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Supporters of Coul Links golf course gather at site and call on ministers to 'respect local democracy'

By Ali Morrison

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Members of East Sutherland communities have gathered at the site of the proposed Coul Links golf course to show their support for the project and call on Scottish ministers to respect local democracy.

Members of East Sutherland communities have gathered at the site of the proposed Coul Links golf course to show their support for the project and call on Scottish ministers to respect local democracy.
Members of East Sutherland communities have gathered at the site of the proposed Coul Links golf course to show their support for the project and call on Scottish ministers to respect local democracy.

The Scottish Government announced this month that it has 'called in' Communities for Coul’s (C4C) planning application for the development for a final decision after it was approved by Highland councillors.

This is the second time Highland Council has approved plans for a golf course at Coul Links and C4C say their plans have been guided and informed by the findings of a lengthy and expensive public inquiry into the previous, separate proposal, which was ultimately rejected.

The Scottish Government said it took the decision to call in the application because of the golf course's "potential impact on nationally and internationally important natural heritage assets and the need for an appropriate understanding of the scale and degree of potential economic benefits arising from the proposal".


Politicians join forces to urge Scottish Government to support Coul Links golf course development

Scottish Government calls in Coul Links golf course application

Conservation Coalition welcomes Scottish Government's decision to call in Coul Links golf course application

The development faces strong opposition from the Conservation Coalition, which includes a number of environmental organisations, as well as from other groups including Not Coul, and individuals.

C4C is a not-for-profit community group, funded entirely by donations and run by people from around the Dornoch Firth.

In 2021, C4C commissioned Civica, a provider of ballot and election services, to conduct a community poll of all registered voters in East Sutherland. The turnout was 44.4 per cent with almost 70 per cent of people voting in favour of the golf course.

Iain Levens, an architect who lives in Embo, was among those who gathered at the site with his four young children.

He said: “The proposals for Coul are an opportunity for investment in the wider community via a project that goes beyond the confines of a golf course.

“Whether we live here, play here or retire here, we have a responsibility to nurture the unique environment we are in. We also have an equally important responsibility to sustain and develop the communities of which we are a part, and to do that we need to create opportunities, we need to encourage sensible, sustainable development.”

C4C says the proposed development will provide funding on a scale that would not otherwise be available for the full restoration and protection of Coul Links SSSI and will create up to 400 good jobs, the majority of which will be in the local upmarket hospitality sector.

Another Embo resident, Victoria Stenson, who was there with her 15-year-old daughter, said: “I find it patronising and frankly insulting when politicians and other commentators dismiss hospitality jobs as "not worthwhile". Have they ever tried one?

“I am worried about the future, as my 15-year-old can't see many good opportunities for herself locally as things stand, and says she will move away when she is 18, which I think is too young.

"If Coul Links goes ahead, she is much more likely to stay and find something locally that suits her.”

East Sutherland and Edderton ward councillor, Jim McGillivray who has lived in Embo all his life, said: “Around the turn of the 20th century there were 101 bairns between P1 and P7 at Embo Public school. Now the school has closed and there are only 25 youngsters aged 0-18 in the whole village. Bairns are now truly the most endangered species in Sutherland.”

Also at the site was David Bell, Professor of Economics at Stirling University, an advisor to the Scottish Government and a Dornoch resident.

Prof Bell said: “There is no short-term fix to the “population emergency” in the remote northern Highlands that does not involve expanding service sector jobs and making them available to young people. And the survival of these areas depends on making them more attractive to young people.

“It is not the case that the transition to renewables offers large numbers of long-term job opportunities in remote rural Scotland. But the Coul Links project offers just such employment prospects for very significant numbers of young people."

C4C argues that the golf course development will not only help solve Sutherland’s demographic emergency, but is also the best way to save Coul Links’ "degraded" environment.

The developer says it is committed to providing the full amount of money, manpower and machinery to restore and protect the Links in perpetuity.

The work, which will be carried out under the guidance of environment agency NatureScot is expected to cost about £500,000 in the first three to five years.

Gordon Sutherland from C4C said: “Only people from our communities truly appreciate the complex and nuanced range of arguments for and against the Coul Links development.

“They have clearly spoken in favour of it, and our elected representatives are backing them up. Now it is the turn of the Scottish Government to actually deliver on their own policy and support local democracy in the northern Highlands.”

Campaign group Not Coul have questioned C4C's figure of 400 jobs, saying: "Whoever heard of a golf course employing 400 people? 20 if they're lucky. C4C conceal the local struggles for recruitment, and the absence of new homes for all these lucky workers."

The group has also questioned the validity of the community ballot, claiming it was a "mandate gained by a process that was clearly not fair and obviously designed for a predetermined outcome".

And Not Coul has also disputed that Coul Links is in a degraded state.

And a spokesperson for the campaign group said: "Thrice dedicated Coul Links is in good shape. A funded management agreement with NatureScot is sorting the gorse. It is in all but 'favourable' condition..... if you open your eyes, you can see the astonishing 1400 plus species on this wonderful living microcosm of nature, among the most important on Britain's East Coast. This precious jewel can never host a golf course."

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