New golf course planning application submitted
Communities for Coul (C4C), a not-for-profit organisation aiming to establish a championship golf course at Coul Links, Embo, has submitted a new planning application for the development to Highland Council. A previous, separate bid to develop a golf course on the site, north of Dornoch, was rejected by Scottish Ministers, following a public inquiry in 2020.
The application and supporting documents assert repeatedly that the new application is very different from the original bid, and that most of the environmental criticisms which led to its rejection have been addressed. Much is made of the reduction in the area of the Loch Fleet SSSI which will be affected by the new proposal, and the claim referred to below, that funding related to the golf course would make possible far better environmental protection for the site than NatureScot (formerly Scottish Natural Heritage) is able to afford, is repeated. One report quotes C4C as claiming somewhat unconvincingly that their plans amounted to a “major dune system restoration project, funded by a low-impact, world class golf course.”
Opposition group Not Coul is understandably unimpressed with these claims, and has produced a detailed document with contrary evidence which could be used in objections, and another with details of how to object. They say
'Coul Links lies in a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), a Special Protection Area (SPA) and a Ramsar Site (Wetland of International Importance).
Not Coul is now opposing a new 2023 proposal which we consider will create even more serious environmental damage at Coul Links.
This 2023 golf plan is one of the most threatening to Nature in Scotland. Like the Trump course at Menie Links, it could lead to loss of part or all of an SSSI, and part of the SPA and Ramsar. We need help again, more so than 2016 to 2022.
There is no need for a golf course on protected land, there is ample space elsewhere, adjacent to the SSSI.'
Also opposing the new application are Ramblers Scotland, who are gathering signatures to a petition to Highland Council asking them to reject it.
When the proposal for a new planning application was first made last year a coalition of seven environmental organisations - RSPB Scotland, Scottish Wildlife Trust, National Trust for Scotland, Marine Conservation Society, Plantlife, Butterfly Conservation and Buglife - expressed fears about its potential impact.
If you object to a golf course at Coul Links . .
. . there are several things you can do
1. Submit an objection on Highland Council ePlanning site by 7 April
- write the text of your objection in advance in a word processor
- go to https://wam.highland.gov.uk/wam/
- search for application reference number 23/00580/FUL
- select Comments / Make a comment / Login or register
- log in if you've made a comment before, otherwise register first
- once you're logged in, paste your text into the comment window
It's important that you specify that your comment is an objection, and include the words "I object . ." in your text. Otherwise just give your reasons for objecting. These don't have to be technical, but if you want some ideas about what you might say, have a look at some suggestions from Not Coul
.pdf with general points and technical evidence in small print
.docx with general points more easily readable.
Not Coul have also provided detailed instructions on how to comment by letter, email or online.
2. Sign the Ramblers Scotland petition
3. Donate to Not Coul to help pay for expert advice (website)
More information (there are 96 documents associated with the application!)
Applicant's Design and Access statement
(.pdf, small print, difficult to read without zooming and scrolling)
Transcript as .docx, easier to read, no images
Agent's Planning statement
(more technical, conformity with planning policies etc.)
Summary Environmental Impact Report
Location plan - overview of the site
Not Coul detailed timeline and background to this application
The section on recent environmental management, under the heading 'Does everything now have a new leader?' (scroll down), is interesting.
Possible related development
Planning permission has been granted (February 2023) for an 'eco hotel' adjacent to the Coul Farm buildings which will be converted for the golf clubhouse. The planning reference is 21/02644/FUL . The hotel will only be built if the golf course application is approved.
New planning move on Coul Links Golf course
The group Communities4Coul, which is campaigning for the building of a golf course and hotel on coastal dunes at Coul Links north of Dornoch, lodged a pre-Planning Application Notice (PAN) for the project with Highland Council on June 19 (planning reference 22/02800/PAN). A previous application for a golf course on the site was approved by Highland Council but rejected by Scottish Ministers in February 2020 (see below).
