The Coul Links saga shows councillors lack of respect for local opinion

After previously deferring a decision on the Coul Links Golf course, Highland Council’s north planning applications committee voted to grant planning permission for the 6 million pound development in Embo, Sutherland, despite their own officials TWICE calling on them to reject it.

Coul Links


The committee was holding a special planning meeting on Wednesday 20th June, after they had deferred making a decision at the beginning of the month to allow new evidence to be assessed. As before, the council’s planning officials had recommended that the development be rejected as, they said the course would have a “detrimental impact” on protected wildlife habitat.

The main reason for their recommendation is that part of the 18 hole course, which American businessman Todd Warnock is proposing to build, would be on a Site of Special Scientific Interest.

Massive Local Opposition

Now I can understand the possible economic benefits to building such a scheme however, the level of opposition to this was unprecedented and it seems as if the local representatives completely ignored their constituents views.

Not only did the council’s own officials oppose the move, but there were 1800 objections and a petition signed by 89,000 people asking the councillors not to grant it. Add in the statutory bodies; National Trust for Scotland and RSPB Scotland also voicing their opposition I believe that the consensus was that permission be refused.

Money, Money, Money

Related image

Tom Warnock

The reason I decided to write about this came about when I saw that the developer Mr Warnock told the Press and Journal after the decision,”his pockets were “deep enough” to mitigate any environmental concerns.”

Money cannot mitigate the destruction of natural habitat. Jobs are all well and good but, at the cost of destruction of unique and protected habit I don’t think so.

This sort of comment in my opinion shows that his apparent ‘understanding’ about losing the natural habitat, is just lip service to keep the councillors on board.

Maxine Smith

Maxine Smith, SNP Cllr for Ross & Cromarty

The planning committee’s chairwoman Maxine Smith SNP told the meeting: “on balance” the economic benefits of the golf course “outweighed the detrimental effects on ecology”.

She said: “I studied everything and, whilst I appreciate the this will be detrimental to the flora and fauna on the dunes, I don’t think that outweighed the economic and social benefits this application will bring.

“Tourism is massive in the Highlands and we need to encourage that and not turn it away.”

She is right, tourism is massive in the Highlands but, one of the main reasons for this is the landscape. We in the Highlands and Islands are blessed with some of the most beautiful and scenic locations in the world. Millions of people visit just for this reason, golf may be big here, but it’s our beauty that is best known.

Also, this is planned to be a 5 star championship course which, being so close to the Royal Dornoch Championship Course,  it will no doubt carry a hefty price tag. Apart from the ‘promise’ of a few jobs being created, what will local residents really gain?

When Donald Trump built his golf course near Aberdeen the same empty promises were used, yet the actual gain for the local community there has been negligible. Not to mention the course’s officials heavy handed approach to anyone crossing it.

Beautiful area

I have visited the area near Embo on many occasions growing up and can honestly say that, despite them claiming only 7% of the dunes will be lost, that is 7% too much. It’s a beautiful area were you can take your children and just be at peace. There are also otters very close to the planned course so I wonder how this will affect them?

The developers have also said that they would improve other areas of the dunes. These dunes with their rare flora and fauna have existed for thousands of years without intervention from humans, I cannot think of a good reason why it’s a good idea to start now?

Lack of respect for the people who vote for them

The saga isn’t over yet though. Since a statutory body is involved, the National Trust for Scotland, the decision will now go to ministers at the Scottish Government in Holyrood to decide on whether to set up a public enquiry. With the level of opposition from the local community and those from further afield, I think it is highly likely that an enquiry will be launched.

NoRespectIf they choose not to, it will just add to the lack of respect that politicians have already shown the people of East Sutherland.

Alex Tiffin

@RespectIsVital on Twitter

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9 replies »

  1. This article is so far away from the truth here in Dornoch and Embo especially concerning local support and disrespect that I would like to invite the author back to Embo and meet the locals so he can retract this piece of nonsense.Every local community group supports the development in fact only 6 objections were received by the community council.The objectors are supported by activist groups who whilst entitled to their opinion they do not represent OUR view.Reality is whilst they have done a good job encouraging nearly 90,000 to sign a petition that presented a picture of destruction of the site where only 7% is affected in the first place they managed a pathetic 170 signing from ALL the local postcodes covering a huge geographic area from south of Dornoch to well beyond Brora.If the author had bothered to do his research properly he would also have witnessed the very emotional celebrations in Embo last weekend attended by a huge number of locals.Contrast that with the 5 or 6 locals opposing in Embo but making all the noise.
    You should also be clear on two important facts.The entrepreneur behind this development, Todd Warnock is not the greedy grasping American suggested and comparisons with Trump are just lazy journalism.Todd has already invested in our local community to the approval of our many thousand of visitors and especially locals, he is an improver not a destroyer.Contrast this to the leader of the opposition group who not only worked as lead ecologist for Trump ironically saying amongst many things that golf courses can be good for SSSI sites but also has a hand in the approval of Strathy South in the middle of an SSSI RAMSAR site.

  2. There are several untruths and obfuscations here, which are typical of the development hoodwinkery, for which Ian appears to be the Twitter spokesperson and apologist, quoted here.

    “I am surprised that you would fall into a trap set by objectors that locals are against the development as this is totally untrue.The 36 degree petition shows only170 locals opposed covering an area south of Dornoch to Helmsdale.All local community groups support.”
    Ian Madeley tweet.

    Opponents to the golf development do not need to lie or ‘set traps’. The truth is justification enough.

