In last year’s unfortunate US election, Hillary Clinton attracted 65,844,610 votes, compared to Donald Trump’s 62,979,636. If that tells us anything, it is that Americans are not all the same.
Yet reading a piece by John Finnie MSP in The National, where he attacks our golf course proposal for Coul Links near Dornoch, you would think the opposite. For a man who has never met me, my team, replied to my invitations to speak or meet with me, or even visited Coul Links to my knowledge, he seems pretty happy to shout ‘Trump’ in my direction.
For a man who was SNP, then Independent, and currently in the Green Party, you would think he would understand people can have different viewpoints and opinions, no matter their nationality.
So I’m not sure why being American, and having funds to invest in Scotland, for which I have a genuine love, is so easily mocked by Mr. Finnie, but it’s unsurprising. He didn’t support me when I refurbished a listed former manse into a new award-winning hotel in Dornoch which attracts hundreds of visitors to the area, mostly from (whisper it) America. He also didn’t provide support as I led our community’s successful fight to prevent closure of the Highland Council Service Point in Dornoch. Nor did he support us when our community raised £40,000 to renovate the Service Point into a Visitor’s Centre, nor when we converted the empty albatross of a Dornoch Courthouse into the new Carnegie (yes that Scots American) Courthouse, which is now home to four successful businesses, employing over 30 people.
Let me be clear: I abhor everything about Donald Trump. I have never worked with or even met him. I have never been paid any money by him. I have never been asked for my opinions by him. I have never testified in court on his behalf. And I would never want to be associated with him in any way. The same can’t be said for Mr. Tom Dargie, the self-styled leader of Not Coul (which Mr Finnie supports) who actually worked on Trump’s Menie Project in Aberdeen as lead ecologist. He also gave evidence in Court in support of that project. Both of these objectors against Coul Links, again against clear local consensus, seem to have more in common with Mr. Trump than I ever will.
Consider these facts: we held six public consultation events over the last two years, with attendees having the opportunity to register opinions anonymously. They were open to everyone and very well attended. At the last two meetings, in Dornoch then Embo, over 173 people registered their opinion. Of that number, 7 opposed the project in Dornoch and none at Embo. As to Mr Finnie’s absurd “climate of fear” allegation, how could he know what the climate is up here, he has never engaged with us, unlike so many others.
Gail Ross MSP, for example, has met with the local community, with Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), with Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), and she has weighed up all of the information before publically stating her considered and firm support. Similarly, VisitScotland, HIE, The University of Highlands and Islands Golf Management Programme, Dornoch Community Council, Dornoch Area Community Interest Company, Embo Trust, Scottish Crofting Federation and every single golf course in the area, including the iconic Royal Dornoch Golf Club, have stated their support for Coul Links. There can simply be no doubt about a local public consensus. None.
During consultations we have ensured our full team of consultants on Ecology, Traffic, Economics, Hydrology, Ornithology and Natural Heritage have been in attendance to field direct dialogue and answer questions in a spirit of openness and respect. Mr Finnie likely doesn’t understand this because he never attended the public consultations. I personally called him several times, but he has never responded.
More facts: Coul Links SSSI is 1,252 hectares, the relevant portion south of Loch Fleet is 800 hectares. Our golf course would consist of 22.4 hectares of tees, fairways and greens, and after many revisions, yes 14.4 hectares would be in the SSSI. SNH’s principle objection is that the proposed development would, worst-case but not likely, “affect” 16.4 hectares of dune habitat.
So ultimately, people should rightly ask: exactly what Net Gain will be delivered? How will the site benefit ecologically? And will the project serve the national interest?
First, we would improve the SSSI site by 20 hectares via the remediation of an environmentally compromised felled tree plantation located in the middle of it (5.7 hectares) and the purchase of 14.3 hectares of land adjacent to the SSSI; the source of substantial invasive species. We would manage this land as if within the SSSI and create a green space for Embo.
Second, we would develop and fund in partnership with SNH perpetually, a comprehensive Site Management Plan (SMP) for the entire 800 hectares within the SSSI. Tragically, this SSSI has never had an SMP since its designation in 1988 and it has no funds whatsoever for its protection. Our plan will protect Coul Links environmentally, forever.
And third, we would generate an estimated 250 jobs and £60 million in gross value added for the local economy over the first 10 years of the project. Wonderfully, at least two local businesses have already announced over £1m of further local capital investment if in part Coul Links is built. If these estimates are even half right, this is likely the largest investment in East Sutherland in decades.
In conclusion, America and Scotland have a great history of friendship and affection for each other. Our team is humbled by the prospect of building a golf course in the Home of Golf. We implore our opponents to study the plan in its entirety for which there is a clear local consensus. We firmly believe at Coul Links, that environmental stewardship and economic development can work hand-in-hand in harmony for everyone.