CONTROVERSIAL plans by US billionaires to build a championship golf course on a highly protected site have been approved in a move critics are comparing to Donald Trump’s development a decade ago.

Highland councillors yesterday voted to grant planning permission for the controversial Coul Links golf course near Embo in Sutherland despite it being on a Site of Special Scientific Interest.

Council officials had recommended that councillors did not give planning permission.

The developers of the course have welcomed the vote, while opponents want Scottish ministers to call-in the project for further scrutiny.

US businessman Todd Warnock has teamed teamed up with golf billionaire, Mike Keiser, to propose a £10 million championship golf course and submitted a detailed planning application to Highland Council in September.

But this prompted objections from two government environment agencies and most major conservation groups.

Coul Links is highly protected by law because its unique sand dune network is home to a series of endangered plants, insects and birds.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) compared what was happening over Coul Links to the “embarrassing debacle” ten years ago when President Trump was given permission to damage protected sand dunes at Menie on the Aberdeenshire coast.

RSPB Scotland director, Anne McCall, said: “We are in the incredible situation of seeing history repeating itself.

“Some parts of government and our public agencies appear to be unbelievably eager to facilitate another American billionaire golf developer’s single minded plan of building on another protected Scots wildlife site.”

Highland Council’s north planning applications committee had previously deferred making a decision on the golf course to allow for new information on the project to be assessed.

Council planning officers said the new detail had not changed their earlier recommendation to refuse permission.

At a special meeting of the committee, an amendment was tabled to refuse planning permission but it received no support.

Maxine Smith, the committee’s chairwoman, said she believed that “on balance” the economic benefits of the golf course “outweighed the detrimental effects on ecology”.

She said: “Whilst I appreciate the this will be detrimental to the flora and fauna on the dunes, I don’t think that outweighed the economic and social benefits this application will bring”.

The developers of the course said the project would involve disturbing about 32 acres (13 ha) of dune habitat at Coul Links, but “improve” 49 acres (20 ha).

Mr Warnock said: “This major investment in a relatively remote part of the country has the significant support of local people and we thank them again for their help and encouragement. I would also encourage opponents of the golf course to now work with us to make the project a huge success.”

Jonny Hughes, chief executive of SWT, said: “Consenting these plans against the recommendation of council officials and against policies that are designed to ensure the protection of our natural heritage completely undermines the credibility of the planning process and creates future uncertainty for both local communities and developers across Scotland.

Alistair Whyte, head of Plantlife Scotland, another of the coalition’s members, said: “Coul Links is the last stronghold and safe haven for many of Scotland’s threatened wild plants such as lesser butterfly orchid, coral root orchid, moonwort and star of Bethlehem. The Scottish government must intervene to save these wild plants and the wonders of this wild landscape.”