Controversial plans to build a golf course on one of Scotland’s last undeveloped dune systems have suffered a significant set-back this week. Planning Officers from Highland Council have recommended the plans be refused by the North Planning Applications Committee at its 6 December meeting, a move welcomed by the Conservation Coalition campaigning to save Coul Links. 

Developers C4C submitted a proposal earlier this year to create an 18-hole golf course and associated infrastructure at Coul Links, an internationally and nationally protected area for nature.  The plans resulted in 746 objections to the application – more than double the number of supporting comments – including from Scottish Government’s specialist advisers NatureScot.  

In their report, planning officers agree with NatureScot that the proposal will result in significant adverse impacts on the protected sand dune feature at Coul Links, with consequent adverse impacts on species. They also state that the proposal cannot be considered nationally significant in terms of economic benefit to the area. 

Their recommendation for refusal centred on the impacts of the proposal on protected sites and its inability to comply with biodiversity enhancement requirements, stating in their report: “The proposed development would result in a significantly detrimental impact on the Loch Fleet Site of Scientific Interest and Loch Fleet Ramsar Site, designated for its sand dune habitat” and that “although mitigation is proposed the residual losses are extensive and likely to be permanent”. It is concluded that the proposal cannot comply with Scotland’s National Planning Framework 4 (NPF4)’s policy requirement to deliver biodiversity enhancement due to overall adverse impacts on the protected areas.

Coul Links is nationally and internationally protected for nature because of its special dune habitat, and the wildlife found there. This site probably supports one of the largest colonies of Northern Brown Argus butterfly in the UK. It also provides shelter to a variety of rare butterflies and moths, including the Small Blue, Portland Moth and Lyme Grass moth. This is the second time in five years it has been threatened by a large scale golf course development. A previous application was granted approval by Highland Council in 2018 despite a recommendation for refusal by its own planning officers. It was ultimately refused permission by Scottish Ministers in early 2020 who found that the economic benefits of plans did not outweigh the serious harm to nature that would be caused.

The Conservation Coalition, made up of Butterfly Conservation Scotland, RSPB Scotland, Scottish Wildlife Trust, Buglife Scotland, Plantlife Scotland, National Trust for Scotland and Marine Conservation Society, is calling on Highland Council’s North Planning Applications Committee to take on board the advice of its officials by refusing the plans at its meeting next week.  

On behalf of the Coalition, Peter Hearn, Head of Planning at RSPB Scotland said: “This is a very important decision from Highland Council planning officers in the campaign to save Coul Links for nature; we very much welcome their thorough report recommending refusal. Scotland is in a nature and climate emergency and tackling this means that places for wildlife like Coul Links must be safeguarded and not swept aside for development. Highland Council has planning policies to protect nature and has signed up to the Edinburgh Declaration, which makes commitments to stop biodiversity loss. 

“Coul Links is completely the wrong place to build a golf course – hundreds of people have made this clear to Highland Council, as well as many nature organisations and NatureScot.  This place is unique; it is irreplaceable. We hope that the North Planning Applications Committee will listen to the advice of their officers, refuse the application, and save Coul Links.”    

The plans will go before the North Planning Applications Committee on Wednesday 6 December.