Correspondence obtained by Scotland on Sunday shows businessman Todd Warnock has kept in contact with officials, regularly sending them positive media coverage of his plans for a championship course on an area known as Coul Links near Embo in Sutherland.
Warnock has also held meetings with rural economy secretary Fergus Ewing and Liz Ditchburn, the Scottish Government’s director general for economy.
RSPB Scotland said the meetings had “compromised” the Scottish Government’s impartiality should ministers be required to call in the planning application – currently before Highland Council – at a later date.
The project is being financed by American billionaire Mike Keiser and his partners.
While there is local support for Coul Links, environmentalists are concerned about plans to develop an area which is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and an international Special Protection Area which is home to ducks, geese and rare plant life. The developers say the proposed course will occupy 16.5 hectares of the 1,200-hectares SSI “at worst” and will provide a £60 million boost for the local economy.
Commenting on the correspondence between Warnock and the Scottish Government, Aedán Smith, head of planning and development at RSPB Scotland, said: “Whilst it doesn’t look like anything illegal has happened here, it is certainly extremely unusual for such a high-ranking and senior civil servant to be engaged in meetings and communications to apparently expedite a development in this manner.
“Indeed, it compromises the Scottish Government’s impartiality should the application be called in for consideration and decision by them, and undermines public confidence in such process.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “It is entirely appropriate for Ministers and officials to meet with potential developers, prior to an application being submitted.”