Coul Links: Economic Case

Updated: Nov 14

The Coul Links proposal is to create a links course that will be amongst the top golf courses in the world.

Sited close to Royal Dornoch, Coul Links will create a cluster of high-quality golf provision in East Sutherland, facilitating skills development, joint purchasing etc. and therefore driving increasing returns.

Links courses form a tiny group within the generality of golf courses but are regarded as the most natural form of the game. Inspired by Scotland’s legacy of links courses, the “minimalist” group of golf architects have become synonymous with environmentally sensitive course designs that are rewarded with high rankings in influential golf magazines and therefore attract those golfers who wish to play the worlds best courses. Mike Keiser, the Coul Links developer, is the leading member of the minimalist group.

Royal Dornoch is of international importance. It is an aspirational venue for golfers from all over the world. Given the track record of the developer, Coul Links will quickly join it in the world’s top 100 courses, making East Sutherland a stayover destination rather than a temporary excursion from a tour bus.

There has been a worldwide increase in the demand for golf post-pandemic which has not been matched by a corresponding increase in the supply of golf courses. The demand for links golf has also grown significantly due to its unique features. The increase in supply of this iconic form of golf for which Scotland, the home of golf, is famous, has been very limited.

The greater the level of excess demand, the less important are displacement effects. Building a new links course in the Highlands will have no effect on demand, for example, in Fife because supply cannot keep up with demand in either location.

The construction phase of the project will generate around 77 job years in Scotland, with around 25 of these being in the local area.

Initially one would expect around 17,000 rounds to be played on the course. Golfers would come from Europe, North America and the rest of the UK. Additional golf would be played on other local courses where there is excess capacity. Golf related employment will consequently rise by around 74 FTEs. Adding supply chain and income effects and allowing for 25% leakage of demand outside Scotland, Scottish GVA will increase by around £6m and employment by 131 FTEs. Employment in the hospitality sector will increase by around 160, taking the total increase to around 270 FTEs and the overall increase in GVA to £8m.

Demand will increase as the reputation of the course grows. An increase to 25,000 rounds per year is very plausible. This would result in further increases in both GVA – to £11.9m and in employment to around 400 FTE.

The increase in employment associated with Coul Links will be significantly greater than that associated with either the recent investment of £664m in local wind farms or the spaceport being built near Melness, neither of which is likely to generate more than 50 jobs in Sutherland. These high-profile developments will not stabilise Sutherland’s declining population since they offer relatively few Sutherland-based jobs. In contrast, the opportunity to benefit from the majority of the 400 jobs in Scotland associated with Coul Links will have a sufficiently large employment effect to make an impact on the demographic challenge faced by Sutherland.

The Coul Links project is closely aligned with several Scottish Government policies. These include the National Strategy for Economic Transformation, which sets Scotland’s economic priorities for the next decade; the new National Planning Framework, which argues in favour of employment-creating initiatives in remote rural areas (all of Sutherland is classified as a remote rural area by the Scottish Government); the National Performance Framework which seeks to support local culture, build resilient communities and keep Scotland globally competitive. The National Population Strategy recognises the need to support private investment where it can enhance community resilience. The fragile nature of the population in remote areas has been recognised by the Scottish Government in its Scottish Rural Visa Pilot policy, which will seek to boost population in remote Travel To Work Areas through inward migration.

Golf tourism is a leading element in Scotland’s overall tourism strategy. The Coul Links project closely aligns with the newly published Scottish Golf Tourism Development Strategy announced recently by Mr McKee. Coul Links could play a vital role in ensuring the success of this strategy by making a valuable contribution to maintaining living standards and supporting place-based development. It will increase Scotland’s tax revenues and therefore support public services during a time when there is likely to be continuing downward pressure on Scotland's budget.

Coul Links is consonant with HIE’s Dornoch masterplan in that it will contribute to the area’s reputation as a quality tourist destination, thus enhancing the local economy.

Golf benefits both physical and mental health and wellbeing. There is peer reviewed evidence that it increases life expectancy. It therefore is aligned with the Scottish Government’s aim to increase both life expectancy (at a time when it is falling) and healthy life expectancy. In turn these objectives are consonant with Scotland’s membership of the Wellbeing Governments (WEGo) group.

Population decline has been historically, and continues to be, a significant societal problem in Sutherland. An ageing population requiring additional health and social care services, schools being run well below capacity can lead to cumulative causation where the young leave and are often replaced by more older people. Golspie, Dornoch and Brora each have age profiles with significantly more older people than does Scotland as a whole.

An independent survey carried out for Highlands and Islands Enterprise in 2022 suggests that a large majority (69%) of young people in Caithness and Sutherland say they wish to leave the area because they cannot find work. Another majority (66%) say that most of the people coming to their local area are retired. These are extremely depressing statistics for the future of society in Caithness and Sutherland. The Coul Links project would have a significant effect in improving employment prospects for local young people.

The Coul Links project would gain from the availability of courses and training at the UHI site in Dornoch. The college would also act as a catalyst for the spread of knowledge and skills relating to golf. This increased activity would also help the UHI North Highland college make the case for its continuing existence.

The argument about the environmental aspects of Coul Links ultimately comes down to a debate about the substitutability of natural capital for other forms of capital. If one imposes a “strong” form of substitutability, the case seems to centre on the establishment of a case that general welfare would be reduced if the existence of ‘critical’ components of natural capital was threatened. This argument if difficult to hold if invasive species are causing the natural capital to depreciate and the public sector is unwilling or unable to provide the resource necessary to combat such depreciation. Further, the strong sustainability argument seems at odds with Nature Scot’s “balancing duties” which seem to imply that it is bound to consider substitution possibilities.

The developer associated with the Coul Links project is Mike Keiser, currently regarded as the best developer in the world. He has a track record of reinvigorating declining communities in remote rural areas with an ageing population. Local community leaders and commentators have heaped praise on him and argued that his intervention saved their communities.

Mike Keiser’s willingness to offer a seat on the board to the people of Embo and to share 5% of any profits from the Coul Links project with them are significant commitments and shows how he wishes to engage with the local community.

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