Councillors yesterday signalled they will go against their planning officials by voicing unanimous support for the controversial Coul Links golf course in east Sutherland.
But members of the North Planning Committee yesterday deferred a final decision as campaigners unveiled new details in a dramatic 11th-hour move.
Now, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) must consider new details on hydrology submitted by opposition group Not Coul.
A coalition of conservation groups opposing the plans said they are “disappointed” with the apparent nod towards approval, and have called on First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to step in to “save one of Scotland’s last remaining intact dune habitats.”
East Sutherland and Edderton councillor Jim McGilivray, who lives in Embo, said the unanimous approval was “re-assuring” and that it was a “significant step forward” for the plans.
Highland Council planner Gillian Webster, although acknowledging the economic benefits, recommended councillors refuse planning permission based on an objection by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) which says there would be a 7% impact on sand dune habitat in a site of special scientific interest (SSSI).
But during yesterday’s debate at the local authority’s headquarters in Inverness, East Sutherland and Edderton councillor Richard Gale said: “Where there has been a problem, mitigation has always been offered (by the applicant).
“In my opinion, this 7% does not constitute a significant enough impact to refuse this application. It will create jobs and bring money into the area and improve the sustainability of the local area.”
North, west and central Sutherland councillor Kirsteen Currie said the choice is between keeping the “status quo” of a site which has lacked management for decades, or making use of it in a way which could also bring economic benefits, even if job numbers and the spin-off boost for hotels and bars are less than predicted.
Committee chairwoman Maxine Smith said she was leaning “towards the granting of this application,” and when she asked the committee for any motion to refuse, no members responded.
Following yesterday’s meeting US businessman Todd Warnock, one of the project developers, said: “This is a highly significant milestone in this project. We think there has been a fair and thorough assessment of the plans.
“We are thankful and respectful for all the statutory bodies and members of the local community – including those who opposed the development – for their engagement in the discussions.”
Aedán Smith, Head of Planning and Development at RSPB Scotland said: “We are extremely disappointed that the Highland Council appear to be minded to give permission for this very damaging development, despite it being clearly contrary to the Highland Council’s own development plan policies to protect the natural environment.
“Coul Links is now an important test of whether Scottish Ministers intend to uphold the international environmental standards that they have committed to. We urge them to call in the application, to ensure Coul Links is safeguarded for wildlife and people, both now and in the future.”