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Rocket for academics after criticism of far north spaceport plans

By Gordon Calder

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TWO university academics 'got a rocket' after claiming a spaceport in the far north would adversely affect the local economy and environment.

Trudy Morris, the chief executive of the Caithness Chamber of Commerce and Highlands and Islands Enterprise blasted the findings of the study which cast doubt on the economic benefits of the £17.3 million project.

The research by Prof Mike Danson, of Heriot-Watt University, and Geoff Whittam, of Glasgow Caledonian University, cast doubts on claims that 40 high-quality jobs would be created by the scheme.

They also expressed concern that far from bringing jobs and prosperity to the area, the spaceport proposed for the A'Mhoine site, near Tongue in Sutherland would obstruct the development of other businesses.

The academics questioned the choice of the site over others and suggested earlier studies overstated the level of community support while "not paying enough attention to infrastructural issues and environmental designations."

Report casts doubt on the spaceport
Report casts doubt on the spaceport

But HIE hit back at the findings. A spokeswoman said: "The space sector is a relatively new and growing area of the economy that offers significant opportunities for the Highlands and Islands. The board approved support for the Sutherland spaceport following the UK Space Agencydecision to support development at this site and to award research and development grant funding to two international launch companies as partners in the Sutherland project. One of these companies has already opened a factory in Forres where it is creating jobs. This is an early sign of the economic opportunity a launch site will present for different parts of our region."

She added: "We commissioned an independent economic impact assessment ... which concluded that Space Hub Sutherland has the potential to support 40 high quality jobs locally, and 400 across our region.

"It is important to stress that the plans are still in development. We’re working towards submitting a planning application, and public consultation will be an important part of that process. This will give local people and other interested parties the opportunity to learn more about the project and fully explore what it means for Sutherland and the wider region."

Ms Morris said it "seems unlikely" HIE and the UK Space Agency would agree to invest in the project without "clearly understanding the costs and benefits involved."

"We understand an independent assessment was carried out and know that the potential site operators have also indicated this level of job creation."

"Development and diversification of rural economies such as that of the north Highlands is key if we are to address ongoing concerns about demographic change and population decline, and investment in projects like the Sutherland spaceport are a key part of that process. It is important to remember that this is not just about direct job creation, but about creating new opportunities for the skilled local supply chain from what will be a national asset."

However, Highlands and Islands Green MSP John Finnie urged HIE "to reflect on this important study."

"It casts doubt on the purported economic benefits that constructing the spaceport will bring and highlights that it could cause considerable environmental damage. Sutherland needs sustainable investment that will deliver long terms jobs, and while the spaceport project has brought understandable excitement, it’s not clear that it will deliver that."

The aim of the spaceport is to have small commercial and research satellites in sub-orbital flight by the early 2020s.

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