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UK Government accused of ‘sweetheart deal’ with Trump

UK Government accused of ‘sweetheart deal’ with Donald Trump over Turnberry lighthouse – from The Scotsman – An investigation into how how the US president’s firm is paying just £1,200 to rent lighthouse buildings at the historic resort, while charging guests £1,400 for an overnight stay at its luxury lighthouse suite.

Donald Trump’s flagship Scottish business is paying just £100 a month to a UK government public body to lease buildings at the world-famous Turnberrry lighthouse, The Scotsman can reveal.

The 19th century lighthouse, the centrepiece of the US president’s loss making Trump Turnberry hotel and golf resort, houses what is billed as “one of the world’s finest suites,” the interiors of which are bedecked in marble, gold, and mahogany.

While the Stevenson-designed lighthouse tower forms part of Trump Turnberry’s corporate insignia, and features prominently in a range of Trump-branded golfing apparel, it is owned not by Mr Trump, but the Edinburgh-based Northern Lighthouse Board (NLB), an executive non-departmental public body.

In what has been described as a “sweetheart deal” which binds Scotland to the “toxic Trump brand,” The Scotsman has learned that the NLB, which is responsible to the Department of Transport, has struck a lengthy lease deal with Mr Trump’s company.

It sees Trump Turnberry pay the NLB just £1,200 a year to rent a cluster of buildings at the B-listed lighthouse, rising to £1,440 a year once VAT is included.

Trump Turnberry charges £1,400 for an overnight stay at the suite – housed in an accommodation block owned by Mr Trump – with a three-course dinner and breakfast available for a further £50, meaning its annual outlay on the lease can be footed by just a single paying guest.

Amid mounting questions surrounding the cost to the public purse of Mr Trump’s upcoming state visit to the UK – which is expected to run comfortably into eight figures, given the policing costs of his three day trip last summer exceeded £21m – the NLB has been accused of allowing Mr Trump to line his pockets using public assets.

However, the NLB said the lease represents “good value for money,” pointing out that it has already achieved a “significant cost saving,” given Mr Trump’s company is now responsible for repainting and maintaining buildings that would otherwise have lain empty.

The lease between SLC Turnberry Limited and the NLB is believed to be the first reported instance of a business deal between one of Mr Trump’s companies and a UK public body.

The agreement was ratified by the two parties in August 2015, some 16 months after Mr Trump acquired Turnberry. The document was signed by Mr Trump’s son, Eric, executive vice president of development and acquisitions at the Trump Organisation.

The deal covers a former utility and services building at the lighthouse, as well as a bothy used to provide welfare facilities for NLB staff. The lighthouse tower itself, designed by David and Thomas Stevenson and built aside the fragmentary ruins of Turnberry Castle, the reputed birthplace of Robert the Bruce, remains part of the NLB’s property portfolio and is not included in the lease.

The accommodation building was sold by the NLB in 1992 to the Japanese firm, Nitto Kogyo, the then owners of Turnberry, and passed to Mr Trump’s firm after he bought Turnberry from Dubai-based Leisurecorp.

A copy of the agreement, lodged with Registers of Scotland, shows the deal lasts until 2035, with Mr Trump’s company able to apply for a further five year extension to the term.

It also compels Mr Trump’s firm to paint the exterior of the lighthouse to a colour specified by the NLB, and ensure the upkeep and insurance of buildings under its care.

The lighthouse suite, the most exclusive and expensive accommodation available at Trump Turnberry, opened in May 2016, two years after Mr Trump acquired the resort.

Trump Turnberry’s website describes it as “one of the world’s finest suites,” featuring a private terrace and “breathtaking” views across the Irish Sea.

It notes the two -bedroom suite is “furnished to the highest of standards,” and includes a hand-carved walnut burl mahogany bed, a canopy inspired by “Turnberry’s indigenous tartan,” and mimic silk wallpaper.

The site adds: “Marble and gold is abound in the en-suite bathroom with separate shower and freestanding bathtub.”

When the suite opened for business, the top end package, known as the ‘King of Scots Experience’ cost £7,000 a night, with a more modest ‘Stevenson Experience’ available for £3,000 a night.

