Coul Links plans approved by local council

  • Coul Links
    Chris Haspell

    The campaign to build a golf course at Coul Links at Embo, just north of Dornoch in Scotland, has passed its latest hurdle, with its revised planning application gaining approval

Adam Lawrence
By Adam Lawrence

The long-running campaign to build a golf course at Coul Links at Embo, just north of Dornoch in Scotland, has passed its latest hurdle, as members of the Highland Council’s North Planning Committee voted by eight to six to approve the revised planning application, submitted by local group Communities for Coul (C4C).

The vote, which replicates the situation when the original application was submitted in 2015 by American businessmen Todd Warnock and Mike Keiser, means that once again, the matter will pass to the Scottish government, which ‘called in’ the 2015 application and put it to a public inquiry, which eventually decided to refuse permission for the course. The government must now decide whether to accept the council’s decision, or intervene once again.

After the original application was thrown out, plans for the course appeared to be dead, but local supporters formed the Communities for Coul (C4C) group, crowdfunded around £250,000 to support a new planning campaign, and, working with golf course architects Coore & Crenshaw, created a fresh plan for the golf course that, they say, addresses the reasons the first application was refused. This includes a reduction of some 90 per cent in the amount of the Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) the golf course would use, a commitment to mow the fairways from the native grasses of the site rather than seeding them, and a similar commitment to use no fairway irrigation on the golf course.

Landowner Edward Abel-Smith, who would remain in ownership of the site if the golf course were built, told GCA: “I’m the third generation of my family to have guardianship of Coul Farm. We bought the land in the Fifties, and my grandfather farmed the land. Of the 600 acres, 300 acres is the duneland, and the remainder is farmland used for sheep grazing. It has been a loss-making property for a long time now. We were heavily reliant on farming subsidies, but they have changed and massively decreased. If we break even, it is a good year. The golf course offers a chance to transform the economics not only of Coul Farm, but of the entire area.”

The Sutherland area is suffering from severe depopulation – “the only group of population which is growing are the over eighties”, one local told GCA – and NHS statistics show that the county averages fewer than 80 live births a year. C4C says the golf course could bring in more than £50 million of private investment and create up to 400 jobs.

However, despite the attempts to reduce the environmental impact of the golf course, it has still attracted strong opposition from conservation groups. Most notably, NatureScot, the national nature agency, while accepting the potential economic impact the course could bring, came down against the Coul development, more or less obliging the council’s planning officers to recommend rejection of the application. Because of the NatureScot objection, the local planning officer is also obliged to send an official notification to Scottish ministers.

“Our view is if the council approve it, and we have overwhelming local support, and we have – as we believe we have – addressed all the concerns, it should remain a local matter,” said Abel-Smith. “If the ministers do decide to call it in, we are also of the view that it doesn’t require another public inquiry, which would be a waste of public money. No community group can afford to pay for an inquiry – the community has crowdfunded about £250,000 to pay for the planning application, and an inquiry would cost double that. The SSSI is in a very poor condition – the quality is assessed on eight categories, and it has failed six of the eight. You can see very clearly on the site, where the contractors have gone in and pulled out some gorse and burned it out to remove the roots – the gorse grows back tenfold. The only way it will be properly preserved is though the income that would be generated by the golf course.”