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Government calls in Coul Links plan

By Mike Merritt

The beach at Coul Links
The beach at Coul Links

The Scottish Government has called in plans for a controversial world class golf course in Sutherland.

Coul Links - opposed by a raft of conservation groups - was given the go-ahead in June by Highland councillors.

The development, earmarked for a site near Embo, will destroy the integrity of rare coastal habitats, say the World Commission on Protected Areas (WCPA).

The panel is part of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

About 32 acres (13 ha) of the 18-hole championship course would be built on dunes at Coul Links.

Planning Minister Kevin Stewart said it was the "right decision" to call-in the planning application.

He said: "I have called in the application as the proposal raises issues of national importance in relation to natural heritage issues and its compliance with Scottish planning policy and requires further scrutiny.

"It is right that the decision is taken at the national level."

Mr Stewart added: "As this is a live application, ministers cannot comment on the specific merits of the proposal.

"An independent reporter will now consider all the evidence relating to this case and provide a recommendation to ministers who will make the final decision."

The move by Ministers also comes just weeks after news that the site of Donald Trump’s golf course at Menie, in Aberdeenshire, is likely to be stripped of its conservation status due to the environmental damage inflicted by the golf course, despite reassurances that the environmental approach to be adopted would be ‘first class’.

Now Coul is facing a fresh review.

Aedán Smith, Head of Planning and Development at RSPB Scotland said: “Scottish Ministers have acted extremely responsibly in recognising the national significance of this planning decision.

"Planning decisions should be made at the most appropriate level for the issues raised. That will normally be through consideration by a local planning authority. However, given the damage that would be caused by this proposal, not only to internationally important wildlife and habitats but also to Scotland’s international reputation for environmental stewardship, it is only right that this decision be decided at a national level.

"There is now a great opportunity for Scottish Ministers to show the world that Scotland has become a much more responsible country in the 10 years since Donald Trump was granted consent for his environment wrecking golf course in Aberdeenshire. Saving Coul Links would show the world that Scotland is open for business but no longer at any cost to our environment.”

Stuart Brooks, Head of Policy and Conservation for the National Trust for Scotland said: “Scotland is home to some of the world’s best loved wild landscapes and wildlife sites and it is right that our government ensure that when these are threatened by development they are subject to the proper level of scrutiny and decisions are made in the national interest.”

Paul Kirkland, Head of Butterfly Conservation Scotland added: “We applaud this decision by the Scottish Government, taken in the face of extreme pressure from the developers and their supporters. Highland Council were wrong to give the application their approval and we believe this will be confirmed by proper scrutiny of this outrageous proposal. We have been heartened by the public support for the campaign to prevent the destruction of this superb wildlife site.”

Jonny Hughes, Chief Executive of the Scottish Wildlife Trust said: “This is one of the most important planning decisions to have affected Scotland in recent years so it is only right that it is considered by the Scottish Government.

“Nearly 13,000 members of the public wrote to MSPs asking them to take a closer look at this vitally important case, and we are heartened that these plans will now be given closer scrutiny.

“We urge Scottish Ministers to maintain their commitment to the long-term protection of fragile and internationally rare habitats by ensuring that these wholly inappropriate plans are not allowed to go ahead.”

Councillors voted to give the go-ahead to the controversial development despite officials recommending that it be rejected.

The golf course's developers, who include US businessmen Mike Keiser and Todd Warnock, say the environment would be protected by the project.

Coul Links developer Mr Warnock said: "We are ready to start work on the development after three years of scrutiny and having won the support of the local authority and the majority of local people.

"The democratic process has been comprehensive and fair.

"The project has been assessed by the two statutory bodies as well as the competent planning authority and we now look forward to realising the economic benefits such a prestigious golf course can bring to east Sutherland."

In making their decision, the Highland councillors recognised the significant economic benefits the course will bring to east Sutherland and that extensive mitigation measures will be put in place to protect the environment.

Part of the 18-hole championship would be on a Site of Special Scientific Interest.

A petition against the course reached more than 89,000 - over six times the population of Sutherland.

But the Coul Links team says the golf course plans are supported by "an overwhelming proportion of the local population," and will provide a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, creating an estimated 250 new jobs and more than £60 million gross value-added during its first decade of operation.

Around 140 local businesses and organisations are said to back the proposal.

The original layout of the course, which could cost up to £10m to construct, was also revised in response to conversation groups' concerns.

In March, Sepa withdrew its earlier objection to the scheme after previous concerns were removed on the impact on dune slacks and hydrology.

Following the Scottish Ministers’ decision to call in the application for a golf course at Coul Links, developer Todd Warnock said today the project had the "overwhelming" support of locals.

 “Whilst this decision delays bringing significant economic and environmental benefits to the area, we welcome the opportunity to set out again the compelling case to create a world class golf course in east Sutherland," he said.

“Highland Council’s North Planning Applications Committee, as the competent planning authority, took an emphatic decision in June and, apart from a single narrow objection from Scottish Natural Heritage, the statutory bodies involved are not opposed to the plans after a comprehensive assessment.

“The project also has overwhelming support from local people. We thank them again for their help and encouragement and are sorry for them that there is a further delay in a process that has already taken more than three years.

“We have made our case consistently to anyone prepared to listen objectively and we look forward to doing so again with the independent Reporter."

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