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Councillors under pressure as Coul Links decision meeting looms

By Caroline McMorran

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Highland councillors are coming under increasing pressure over the controversial Coul Links golf course planning application ahead of a crunch meeting next week.

The North Planning Applications Committee is due to decide on an application to build a championship golf course at Coul Links, near Embo, at its meeting next Wednesday, December 6.

The North Planning Applications Committee will consider the Coul Links application at a meeting on Wednesday, December 6. Picture: Gary Anthony.
The North Planning Applications Committee will consider the Coul Links application at a meeting on Wednesday, December 6. Picture: Gary Anthony.

Planning officers are recommending that the 18-hole development be refused on environmental grounds.

Their report states: “The proposed development would result in a significantly detrimental impact on the Loch Fleet Site of Scientific Interest and Loch Fleet Ramsar Site, designated for its sand dune habitat.”

Planners say that the proposal fails to meet Scotland’s National Planning Framework 4 (NPF4) planning requirement to enhance biodviersity because of the overall adverse impact on the protected area.

Communities for Coul, the not-for-profit company behind the project is now publicly urging committee members to consider the jobs and economic benefits the golf course would bring to the wider East Sutherland area.

But the Conservation Coalition - made up of RSPB Scotland, Scottish Wildlife Trust, Buglife Scotland, Plantlife Scotland, Butterfly Conservation Scotland, the National Trust for Scotland and the Marine Conservation Society is calling on councillors to “take on board the advice of their officers” and reject the plan.

C4C says a golf course at Coul Links would help tackle problems of depopulation by creating up to 400 new jobs and generating more than £11 million a year for the local economy.

Professor David Bell Prof Bell, Emeritus Professor of Economics at the University of Stirling, said: “Population decline has been historically, and continues to be, a significant societal issue in Sutherland.

“An independent survey carried out for Highlands and Islands Enterprise in 2022 suggests that a large majority (69%) of young people in Caithness and Sutherland say they are leaving the area because they cannot find work. Another majority (66%) say that most of the people coming to their local area are retired.

“These are extremely depressing statistics for the future of society in Caithness and Sutherland. The Coul Links project would have a significant effect on the employment prospects for local young people.”

C4C say not enough is currently being done to protect the unique environmental features at Coul Links, which they claim are being rapidly destroyed by the spread of invasive species, reducing the distinctiveness and biodiversity of the dune system.

They are confident that a world-class golf course on the site would provide the funding, expertise, machinery, staff and motivation needed for the long-term management of the biodiversity within the dunes to maintain its SSSI status.

C4C director, Gordon Sutherland, said: “As Professor Bell’s report makes clear, our plans offer a genuine chance to create much-needed new employment opportunities in an area where the working age population is falling, threatening the future viability of fragile communities.

“They also provide a guaranteed future for the wonderful wild coastal environment of Coul Links, which is currently sadly neglected and at risk.

“We hope councillors will give both of these vital aspects of our proposals the careful consideration we believe they deserve when they meet to decide the outcome of our planning application.”

C4C points out that its application differs from a previous one, turned down by Scottish Ministers following a public inquiry in 2020.

It says it differs from that unsuccessful bid in a number of key ways, including a 90 per cent reduction in the area of the Loch Fleet Site of Special Scientific Interest that would be developed.

From 24.7 hectares to 1.5 hectares it now covers just over 0.1 per cent of the designated site.

The Conservation Coalition, which is campaigning to save Coul Links, said that the planning officers' recommendation to reject the plans was a “significant setback” for developers.

But on behalf of the coalition, Peter Hearn, head of planning at RSPB Scotland, said: “This is a very important decision by Highland Council planning officers in the campaign to save Coul Links for nature.

“We very much welcome their thorough report recommending refusal. Scotland is in a nature and climate emergency and tackling this means that places for wildlife like Coul Links must be safeguarded and not swept aside for development.

"Highland Council has planning policies to protect nature and has signed up to the Edinburgh Declaration, which makes commitments to stop biodiversity loss.

“Coul Links is completely the wrong place to build a golf course – hundreds of people have made this clear to Highland Council, as well as many nature organisations and NatureScot. This place is unique, it is irreplaceable.

“We hope that the North Planning Applications Committee will listen to the advice of their officers, refuse the application, and save Coul Links.”

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