    Golf course hype exhibitions revel
    Where public perceptions bedevil,
    All wildlife presented
    On truth-circumvented
    Wee map at Scottie dog eye level.

    So many be gulled by hoodwinking
    And false consensus astroturfing,
    From elected MPs
    To parochial ETs,
    By its fringe benefits greenwashing.

    Dornoch local community groups no doubt do much good work that may be unnoticed but often represent themselves when it is anything to do with business. One member has described comparisons of Coul Links Ltd with Trump developments as ‘ignorant and pathetic’ in the Press & Journal (whose editor, I believe, is husband of Menie Golf Course general manager) yet many intelligent journalists see the parallels. One councillor and community ‘representative’ also publicises fatuous homespun ‘ecology’ with no foundation in science: ‘cars and cats kill more birds than golfers’.

    I didn’t address any objection to them, and I live in the divided community. When a link to contact information for one community group was provided (readily available on the Internet) there may have been a flurry of objections and the community group objected. Developer, Todd Warnock lobbied community groups and other bigger influentials on the quiet for a long period while the development website was quiet until the list of supporters was assembled. Freedom of Information disclosures in The Ferret publicised these negotiations. Support was given and quoted without consideration of any rival arguments.

    One councillor, who is also chair of the purportedly environmentally-friendly Embo Trust (see its articles of association), which is an investor in Coul Links Ltd, sits on at least one of the local committees. He was barred from participating the Planning meetings because he had been outspoken in his support for the development. He has described me and dune expert Dr Tom Dargie (who has surveyed 95% of Scotland’s dunes and machair for SNH) as ‘armchair environmentalists’ in The Crofter November 2017 and made presumptions about my wealth and pension. Yet we have never met and he has clearly not hacked my bank account. His research there is faulty but that is no surprise from the developers. The ecological surveys and Environmental Impact Assessment are distinctly dodgy. I have decades of experience as an ecological surveyor and am familiar with Coul Links, so recognise the flaws.

    The Chair of Highland Council Planning Committee stated at the Special Meeting that local support for, and opposition to, the golf course are about equal but that it is not a popularity contest. That made it easier to regard the 89,000 petition signatories (capacity crowd for Wembley Stadium) against the Coul Links golf course as a single objection.

    Signatory demography for 38 Degrees petition on 25/05/2018 ~ SCOTLAND Postcodes: AB1633 DD882 DG601 EH4137 FK836 G3272 HS79 IV1905 KA889 KW360 KY1192 ML644 PA973 PH889 TD450 ZE100; HighlandCouncil region 1924; SCOTLAND 18,842; ENGLAND, WALES & NI: 69,923; UK 88,765. Local signatures from Tain, Dornoch, Ardgay, Lairg, Golspie and Brora totalled 267.

    We should not ignore people who don’t sign petitions, even when they agree with them, those who signed the other Buglife (Fonseca fly) and Care2 petitions but not the most popular petition, those who find the controversy divisive, those who keep a low profile, those who have been intimidated, those who are apathetic and those who admit they don’t understand the environmental implications.

    Snobbish Niles Crane said that ‘popularity is the hallmark of mediocrity’. One could consider that burning books was popular in Nazi Germany and desecration of churches was popular in The Reformation but neither is good. Golf is fine in the right place, where it doesn’t destroy special habitats and species, protected by law, or conflict with a Council’s Planning policies. Many golfers have signed the petition and/or objected to Highland Council. Odd that a Liberal councillor should be so at odds with Liberal Party environmental policy, which is fine on paper. He ignored the expert advice from SNH discrediting the 7% of Coul Links damage theory. Talk of 7% of the site being affected is absolute nonsense, as SNH made clear at the Special Planning Meeting. A precise figure is hard to put on this but he said damage would be substantial, long-term and mostly irreversible.

    If one chops off one’s left (or right) leg below the knee, about 7% of body mass, would that incur a 7% loss of mobility or equivalent loss to one’s general physical functionality? That is a cruder analogy of how ecology works. One might function better with a smaller percentage alteration, like a brain transplant? Target and surgical choice and precision are critical.

    We also hear unscientific arguments about just 1-2 % of the SSSI being affected, when it is predominantly tidal mud and sand. Although the site has an integrity as a suite of different habitats, which species may depend on at different times in their life cycles, it is also an ecological principle to compare habitats with like habitats: like dune with dune. There are also micro-habitats within the dunes. It is far more of a complex web than the developer propaganda shenanigans. Temperate sand dunes are also a conservation priority habitat rarer than tropical rain forest.

    Sea level rises will also exacerbate this damage, and the developers have irresponsibly stuck to their plan to have golf lawns constructed metres away from the crest of the eroding foredunes. Keiser, the main developer, has donated generously to Heartland climate change denial institute (see Little Sis website). Warnock believes that the foredune is still relatively static, because it has been so historically (before global warming and coastal erosion accelerated), a view not shared by leading geomorphologist, Prof Jim Hansom of Glasgow University, who has studied this coast scientifically without recourse to such wishful ‘thinking’.

    Regarding reputational mud-slinging, Not Coul’s chairman Tom Dargie advised Trump Golf to avoid Foveran Links SSSI, Menie and then parted company with a big drop in income. Strathy South windfarm site is not part of the Sutherland and Caithness Peatlands protected SPA but an unprotected ‘island’ within it that had been seriously damaged by forestry.

    I heard some of the celebrations in The Eagle were rather rowdy and expletive ridden.

    Todd Warnock is the charm-offensive man. Keiser is the lead developer and investor. You can find more information here:

    Follow me on Twitter at VisitGroatbury.

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