Councillors have backed a golf course plan at Coul Links for the second time, having again gone against the advice of officials.
The move mirrors a decision in 2018 when Highland Council members ignored a recommendation to refuse the controversial proposal.
The golf course was eventually rejected by the Scottish Government after a public inquiry in 2020.
Today, the council’s north planning applications committee voted 8-6 to grant permission for a revised proposal.
It means the plan will once more be referred to ministers who have the opportunity to call in the new application.
Plans first emerged eight years ago
The proposal has been controversial since initially being put forward in 2015 by American businessman Todd Warnock.
A year after being thrown out, a new group, Communities for Coul (C4C), revived the idea and submitted fresh plans in February.
C4C said it is delighted with the latest approval.
Director Gordon Sutherland said: “Our plans, which have had the backing of local people from the outset, offer a genuine chance to create much-needed new employment opportunities in an area where the working age population is falling, threatening the future viability of fragile communities.
“They also provide a guaranteed future for the wonderful wild coastal environment of Coul Links, which is currently sadly neglected and at risk.
“Local democracy has been at the heart of today’s decision, and we trust that will continue to be the case when Scottish ministers come to consider our application.”
Plea to call in application
But the Conservation Coalition, comprising seven environmental groups, said it is “extremely disappointed and very concerned” by the decision.
Kenna Chisholm, area manager, north Highland and the Hebrides for RSPB Scotland, said it is now asking Scottish ministers to save Coul Links.
“It’s really regrettable the proposals are now at this stage given how clearly it’s been shown that Coul Links is not the place for this kind of development.
“We’re urging ministers to call in the development to ensure that Coul Links is safeguarded for nature and people into the future rather than being irreparably harmed.”
She also urged people to join an online campaign.
Bruce Wilson, head of policy and advocacy at the Scottish Wildlife Trust, added: “In a nature and climate emergency, which the Highland Council themselves have declared, this does not represent a sustainable decision, we are once again in the position of asking Scottish ministers to call this in.”
Councillor Richard Gale put forward the successful motion to grant permission.
He said the golf course offers significant investment in east Sutherland and the whole Highlands.
“This development will have an impact on the natural landscape.
“But it will also create an opportunity to enhance and protect aspects of it through mitigation measures offered by the applicant.”
He was backed by Councillor Ruraidh Stewart who said the economic benefits will be felt by the Highlands and most of Scotland.
Councillor Margaret Paterson said it was “very sad” the previous application was rejected by ministers.
“It is so important to the economy. It’s a wonderful planning application. I’m very much for it.
“I just hope the Scottish Government doesn’t do the wrong thing and call it in again.”
Committee chairman Drew Millar backed the officials’ view to refuse the application.
He was supported by council leader Raymond Bremner who said he did not consider the application complied with planning regulations.
Councillor Bremner said: “Does the economic benefit locally and nationally outweigh the loss displacement and replacement of natural environment?
“Whilst I believe there are considerable elements of benefit that cannot be ignored… I don’t believe on balance that it does.”
‘Unique and irreplaceable’
The new application is for an 18-hole golf course, a par 3 course, practice area, access, parking and change of use of existing buildings to create a clubhouse, pro shop and maintenance buildings.
C4C says the new plan addresses concerns raised by the previous planning application.
This includes reducing the amount of land that would be developed within a Site of Special Scientific Interest by about 90%.
It is claimed the course would bring “transformational” private investment of more than £50m.
C4C says golf-related spending at Coul Links will likely exceed £5.4m in the first year, rising to £7.9m, and create up to 400 jobs.
But opponents, including a coalition of seven conservation bodies, said Coul Links is unique and irreplaceable and the wrong place to build a golf course.
They said the development would harm a protected site and wildlife habitats.
NatureScot recognised the potentially large economic benefits from the proposal and efforts to reduce the planned course’s footprint.
But it concluded it was against planning guidelines on protecting the Loch Fleet Site of Special Scientific Interest.
Significant development proposal
To date, 751 objections have been made against the application, with 314 people having submitted letters of support.
Planning officials said the proposal represented a significant development proposal for Sutherland with potential for economic and tourism benefit.
But they said the same concerns raised over the initial application remain despite efforts to address them.
These include the potential impact on the natural heritage, specifically the SSSI.