Fri 8 Dec, 2017

John Finnie MSP

Highlands and Islands
Justice, Transport & Tourism, Rural & Island Communities


Coul Links, on the south side of Loch Fleet in East Sutherland, is one of the last areas of undisturbed species rich duneland in Scotland. RSPB Scotland describes it as “a mosaic of different dune habitats, each individually important and all increasingly rare.”

The importance of the area is encapsulated in a number of nationally and internationally significant designations. The Loch Fleet National Reserve is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), a Special Protection Area and a Ramsar site, designations given to places which best represent natural heritage, protect wild birds and safeguard our unique wetlands areas.

American businessmen Mike Keiser and Todd Warnock have plans to plant a golf course right on top of this very special site and I’m keen to assist the very informed local campaign, ‘notcoul’, intent on resisting the latest ‘Great Improvers,’ Coul Links Ltd (registered July 2016), mainly controlled by Coul Links Holding Company Llc, based in Wilmington, Delaware, USA

If you think this story is sounding rather familiar, you may recall that in 2008 another American businessman was granted permission to build a golf course on a similarly protected area in Aberdeenshire.

That businessman, now US President, opened Trump International Golf Links in 2012 and, despite assurances that the development would protect the environment, Scottish Natural Heritage are now reviewing the boundary of the Foveran Links SSSI due to “permanent habitat loss” with de-designation likely. None the less the website will continue to announce, “Welcome to Trump International Golf Links, Scotland! Set amidst The Great Dunes of Scotland, Trump International embraces mile after mile of spectacular Aberdeenshire coastline and guarantees the experience of a lifetime.”

That course gave many people a negative experience of a lifetime and has spectacularly failed to deliver the suggested 5K jobs, instead managing a modest 95 full-time equivalents.

The Coul Links promoters hate the comparison with the Menie Estate but they are like peas in a pod.

As a native Highlander I’ve heard it all before, the wild claims of jobs numbers and the millions of pounds boost the Highland economy.

A wide range of environmental organisations including the Scottish Wildlife Trust, the National Trust for Scotland and RSPB Scotland have lodged objections to this misguided proposal and, in what could be a game changer, Scottish Natural Heritage have advised the Planning Authority, Highland Council, of their objection to the development, meaning the case will be ‘called in’ by Ministers.

Back to 2008 and it was precisely at this point in the process that Alex Salmond’s Scottish Government, despite huge opposition, forced Donald Trump’s course through and the bulldozers were unleashed.

It is therefore extremely concerning that in reply to my parliamentary questions Cabinet Secretary Fergus Ewing has confirmed that the Scottish Government have already met developers several times to discuss Coul Links. I continue to press the Scottish Government and its agencies for full transparency on this matter and have a number of live FOI requests outstanding as well as a follow up with Highlands and Islands Enterprise who tell me that they, “… can confirm that HIE does not hold details of any meetings I can also confirm that between the 29th April 2015 and 1st September 2017 there were some 13 meetings attended by HIE representatives.” Such prevarication on the part of public servants does them little credit.

I have already raised the matter on a number of occasions in parliament including recently at Environment Questions. My parliamentary motion highlighting the dangers posed by the development has also now achieved welcome support from Green, Lib Dem and Labour colleagues.

In the course of the application there have been a number of ‘interesting’ claims about the economic impact and job creation associated with the development. In fact, so vociferous have these claims been that many local people who have been in touch with me expressing grave concern about the development feel unable to express their opposition publicly.

The climate of fear that has been created – regarding opposition to the proposal as sacrilege – has resulted in figures being trumpeted around that 92% of locals support the development. That is why I gave mention to these constituents in my letter of objection to the Highland Council.

One local, who like many others keeps their head well down below the parapet least the developers’ zealous disciplines let rip, told me, “It’s not as if the golf clients will be stopping off at the local shop for their paper and tin of juice.”

It is of course for the council to adjudicate on the planning proposal, at least at this stage, and it is therefore deeply disappointing that a number of local councillors in the area have been effectively doing the developers bidding for them and making those opposed to the proposal feel castigated.

Credit to the Not Coul campaign who have excelled in raising awareness around the development and the many organisations opposed to another golf course in the wrong place.

This article first appeared in The National.

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