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The Herald – 25th May 2024

Could Coul Links be the Highlands’ answer to New Lanark?

“Development plan that takes its inspiration from New Lanark”

THE plans have drawn comparisons with New Lanark, the 18th-century mill village developed by industrialist and philanthropist Robert Owen.

Landowner Edward Abel Smith has pledged to build dozens of homes in Sutherland if his plan for Coul Links golf course is approved by government ministers.

The owner of Coul Farm is also thought to be the first private landowner to offer to build new crofts in East Sutherland, an area in the grip of depopulation.

Jim Mcgillivray, councillor for Sutherland East, said Mr Abel Smith served as an example to other landowners “who sit on their land.”

He said: “The vision the applicants and I have discussed is that of Robert Owen at New Lanark in the 18th century – the company providing secure housing and secure jobs for employees in a walk-to-work setting, with the community having an equity share in the operation.”

A final decision on a plan to build a “world class” golf course at Coul Links, near Dornoch, rests with ministers in Holyrood after the Scottish Government intervened in the process amid concerns of environmental charities’ Nature Scot and the Conservation Coalition, led by the RSPB, as the area forms part of the Loch Fleet Special Protection Area.

However, the application by community group Communities for Coul (C4C) was approved by Highland Council in December despite 750 objections being lodged.

C4C estimates that the development could create up to 400 new jobs, mainly in the hospitality sector, and attract £50 million of investment and say it has the backing of a majority of residents.

The group say the developers and site owners will provide the expertise, manpower and investment needed – estimated at more than £500,000 in the first five years – to support the full restoration and sustainable protection of the site.
Highland MSP and Deputy First Minister, Kate Forbes, is among the high-profile politicians who have backed the plan.
“For me, it’s a real benchmark of how planning can be done really well,” said Mr Abel Smith.
“You have a community group who have a vision built from scratch. As someone sitting on the sidelines that’s a pretty amazing story.

“[New Lanark] was about creating a community, which is obviously not what we are doing here, but it’s that kind of idea of working in partnership with the community and bringing employment to an area and enabling people to live and thrive there is a big part of it.

“C4C has been very direct with me, [saying] it’s one thing to create jobs but it’s about creating jobs that can be filled locally. We’ve got the jobs charter to ensure that’s the case and also ensuring there is adequate housing. We are looking at potentially 30 houses, half of which would be affordable.

“It’s not going to go all the way for housing all of the workers but it’s a good starting point,” he added.

Half of the 30 new homes will be sold with covenants to ensure they are not turned into holiday lets .

Mr Abel Smith said his plans opened up the opportunity to diversity his land at Coul Farm.

“At the moment we are a loss-making farm and most of what we do is sheep lets for grazing,” he said.

“With an alternative income stream from the golf course, it opens up the opportunity to do more with the farmland.”

He has also pledged to build an eco-hotel if the development gets the go-ahead.

The government’s Planning and Environment Appeals Division will gather evidence on the golf course plan during a series of hearings scheduled to begin on November 11.

There is expected to be three days of evidence on the ecological impact of the development. According to the Not Coul group, coastal erosion is already happening and affects the golf course plan.

C4C say there is now an “urgency” to approve the project, given the housing “emergency ” declared by the Scottish Government and the latest Census figures that show depopulation in the Highlands is accelerating.

The landowner said the golf course development could be a “shot in the arm” for helping reverse the trend.

“We are not just talking about an investment of £50 million, we are talking about all the jobs that come with it and the further investment it attracts,” he said.

“If you look at some of the schemes I’ve been discussing with Communities for Coul – the hotel, the housing, now there is the crofts – they certainly wouldn’t solve all of the problems but it would go some way to doing that.”