Much of the case against the original application, led by campaign group NotCoul, was made on nature conservation grounds, and the site's being subject to three environmental designations, including being within the Loch Fleet SSSI. In promoting the renewed application expected to be submitted later in the summer, Communities4Coul place heavy emphasis on the claim that funding related to the golf course would make possible far better environmental protection for the site than NatureScot (formerly Scottish Natural Heritage) is able to afford. Much is made of the fact that the golf course would take up less than 1% of the SSSI (much of which consists of the whole of Loch Fleet).
Other points made in their website include the usual exaggerated claim about the number of jobs the project would provide, a reported 69.2% support for the project in a residents' survey (on a turnout of only 44%), and fulsome endorsements of the proposal from locals covering a large age range.
A 'consultatative exhibition' about the project took place at the Community Centre in Embo, from 3-7pm on Wednesday July 27 last year and an on-line (Zoom) presentation was held 4-6 weeks later to present the plans shown in the exhibition and to answer questions raised.
Is it possible they could be right in claiming that a golf course would be better for Coul links, on both environmental and community grounds, than the status quo?
The main opposition to the renewed proposals comes from Campaign group NotCoul, led by Dr Tom Dargie, and a coalition of environmental groups has expressed concern at the renewed proposals BBC news 7 July 2022.
NotCoul has a new website and a Facebook page, and there is a 'Coul Links Golf' page of links and information which covers the latest developments without comment, and has a useful list of links to all recent press coverage of the proposal. The Scottish Wildlife Trust has a timeline of the history of the project, which it has consistently opposed, but which is not up to date with these developments..
On the day of the Embo exhibition the Press & Journal published a detailed review of the planning history of Coul Links from the first golf course proposals in 2015 to the current new aplication. Representatives of Not Coul led by Tom Dargie picketed the exhibition and handed out leaflets opposing the proposals to those attending. A smear campaign against Dr Dargie in September 2020 was one of the more unpleasant aspects of the controversy about the original golf course proposal.
Mike Keiser back in the picture
Communities for Coul, the group behind new proposals for a golf course at Coul links, have announced that Mike Keiser, the American golf course designer who with businessman Todd Warnock made the previous golf course application which was rejected by Scottish Ministers in February 2020, has been confirmed as the developer for a new course should the planning application likely to be made by Communities for Coul be approved.
In arguing the case for the renewed golf course proposal, Communities for Coul claim that the SSSI, on part of which the course would be created, would be better managed under a fully funded Environmental Development Plan which the developer would be required to put in place - 'This would mean that the 1% of the Loch Fleet SSSI affected by the golf course would fund the protection of almost the entire SSSI situated to the south of Loch Fleet, 25% of the total.' It seems reasonable to doubt whether a commercial developer could be held to implementing an Environmental Development Plan over the long term.
Communities for Coul also claim that a golf course would provide 175 jobs locally and 311 within the wider Highlands, and claim support from other local golf courses and three of the six local constituency candidates in the Scottish Parliament elections. It is not known to what extent Communities for Coul have the support of the local community.
Independently of Communities for Coul, leading economist Professor David Bell is quoted in a Scotsman article as welcoming the idea of a golf course in the context of the wider economy of Sutherland, which, as he points out 'is never going to get a new Amazon warehouse or other major economic development'.
Opposition to any revival of the golf course proposal comes from the group Not Coul, whose spokesman John Campbell is quoted in the same Scotsman article as referring to Coul Links as a 'national treasure' covered by three protective environmental designations, and saying 'No golf course can be built without infringing these designations, to their significant detriment. That was proved at the inquiry'; and an almost single-handed campaign run on 38 Degrees by Andrew Weston.
Scotsman article Jamie McKenzie 21 March 2021
Communities for Coul website
Coul Links Golf website appears to represent the views of Not Coul
New proposals for golf course at Coul Links
(See below for the back story)
In recent months new proposals have been put forward for a Golf course at Coul Links, between Dornoch and Loch Fleet. In October 2020 the Northern Times reported that a 'Screening application' had been submitted to Highland Council in the name of a defunct Embo football club.
