The bat­tle lines are drawn over golf course plan. Which side are you on?

The Scotsman - - Final Words - Roger­cox

Tricky things, pe­ti­tions, in that they re­quire you to heave your­self off the fence and ac­tu­ally make a de­fin­i­tive de­ci­sion about some­thing. It’s one thing to read up on the back­ground to a com­plex de­bate un­til you feel you’ve fi­nally man­aged to get your head around the pros and cons of both sides; quite an­other to pick a side and to have your de­ci­sion recorded for pos­ter­ity.

So spare a thought for any poor souls cur­rently try­ing to de­cide whether or not to put their names to the 38 De­grees pe­ti­tion ob­ject­ing to the plan to build a golf course on the Site of Spe­cial Sci­en­tific In­ter­est (SSSI) at Coul Links near Embo in Suther­land. Part of the prob­lem with re­search­ing some­thing like this in these post-truth times is that you will in­evitably find two con­flict­ing sets of facts on­line; in the case of Coul, how­ever, those ar­gu­ing for and against seem al­most to be in­hab­it­ing par­al­lel uni­verses, so wildly do they dis­agree on some of the most ba­sic de­tails.

Ac­cord­ing to the de­vel­op­ers – a group spear­headed by Amer­i­can multi-mil­lion­aires Mike Keiser and Todd Warnock – the course will “en­hance both the en­vi­ron­ment and the lo­cal economy.” Mean­while, the 38 De­grees pe­ti­tion (signed by over 90,000 peo­ple at time of writ­ing) sug­gests the course would cre­ate an “un­nat­u­ral catas­tro­phe,” de­stroy­ing rare and legally pro­tected habi­tats and wildlife.

There is ap­par­ently some dis­agree­ment, too, over pre­cisely how many acres of the SSSI will be af­fected. The de­vel­op­ers have said the course will oc­cupy 16.5 hectares [40 acres] “at worst.” How­ever, the High­land Coun­cil’s Area Plan­ning Man­ager re­cently rec­om­mended re­fusal of the scheme on the grounds that it would cre­ate “a high level of dis­rup­tion to nat­u­ral dune pro­cesses” and would cause “sig­nif­i­cant lev­els of habi­tat frag­men­ta­tion, with the course in­fra­struc­ture spread through­out the dune sys­tem.” In other words, the golf course it­self

might only oc­cupy a rel­a­tively small part of the SSSI, but it would have an ad­verse ef­fect on a much wider area.

Faced, then, with two con­tra­dic­tory sets of in­for­ma­tion – and there­fore a po­ten­tial mine­field of Rums­fel­dian known un­knowns – the only sen­si­ble thing to do, it seems to me, is to fo­cus on the known knowns; the things upon which every­one ap­pears to agree.

If the Coul Links golf course plan goes ahead, will it im­pact on at least 40 acres of an SSSI? Yes. The pro-golf course peo­ple say it will just be 40, the anti-golf course peo­ple say a lot more than 40, but no­body, as far as I can see, is say­ing it will be sig­nif­i­cantly less than 40.

Will the con­struc­tion of the course do dam­age to some or all of the rare species cur­rently in­hab­it­ing those 40-plus acres? Yes again. Never mind the myr­iad ob­jec­tions of the peo­ple in the anti-golf course camp, in­clud­ing Buglife, But­ter­fly Con­ser­va­tion Scot­land, the Marine Con­ser­va­tion So­ci­ety, the Na­tional Trust for Scot­land, Plantlife, RSPB Scot­land and the Scot­tish Wildlife Trust, who pre­dict sticky ends for such ex­otic­sound­ing species as frog or­chids and northern brown ar­gus but­ter­flies. If even the pro-golf course peo­ple are us­ing the phrase “at worst” to de­scribe the ex­tent of their fair­ways, greens and bunkers, we can sur­mise that things will not end hap­pily for the plants and wildlife cur­rently res­i­dent in the afore­men­tioned 40 acres once the bull­doz­ers roll in.

Any mit­i­gat­ing fac­tors? Ac­cord­ing to the golfers, if their plan gets the green light “pri­vate fund­ing will be ring-fenced an­nu­ally to main­tain the eco­log­i­cal in­tegrity of the site.” It’s very kind of them to of­fer, but it would ap­pear that be­ing left the hell alone has worked out OK for the plants and crit­ters of Coul these past few mil­len­nia – if it hadn’t, at the risk of stat­ing the blind­ingly ob­vi­ous, there would be noth­ing there worth pro­tect­ing, and there wouldn’t be any ob­jec­tions to the con­struc­tion of a golf course.

A de­vel­op­ment like the one pro­posed would, of course, cre­ate jobs for lo­cal peo­ple and bring money into the lo­cal economy, al­though in­evitably there is dis­agree­ment about how many jobs and how much money. We can safely say that there will be “some” jobs though, and “some” money. Not to be sniffed at, but there are al­ready nu­mer­ous golf cour­ses in the area, in­clud­ing Royal Dornoch, Sk­ibo, Brora, Golspie, Wick, and Tain. It’s hard to see how adding one more will rad­i­cally trans­form the economy of east­ern Suther­land. And any­way, fi­nan­cial con­sid­er­a­tions start to seem rather pro­saic when mea­sured against the broader con­cerns raised last Novem­ber by John Fin­nie, Green MSP for the High­lands and Is­lands. He lodged a mo­tion with the Scot­tish Par­lia­ment which con­cluded: “at a time when Brexit has caused con­sid­er­able anx­i­ety re­gard­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tions, grant­ing per­mis­sion for this de­vel­op­ment could send a dan­ger­ous mes­sage that Scot­land’s highly pro­tected sites are open to de­vel­op­ment at the ex­pense of the en­vi­ron­ment.”

If the Coul golf course gets built, in other words, in spite of all the pro­tec­tions sup­pos­edly af­forded by its SSSI sta­tus, what’s to stop the rest of Scot­land’s wild places be­ing bought and sold for for­eign gold?

If the Coul Links golf course plan goes ahead, will it im­pact on at least 40 acres of an SSSI? Yes

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