GOVERNMENT ministers have intervened after controversial plans to build a golf course on a protected dune system were approved by a Scottish council.

Ministers in Edinburgh have taken the decision to “call in” the application to build an 18-hole course at Coul Links at Embo, north of Dornoch in Sutherland, after the plan was approved by Highland councillors in December.

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). It is also protected as a “Ramsar site” under the international Convention on Wetlands, which was signed in 1971.

While Highland Council’s decision to approve the golf course was welcomed by developers Communities for Coul Limited (C4C), environmental charities urged ministers to step in to block its progression – as they previously did in 2020.

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Now, in a letter dated February 8, 2024, a Government planning official has confirmed ministers have taken control over the application.

The letter reads: “Having considered the proposal, the Scottish ministers have decided, in terms of Section 46 of the Town and Country Planning (Scotland) Act 1997 to require the application to be referred to them for determination.”

It adds: “The Scottish ministers have given this direction in view of the proposed development’s potential impact on nationally and internationally important natural heritage assets and the need for an appropriate understanding of the scale and degree of potential economic benefits arising from the proposal.”

A Scottish Government reporter from the Planning and Environmental Appeals Division (DPEA) will assess the case before ministers make the final decision.

Scottish Green MSP for the Highlands and Islands Ariane Burgess welcomed the “crucial decision for local wildlife and a big step towards protecting our iconic landscapes and nature”.

She went on: “Coul Links is a critically important site and should be celebrated and enhanced, not smothered with a golf course.

“The proposed development would be an act of environmental vandalism and would have a terrible impact on the rare species who depend on the specific habitat to live. That’s why it has been so firmly opposed by so many local people, conservation groups and wildlife champions.

“The proposals fly in the face of new planning laws that were brought in last year following extensive consultation and that emphasise the environmental and biodiversity impact of decisions.

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“This is the second time a plan for a totally inappropriate development on Coul Links has been brought forward. There are already high quality courses where people can play a great game without such a damaging impact to our local environment.

“Yet again, local communities and environmental groups have had to fight against multi-millionaire developers. Last time the Scottish Government ruled against the proposals, and I am confident that they will do so again.”

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 director of developers C4C, Gordon Sutherland, said: “We are understandably disappointed by this decision. However, we welcome the opportunity it gives us to formally address the environmental and economic benefits of our application and to correct the misinformation surrounding it.

“Communities for Coul is made up solely of local people, who have the unequivocal support of local communities. We hope that local democracy is respected and the Scottish Government allows fully informed elected local representatives to decide what is best for the area.”