THE First Minister has been challenged on whether Scottish Government ministers will “call in” a controversial planning application after approval was granted to build a golf course on a protected site.

On Wednesday, Highland Council’s planning committee voted to give the green light to a development on Coul Links, at Embo near Dornoch in Sutherland.

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).

While the 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.

At First Minister’s Questions on Thursday, Green MSP Ariane Burgess raised the issue with Humza Yousaf.

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The Highlands and Islands MSP said: “Yesterday, Highland Council granted planning consent for a golf course on Coul Links, an internationally recognised Ramsar site and site of special scientific interest.

“This was despite an objection from Nature Scot and planning officers recommending refusal on the basis of conflict with National Planning Framework Four policies three, four and 10.”

Burgess finished: “Will the First Minister confirm that the decision will now be called in to Ministers and reaffirm the Scottish Government’s commitment to respecting all international treaty obligations, including the Ramsar convention?”

A Ramsar site refers to the international Convention on Wetlands, which is named after the city of Ramsar in Iran where it was signed in 1971.

The Ramsar Sites Information Service provides details of some 2500 protected wetland areas across the globe, including at Dornoch Firth and Loch Fleet covering Coul Links.

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Responding, the First Minister (above) said he would not comment on a specific live case, but urged local authorities to respect their statutory obligations.

He said: “These are of course local decisions to be made and I won’t comment on a live application and whether ministers will call it in and what that decision will be.

“What I would say … is of course the issues which [Burgess] raises in relation to the environmental impact of any planning application are incredibly important. Of course the impact any planning application could have on our nature and natural environment is of the utmost importance.

“I expect local government, local authorities, to take account of these matters and make sure they’re meeting their statutory obligations.

“In terms of a live application, she’ll forgive me that I won’t be able to comment any further.”

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On Wednesday, C4C director Gordon Sutherland said: “We are absolutely delighted that councillors have voted in favour of our application after careful consideration of all the information presented to them.

“Our plans, which have had the backing of local people from the outset, offer a genuine chance to create much-needed new employment opportunities in an area where the working age population is falling, threating the future viability of fragile communities.”

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.”