’t get discouraged. Please don’t let Mr Trump walk away from this.’”
For Trump, the decision was made worse by the fact that Sorial had suggested in a phone call a week earlier that victory would be a mere formality because the area committee had backed the resort.
That made for a very awkward conversation between Hobday, Sorial and Trump when the application went south.
Hobday said: “The news was pretty difficult to deliver to Trump.
“His reaction was not printable. You can imagine what he said.
“He was absolutely flabbergasted, shocked and dismayed and disappointed and he expressed that.
“It felt terminal. I felt that night that he just wasn’t going to deal with any more of that.
“He was just going to sit on it and keep it as a private property.”
Sorial said: “It was a difficult call to make.
“I knew once emotions subsided, I had no doubt the reaction was going to be ‘what do we need to do to win?’
“Probably about 1am, I received a call from Mr Trump.
“He was very calm. He gave me some advice that I think about all the time and I give the same advice to my kids.
“He basically said ‘look, forget about what happened today, get a good night’s sleep, wake up tomorrow morning, and let’s fight. We don’t quit’.
“We dug in, we fought and we won.”
A media frenzy
As dawn broke on that Friday – the day after the ISC meeting – a media frenzy began.
And in a bizarre coincidence, months before the controversial decision, the council’s PR team had scheduled a training session that would prove particularly helpful that morning and also create some gallows humour.
“Believe it or not, I was doing media training on the Friday morning. That was really a coincidence,” said Ford.
Rather than doing mock media interviews as they had planned weeks earlier, Ford spent the session doing real TV interviews while other councillors watched to pick up tips.
“You couldn’t make it up,” said Ford, of the bizarre coincidence timing.
When journalists got Ford’s engaged tone, they tried Debra Storr, his fellow Lib Dem who also voted against the project.
BBC radio was due to interview Storr – but things took a dramatic twist just beforehand, when a woman knocked on Storr’s door.
Storr said: “I answered the door and she took a swing at me.
“She told me I had ruined the economy of the north-east singlehandedly.
“I could step back from my doorstep and avoid her. She didn’t make contact.
“I asked this woman what her name was and she actually told me, which was kind of astonishing.
“I shut my door and my neighbour came round because I was in a bit of a state at that point.
“I had 6,000 emails that weekend. Some were abusive. A couple were probably bordering on the threatening.
“I went to work because I felt unsafe at home on my own.”
Storr told BBC radio staff what had happened and news of the assault quickly spread.
It is understood Police Scotland did speak to a woman about the incident and opted to take no further action, which Storr was content with.
The next surprise was that the first person to call Storr to check she was okay was someone who had – only hours earlier – been cursing her name. George Sorial.
He even offered to send security guards to patrol Storr’s home.
Sorial added: “I felt it was the right thing to do.
“I completely disagreed with her position and I didn’t think very much of how she conducted herself in the months afterwards.
“But when someone resorts to violence – that’s where that person has stepped over the line.”
Storr said: “He did a very decent thing that day. It was one of those bizarre things that stick in your memory.”
Storr observed that it was interesting that Sorial had called her while her own group leader, Anne Stirling, had not.
“To this day Anne Stirling – my group leader – has never said a word for me about the attack,” said Storr.
Stirling said: “I don’t recall when I became aware of the alleged incident.”
She then suggested she and Storr were not on speaking terms due to them being on opposing sides of a division in the Lib Dem group.
Stirling said: “You will have a sense there were some people who were in opposition to me.”
Jim Gifford said: “This is happening all too often. We got death threats on social media after we formed the last administration of Aberdeenshire Council.”
After the incident at Storr’s home, police were worried.
They called Ford and urged he and his wife to stay home with his doors locked for the next three days.
Meanwhile, things were turning ugly on the streets of Aberdeen.
Those outraged at the decision daubed offensive messages on to bedsheets and put them up on roads near councillors’ homes.
Businesses stoked the flames.
Storr added: “The Cock and Bull restaurant put up a sign reading ‘bunker Ford’s follies’.
“To see anti-Martin Ford signage on a business! It was a very weird time.”
The Cock and Bull did not wish to comment for this article.
For some it was just too much to take.
Alastair Ross, who first suggested the ISC reject the idea, suffered mental-health problems as a result of the abuse he suffered.
Some years later, he was diagnosed with cancer and tragically died in 2018, aged 69.
Debra Storr said: “It definitely did damage his wellbeing because it damaged mine.
“This is serious stuff. This was about as bad as it could get on a council. The atmosphere was pretty ghastly.”
Graeme Clark said: “Alastair was a friend of mine. He possibly did (suffer because of this issue). I had to feel for his family because he was a really good guy.
“I was at his funeral. It really is sad. I know it was cancer he died with but the pressure didn’t help him.
