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New bid for controversial luxury 18-hole golf course in Highlands given boost after public vote

Coul Links, exactly where the proposed golf course would be built.
Coul Links, exactly where the proposed golf course would be built.

A new bid for a controversial luxury 18-hole championship golf course in the Highlands has received a major boost after a public vote was overwhelmingly in favour of the development.

A community group behind the course at Coul Links in Sutherland said it was “an unequivocal result in favour” and a “mandate to move ahead with a new planning application”.

Communities for Coul (C4C) previously announced that top American golf course architect Mike Keiser, who was involved in the original unsuccessful bid for the development, is now an integral part of the fresh attempt.

A poll on behalf of C4C – carried out in the fortnight leading up to Friday (June 11) by Civica, an independent provider of ballot and election services – has shown overwhelming support, but based on less than half of electors in the area.

Coul Links. Picture by Sandy McCook

Some 4812 people registered on the electoral roll and living in the IV25, KW9 and KW10 postcodes were canvassed.

Voters were asked: “Do you support a community planning application for an environmentally sensitive, world-class golf course to be built at Coul Links, near Embo?”

C4C said the voter turnout was 44.4 per cent with 69.2 per cent in favour of pushing forward with the golf course plan.

A C4C spokesman said on the group’s Facebook: “C4C are delighted to report that the result of the East Sutherland Coul Links community ballot was a resounding Yes!

“The vote……is an unequivocal result in favour.

“We would like to sincerely thank everybody who voted in this ballot, whether it be for or against. Turnout, at 44.4%, was incredibly high for such a one-off event, publicised by representatives of our communities, over four months on a shoestring budget, reliant on donations and during a global pandemic!

“The turnout is comparable to that at local council elections and about 10% higher than European Parliament elections.

“If possible, going forward we would like to engage with other interested groups prepared to have constructive discussions, to ensure we get the best possible result for the whole community.

The Battle of Coul Links

“As promised, we will take this result as our mandate to move ahead with a new planning application for a simply stunning, environmentally sensitive golf course at Coul Links to create employment and economic prosperity for East Sutherland.”

Mr Keiser has agreed to build the course, should planning consent be granted. It is understood that he may also be prepared to help fund it.

It is also said that the golf course will avoid the most sensitive areas of the Special Site of Scientific Interest.

The links caused a battle between the local community who largely wanted it and conservationists who opposed its creation.

About 32 acres of the planned course was proposed for internationally-important dunes at Coul Links at Embo, near Dornoch.

Highland councillors gave the project the go-ahead in June 2018, before Scottish ministers called in the planning application for further scrutiny.

Following a public inquiry, the government refused permission last year mainly over environmental concerns.

In October an initial attempt to resurrect the plan was made with a “screening request” for a similar development lodged with Highland Council in the name of defunct Embo Junior Football and Athletic Club.

At the time Highland Council warned it was in its discretionary powers to refuse to determine a repeat planning application should it be submitted within two years of a previous one being refused.

Objections and support

In a group statement then, C4C stated the area had been hard hit by the pandemic and members were being driven by the need to create employment for young people locally.

It is anticipated that up to 150 jobs could be created initially.

The developers – including American millionaire Todd Warnock – behind the original project argued that the golf course would improve and protect the area of land involved, and bring much-needed jobs to the area.

But a group of conservation charities opposed to the project, including RSPB Scotland, Butterfly Conservation Scotland and the Scottish Wildlife Trust. There were more than 1,800 objections and a recommendation for rejection from the local authority’s own planners.

Back in the US, Mr Warnock is known for leading a £14 million fundraising drive to conserve wetlands known as the the Saugatuck Harbour nature area in his native Michigan. The Chicago-born entrepreneur made his fortune in healthcare investment.

Mr Warnock and golf course mogul Mr Keiser promised the Sutherland site would generate 250 jobs and bring in £60 million for the local economy in its first ten years of operation.

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