In January this year the proposal resurfaced under the auspices of a new group Communities for Coul, and in conjunction with a proposal by Mr Abel Smith of Coul Farm, the owner of much of the land at Coul links, for "a £20 million eco-style hotel" consisting of up to 20 lodges and a reception building at the farm overlooking the links.
The Chairman of Communities for Coul is reported as saying that the eco hotel plan boosts the campaign for the golf course, and Mr Abel Smith is quoted as saying he "will be submitting a planning application for the first phase of the project imminently", but construction would not begin until Coul Links Golf Course is approved. As far as we are aware, no planning application has so far been made for either project.
In addition to this activity, an outrageous attempt has been made to blacken the reputation of Tom Dargie, an environmental scientist and leading member of the group Not Coul which led the opposition to the previous golf course application by an American-led group, which was turned down by Scottish Ministers in February 2020. In September 2020 a complaint was made to Mr Dargie's professional institution, The Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management (CIEEM),accusing him of "Lack of judgement. Lack of objectivity. Serious gaps in knowledge. Lack of expertise when claiming otherwise. Little if any reflection when proven wrong." and including more than 100 individual instances of alleged misconduct.
The complaint was rejected out of hand by the Professional Standards Committee of CIEEM, and rejected again when the complainant appealed.
Northern Times reports on October 2020 screening application
BBC News report on January 2020 developments
A website called 'Coul Links Golf' has been set up to monitor developments on this disturbing resurrection of a project which would do immense harm to an area in respect of which three environmental designations are in place (see below), and which should have been buried once and for all by the conclusion by Scottish Ministers in 2020 that "likely detriment to natural heritage is not outweighed by the socio-economic benefits of the proposal".
Coul Links golf course refused planning permission by ministers
BBC news 21 February 2020
A controversial plan to build an 18-hole championship golf course in the Highlands has been refused planning permission by the Scottish government.
About 32 acres of the planned course was proposed for dunes at Coul Links at Embo, near Dornoch.
Highland councillors gave the project the go-ahead last June, before Scottish ministers called in the planning application for further scrutiny.
Following a public inquiry, the government has refused permission.
In their decision, Scottish ministers said the plan would have supported economic growth and rural development.
But they agreed with government-appointed planning officials' findings that the golf course would have "significant" effects on rare plantlife, wintering and breeding birds and the the dunes themselves.
The government said the "likely detriment to natural heritage is not outweighed by the socio-economic benefits of the proposal".
Scottish Green Party MSP John Finnie commented on the decision
“I am absolutely delighted that this ill thought out and unsuitable application has been rejected. It seems the Scottish Government has learned the lesson from the disastrous decision to grant permission for Trump’s course in Aberdeenshire after all.
“Coul links is a spectacular site of environmental significance and has several important international designations. I welcome the fact that Ministers have made clear that post Brexit they will seek to maintain high environmental standards, they can be assured that Greens will continue to keep them under scrutiny in that regard in the long term.
“It’s important that the Highland Council and Highlands and Islands Enterprise now look at how they can deliver long term, sustainable and well paid work for the people of Sutherland, without threatening its precious environment.”
All decision-related documents
Image - Julian Paren
Image - BBC News
Planning application for golf course at Coul Links, Embo
The application was lodged in September 2017 by Coul Links Ltd. led by Mike Keiser, President of Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, Oregon, Trump Golf’s main global rival, & entrepreneur Todd Warnock. There is a separate application for two boreholes and a reservoir to store water for irrigating the golf course.
The site is an area of natural dunes of considerable scientific and environmental value, and is ajacent to or includes Loch Fleet Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), The Dornoch and Loch Fleet Special Protection Area (SPA), and the Dornoch and Loch Fleet Ramsar Site.
A group opposed to the development set up a 38 Degrees petiton to rally opposition to the applications. This has been presented to Highland Council, who approved the applications in June against the advice of planning officials, but since the applications were called in it is being kept open to be presented to the public enquiry.
Below are links to the Highland Council ePlanning pages relating to the applications, and the petition.
Coul links golf course planning application 17/04601/FUL
Reservoir planning application 17/04404/FUL
NOT COUL petition (and more information)
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