However, the price has since dropped sharply. When The Scotsman enquired about booking the suite for a Saturday in mid-August, it was quoted a price of £1,400, with an offer of a three-course dinner and bed and breakfast available for a further £50.

The lighthouse complex, situated on the Firth of Clyde coastline next to the ninth green of Turnberry’s famous Ailsa championship course – a four-time host of The Open – also hosts a halfway house, introduced by Mr Trump’s firm to sate parched and peckish patrons of his course.

Its menu includes “luxury fish and chips” for £30, a £15 roast beef toasted panini, and a £7 sausage roll. The converted utilities building is now used for toilets as part of the halfway house.

Scottish Greens co-convener Patrick Harvie said: “The Trump Organisation has shown itself to be a self-interested, arrogant, and bullying neighbour-from-hell. The last thing we should be using public assets for is helping them to line their own pockets by catering to the ultra-rich.

“Rather than sweetheart deals tying Scotland to the toxic Trump brand, we should be making it clear that we want nothing to do with the dangerous and delusional far-right president himself, or with his company.”

The NLB is funded by light dues paid by ship owners entering UK ports to cover the cost of lighthouses, beacons and other navigational aids.

It has a board of commissioners, some of whom are appointed by the Scottish Government. Its current members include Lord Advocate James Wolffe QC, and Solicitor General Alison Di Rollo QC.

The details of NLB’s lease with Mr Trump’s firm is not disclosed in any of its annual reports or accounts dating back to 2014.

Asked if the arrangement represented value for money, Mike Bullock, the NLB’s chief executive, told The Scotsman: “At the outset NLB’s intention was to set a fair and equitable agreement for the property which protected NLB’s buildings in the long term and reduced costs attributed to payers of light dues and when setting the rent took into account all factors, not least the burden taken on by the resort for the care and maintenance of the lighthouse tower and buildings.

“A lighthouse of this type is repainted at an interval of eight to 10 years and on each occasion costs around £120,000. This saving has already been realised once as programmed painting was undertaken by the resort as part of the work to create the halfway house. In addition, responsibility for routine general maintenance of the tower, buildings and the care of the dome access system lies with the resort.”

Mr Bullock said the UK Government Valuation Office Agency advised of a “ball park” rental valuation of between £600 and £1,500 per annum. The NLB decided £1,200 was a “reasonable sum” in light of SLC Turnberry’s maintenance commitments.

He added: “NLB has achieved good value for money with this lease. Two otherwise redundant buildings have been rented out to the sole potential tenant along with responsibility for their maintenance. The operational lighthouse remains in NLB’s control but its fabric is maintained at no cost to NLB. In summary, this arrangement offers a significant saving to the ship-owners who pay light dues.”

The Department of Transport declined to comment on the lease, describing it as a “private matter.”

Trump Turnberry did not respond to requests for comment.

The Scotsman has also obtained various correspondence between NLB officials and executives at the Trump Organisation, including Eric Trump.

In August 2014, Mr Bullock, thanked Turnberry’s general manager for arranging a conference call with Eric to discuss the deal, adding that “in my former life I spent three years working in the Pentagon and came to very much admire the American way of using enthusiasm and openness to get things done.”

But in another email, sent just four months before the lease was agreed, saw Mr Bullock, a former commodore in the Royal Navy, express misgivings over how Mr Trump’s firm was presenting its stake in the lighthouse.

The email, sent to George Sorial, an executive vice-president at the Trump Organisation, in March 2015, stated: “George, when we last spoke I raised my concern about the language used to describe the development at the lighthouse. You undertook to speak to your press people to make sure it was clear that the development is the property surrounding the lighthouse which is already in the hotel’s ownership and not the lighthouse itself.”

Mr Sorial, who is also chief compliance counsel at the Trump Organisation, replied: “Understood – I will call you when I return to my office on Tuesday to discuss how we can put out a joint release that manages this.”

Another redacted email, obtained via Freedom of Information legislation, notes how, during the negotiations, Mr Trump’s firm proposed making“structural changes” to the lighthouse tower and “many other things that were never discussed.”

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