A Highland landowner has pledged to build "much needed" affordable homes to help tackle depopulation if a controversial golf course is allowed to go ahead.

Edward Abel Smith said he also intends to create three new crofts on farmland near the site of the proposed Coul Links course in East Sutherland.

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

A planning application by Dornoch-based community group Communities for Coul (C4C) for the golf course was approved by The Highland Council in December.

A final decision on the plans now rests with ministers in Holyrood after they were “called in” by the Scottish Government amid environmental concerns raised by Nature Scot.

Highland SNP MSP Kate Forbes is among the politicians supporting the proposal.

Mr Abel Smith, the third generation of his family to own Coul Farm, is in ongoing discussions with the council and representatives of the Embo community over his proposals to build 30 new homes and establish the crofts on the farmland.

The Herald:

He said: “The continuing loss of working-age population is the greatest problem facing East Sutherland.

"A chronic lack of both affordable housing and good employment opportunities is at the core of that growing crisis.

“Half of the new houses we are planning will be affordable homes and they will be sold with covenants to ensure they remain affordable in the long-term and are not turned into holiday lets.

“Similarly, the new crofts will not have a right to buy, ensuring that they will continue to provide homes and land for crofters into the future.

“We believe that the hundreds of job opportunities that the Coul Links golf course will create and the new housing options we want to be able to offer can play a significant part in changing the long-term fortunes of the area.

"That can only happen if Scottish Ministers decide, as Highland Council has already twice done, to approve the development of a golf course at Coul Links.”

Mr Abel Smith is also planning to build an eco-hotel if the development gets the go-ahead.

It comes after an investigative series by the Herald highlighted the "population emergency" facing parts of the Highlands with Caithness and Sutherland singled out as areas of concern.

In 2020 just 61 babies were born in Sutherland, an area that has seen its population halve to 13,000 over the past 150 years.

With 16 primary schools it equates to around three children starting school and is one of the more "startling" figures showing a population in rapid decline, says Professor David Bell, an expert in demographic change.

The Herald: New Highland Clearances

Mr Abel Smith’s plans were welcomed by Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross MP Jamie Stone.

He said: “The serious threat loss of working age population poses to the viability of areas throughout Scotland was acknowledged by the Scottish Government with the publication this year of its Action Plan to Address Rural Depopulation.


Reversing Highland 'crisis' requires policymakers to 'move heaven and earth'

Tourism push in 'forgotten' Highland village 'aggressive and unfair'

Scottish Government treats Highlands like a 'cash cow' 

“Nowhere is the issue more critical than in Caithness and Sutherland and it is stacking up multiple problems for the future provision of vital services such as schools and healthcare for an area with an increasingly skewed demographic profile.

“Lack of affordable housing for young people and families is a key issue, so the plans for these new homes and crofts at Coul Farm are hugely welcome.

“There are no silver bullet solutions for the depopulation crisis, as the Action Plan made clear.

"So, when opportunities like the privately funded and environmentally sensitive Coul Links project emerge, you would think it would be utterly perverse of Scottish Ministers to block them.”

Earlier this year, Liberal Democrat Mr Stone was among a cross-party group of politicians to voice support for the planned golf course, along with former SNP Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, Fergus Ewing MSP, Rhoda Grant, Labour MSP, and Conservative MSPs Edward Mountain and Jamie Halcro Johnston.

More recently, former Scottish Finance Secretary, Kate Forbes, SNP MSP for Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch also publicly gave her backing to the plans.