“It’s quite easy for keyboard warriors to say things. Alastair did possibly take it to heart and get a lot of grief from locals.”
Paul Johnston said: “I certainly know Alastair was depressed by it.
“He was very conscious of mental-health issues. Indeed he supported a mental-health charity.
“Those issues will have affected him in that kind of way.
“It certainly blunted his operations and yes, there were things locally that he had (with people who opposed the ISC’s decision).”
Johnston added: “It must have been very, very difficult for Alastair. His passing affected me. I counted him as a friend.
“He would always see the best in people.”
Ian Mollison added: “It did (have a toll on his health). I know events like the Trump event preyed on his mind.
“The way these councillors were treated I thought was despicable.
“People don’t think of the consequences on the individual.”
Gifford said: “I can understand (the impact this had on Alastair). He was a sensitive guy, so that would have had an effect on him.
“Apart from that one meeting, anything he said – you couldn’t argue with a lot of it.”
Marcus Humphrey added: “Alastair was a really good guy. It real shame he had to step down and I missed seeing him at meetings.”
Alastair Ross’s wife did not wish to comment for this article.
Aberdeenshire business community in shock
Things continued to escalate.
On the afternoon on the day after the ISC made its decision, the Evening Express hit the newsstands.
Its ‘You Traitors’ headline sought to reflect the sentiment that 97% of its readers surveyed backed the golf resort and ‘you traitors’ came from a quote from someone speaking in the corridor after the meeting, rather than the newspaper’s own feeling.
Cox said the coverage reflected public opinion.
He added: “The business community were shocked. They felt ‘which developer would want to get themselves mixed into this?’”
Nevertheless, the Evening Express coverage caused outrage in some quarters.
It was particularly difficult for Paul Johnston, who attended a dinner at Stewart Spence’s Marcliffe Hotel in Aberdeen in his role as Grampian Enterprise Board member.
As he walked in, Johnston noticed the ‘Traitors’ front page in the window. He was livid.
“I was expected to go into his hotel, to this dinner so I said ‘I’m sorry I really can’t do that, that would be highly inappropriate’.
“I was angry. It did rile me up. There are still people I cannot speak to because of their behaviour in this, Stewart Spence being one.”
Spence has since retired from the hotel, replaced by his son, Ross, who said he did not want to comment for this article.
Johnston’s wife left her PA role due to a falling out between her and her pro-golf-resort colleague.
He added: “You can say it affected our family. She effectively lost her job because of it.
“There are still some people who won’t talk to me after so many years.”
Ford said: “The notion that (the decision) made us traitors was absurd.
“My wife was very upset by it.
“I was in the middle of an international media storm. There was a frenzy going on.”
Humphrey, who was the most experience councillor of the seven said: “A lot of coverage is water of a duck’s back, but being called a traitor was outrageous.
“I remember getting lots of emails that were plain nasty – and that carried on for quite a while. Until Christmas, even. It was quite unsettling.
“I did receive many emails from the US, from people saying ‘good on you, Trump is nothing but a s**t..”
More followed two days after the ISC meeting when the Evening Express superimposed the faces of the seven councillors who voted against the project onto the faces of turnips, under the headline ‘Stuff the council neeps, we support Trump’.
It stated that readers could put the poster in their windows to show their support for the resort.
Albert Howie told us he backed the coverage, taking aim at the four Lib Dem ISC councillors who rejected the resort.
Howie said: “I did think they were turnips really. They totally seemed to be anti-business. I agreed with the Evening Express. I was quite happy to see that.”
However, Mr Ford, who was one of those to have his head superimposed onto a neep, drew a direct link between the Evening Express coverage and the abuse councillors got at the time.
He said: “If you publish headlines calling people traitors, publish their emails, telling people they are buffoons, no hopers, I’m afraid while everyone has to take personal responsibility for their actions, it is not unreasonable to suppose people will start to do things they should not do.
“Some crossed the line.”
The Evening Express editor at the time was Damian Bates. He did not respond to an invitation to comment for this series.
Graeme Clark said: “We took a lot of stick but we also got a lot of support. It divided the audience out there. I got a lot of email criticism, and answered every one.”
Ford added: “The day after the ISC meeting I received 600 emails, mostly hostile.
“A small number descended into threats and racism and I reported them to the police. The racism is because I was born in England.
“One was from a resident of Balmedie who said I had no business being on the committee because I wasn’t from the area and Debra Storr had no business being on the committee because she was disabled.
“It would have been so easy for any of the seven to (change their minds) under immense pressure. None did.”
As if things were not bad enough for Ford, they were about to get worse.
Read part four next
- Words by Dale Haslam
- Story design by Cheryl Livingstone
- Graphics and illustrations by Roddie Reid
- Data visualisations by Lesley-Anne Kelly
- Video trailer by Drew Farrell