THE Scottish Government has been asked to step in and “save” one of the last remaining undeveloped dune systems in the country after a council approved a golf course development on top of it.

On Wednesday, the Highland Council’s planning committee voted by eight to six to grant approval to plans to develop on Coul Links at Embo, north of Dornoch in Sutherland.

Organisations including RSPB Scotland and the Scottish Wildlife Trust have condemned the result and urged ministers to “call in” the application – which would see a government review before a final decision on whether to block the development.

The Coul Links site forms part of the Loch Fleet Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and the Dornoch Firth and Loch Fleet Special Protection Area (SPA).

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Bruce Wilson, the head of policy at the Scottish Wildlife Trust, said: “Protected sites exist to not only help preserve extremely valuable places for nature and people but also to signpost very clearly where it is not appropriate to place developments.

“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.”

Kenna Chisholm, RSPB Scotland’s area manager for the north Highlands, said: “Due to the decision by Highland Council to grant permission for the golf course, contrary to its own official’s advice and disregarding nearly 750 objections including from NatureScot, we are once again 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 (below) is safeguarded for nature and people into the future rather than being irreparably harmed.”

The National: The meeting will discuss the controversial plan for a golf course on the sand dunes near Embo in Sutherland

Developers Communities for Coul Limited (C4C) say that the 18-hole golf course could help safeguard a sustainable future for the local area.

They claim the course would create some 400 jobs and generate £11 million for the local economy each year.

C4C director Gordon Sutherland said: “We are absolutely delighted that councillors have voted in favour of our application after careful consideration of all the information presented to them.

“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, threating the future viability of fragile communities.

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"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.”

In 2020, the Scottish Government rejected plans to develop on Coul Links, saying: “The Scottish Government has considered the reporter’s findings carefully and agree with the recommendation that planning permission should be refused.

“The likely detriment to natural heritage is not outweighed by the socio-economic benefits of the proposal.”

The National: Ariane Burgess is Convener of the Scottish Parliament’s Local Government, Housing and Planning Committee.

Scottish Green MSP Ariane Burgess (above) said she would lobby ministers to reject the plans.

The Highlands and Islands MSP went on: “Coul Links is a spectacular site of environmental significance and has several important international environmental designations. 

“This is the second time a plan for a totally inappropriate golf development on this land has been brought forward; the second time local communities and environmental groups have had to fight against multi-millionaire developers and the second time that the application will need to be reconsidered by Government Ministers.

“Local residents value and cherish this special and unique landscape, and it’s deeply disappointing that councillors on the panel opted to ignore those concerns as well as those raised by environmental groups on behalf of the voiceless wildlife that depends on this rare and precious habitat."