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Coul Links: golf course plans still driving a wedge between rival groups

A view from the 18th hole on the planned golf course at Coul Links
A view from the 18th hole on the planned golf course at Coul Links

Plans to build a championship golf course at Coul Links in Sutherland continue to divide opinion seven years after the idea was first mooted.

With new proposals on the table, after a previous attempt was turned down, the issue is not going away.

So, what happened to the original plans and what has happened since?

Who was behind the original course plan?

American entrepreneur Todd Warnock revealed in November 2015 he was leading proposals for a ‘world class’ course.

Mr Warnock, owner of the Links House Hotel in Dornoch and the town’s courthouse building, said he was working with renowned course developer Mike Kaiser.

The first plans were made available for consultation in August 2016.

Within days, the Not Coul group was set up to fight the proposals, highlighting the area’s vulnerability as a site of special scientific interest (SSSI).

More than 1,100 people objected to the application when it was lodged, and more than 90,000 signed an online petition.

Todd Warnock, who originally planned to build the golf course. Picture by Sandy McCook.

Conservationists called for surveys for the Fonseca’s seed fly. They say it is only found in the dune system on a stretch of the coastline.

Mr Keiser and his team maintained that, rather than destroying habitats, they would be preserving them.

The developers and supporters of the golf course said it would bring much-needed investment to the area.

In September 2017, after two years refining the £8-10 million project, plans were submitted for approval.

The Coul Links team hoped work would start the following year and be completed by March 2021.

Claims of millions of pounds and hundreds of jobs

An economic study estimated the golf course would create 250 indirect jobs and add £60 million to the East Sutherland economy alone – 450 jobs and £85 million for the Highlands – in its first 10 years.

Mr Warnock also revealed the development would be part-owned by The Embo Trust. This, he said, was to “guarantee a local income stream for generations”.

In November 2017, the Green MSP John Finnie submitted a parliamentary motion opposing the course, claiming it would be “catastrophic” for the environment.

Conservation organisations, including RSBP Scotland and the Scottish Wildlife Trust, also lodged an objection warning it would damage an internationally important wildlife site.

The Scottish Environment Protection Agency withdrew its objection in March 2018.

The Coul Links public inquiry began in February 2019. Picture by Sandy McCook.

But the following month it was revealed more than 1,170 objections had been lodged with Highland Council’s planning department.

Highland Council’s north planning applications committee backed the plans in June 2018.

Councillors went against the recommendation of officials who said the development  would have a detrimental impact on the SSSI.

The Scottish Government called in the application in August 2018 and a public inquiry opened in February 2019, lasting four weeks.

Coul plans refused

The saga seemed to end in February 2020 when the government refused the plans.

Planning minister Kevin Stewart said Reporters concluded the harmful impacts of the development to protected habitats and species would outweigh the potential socio-economic benefits.

However, in January 2021 a new group, Communities for Coul (C4C) revived the idea, saying it felt their area had been “dealt a grave disservice”.

The landowner, Edward Abel Smith later announced plans for a £20 million eco hotel at the site if the golf course gets approved.

In June last year a community ballot was held and attracted a 44.4% turnout.

To the question ‘Do you support a community planning application for an environmentally-sensitive, world-class golf course to be built at Coul Links near Embo? 69.2% said Yes.

Coul Links. Picture by Alasdair Dickson.

C4C lodged a pre-Planning Application Notice (PAN) for the development with Highland Council in June 2022.

It says it has worked to review the concerns raised by Scottish Ministers in the previous application.

A full planning application is expected in the autumn.

But the division continues. In July an alliance of seven environmental organisations raised concerns over the new plans for a golf course.

In return, C4C challenged the group to say how they would protect the habitat it says is threatened by the course plans. 

A public exhibition of the plans was held at Embo Community Centre on July 27.

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