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Sutherland spaceport gets go-ahead from Highland Council

By Scott Maclennan

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How the launch pad will look at Space Hub Sutherland. Picture: NORR Architects
How the launch pad will look at Space Hub Sutherland. Picture: NORR Architects

Highland councillors have agreed to give planning consent to the £17.3 million spaceport at the Mhoine in north Sutherland.

The ambitious plan will see rockets carrying satellites fired vertically into space from a major complex that is expected to create some 250 jobs, including around 60 in Sutherland and Caithness.

The north planning applications committee unanimously agreed to the proposal despite 457 objections after a wide-ranging discussion and debate that lasted for around three hours.

The move has divided people in the area, with many supporting it alongside community councils. Prime Minister Boris Johnston voiced his backing too.

However, a local protest group condemned the decision as "environmental vandalism" and claimed residents in the area would be facing "50 years of fear" because of the risk of accidents caused by launch failures.

The committee’s decision will now be referred to Scottish Government ministers for review.

The council approval was immediately welcomed by two of the biggest champions of the project and the hoped-for economic boost it will give the area.

Caithness, Sutherland and Ross MSP Gail Ross said: “This is great news for Sutherland, one of the most fragile and sparsely populated counties in Scotland. It was good to get clarification about traffic management and peatland restoration as well as other details about the site and the launches.

“The investment this will bring will breathe new life into an area that is desperate for jobs and regeneration. Many locals have been hoping for this outcome for a number of years and a lot of work has gone in to get to this stage.

“I really hope that this local decision will be respected so that the plans for the spaceport can now move forward.”

Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross MP Jamie Stone said he was grateful for the smooth and professional process.

“I am delighted by this and I want to say a few thank-yous, firstly to Highlands and Islands Enterprise [HIE] for the thoroughness of the application. Secondly, to the Highland Council officials for evaluating it so professionally.

“And finally to the members of the north planning applications committee who buried any political labels and worked together to make a hugely important decision for the future of the far north.”

He added: "In short, the councillors made history today."

Space Hub Sutherland is proposed to be built on an area of peatland next to the A838 on the Melness Crofters Estate on the A’ Mhoine peninsula, around six miles from Tongue.

Launch-related infrastructure will include a control centre, 2.5km of road and a launch pad, occupying a total of just over 10 acres of the 740-acre site.

The planned £17.5 million space port will see rockets carrying satellites fired vertically into space from a site in north Sutherland.
The planned £17.5 million space port will see rockets carrying satellites fired vertically into space from a site in north Sutherland.

As part of its planning application, HIE commissioned specialists to carry out extensive environmental impact assessments over a two-year period.

Their recommendations are reflected in conditions set out by the planning authority to ensure that construction works and site operations will minimise any potential impact on wildlife and the natural environment.

In 2018, the board of HIE approved in principle a budget of £17.3m for the project, including contributions of £2.5m from the UK Space Agency and £5m from the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority.

The board’s decision reflected the potential of the spaceport to drive the national growth of the space sector, including manufacturing and supply chain jobs and training opportunities.

An economic impact assessment commissioned by the agency concluded that developing the spaceport could support around 250 high-quality jobs in the Highlands and Islands, including 61 in Sutherland and Caithness – 44 of them on site at Space Hub Sutherland itself.

HIE’s launch partner Orbex has already established a design and manufacturing facility in Forres as a base to make the innovative Prime vehicle that it plans to assemble and put into orbit from Sutherland.

Satellites will be used for Earth observation, including gathering data to monitor and address the effects of climate change around the world.

The first launch could be as early as 2022. Once the spaceport is fully operational, it could host up to 12 launches a year.

David Oxley, director of business growth with HIE, welcomed the committee’s decision.

“Gaining planning approval from the council is a huge step forward,” he said.

“The UK’s space ambitions present a wonderful opportunity for the Highlands and Islands. A vertical launch spaceport is a key piece of the national jigsaw, along with the design and manufacture of satellites and launch vehicles, that will ensure Scotland can derive maximum economic benefits from this growing and exciting sector.

“We are very aware of the environmental challenges presented by a project of this kind, particularly in such wild and unspoilt area as A’ Mhoine.

“We have been diligent in carrying out survey work to understand and mitigate all potential impacts, including a restoration plan that will see all of the peat that is dug out during construction retained on site and used to repair areas that were degraded by past digging.

“Part of our ambition is to create the world’s most low-carbon space centre and the conditions applied to the planning approval will help us make that a reality.

“Another important aspect is the role that satellites we launch from Sutherland will play in gathering data that helps understand and address the impact of global climate change.

“When all these factors are put together, that makes today’s decision a good result not just for the economy, but for the environment as well.”

A UK government spokesperson said: “This is a significant milestone for Space Hub Sutherland and another step towards putting the UK on the map as Europe’s leading small satellite launch destination.

“Scotland is already a global hub for satellite manufacturing and the addition of commercial launch from the Highlands will bring new jobs and economic growth to local communities, while supporting businesses and supply chains across the whole of the UK.

“The UK government is committed to minimising the environmental impact of spaceflight activities and developing a new National Space Strategy which recognises the unique contribution of satellite technology to our understanding of global issues like climate change and providing essential environmental monitoring and data services.”

Protest group Protect the Mhoine (PTM) said it was deeply disappointed by the decision to grant planning permission, and warned of "50 years of fear" for residents in the Melness area.

The group claimed the planning approval was "in flagrant denial of the Highland Council’s declaration of a climate and ecological emergency in 2019".

PTM said in a statement: "Many residents of Melness are now contemplating 50 years of fear, with the potential for 600 rocket launches from the Mhoine, less than 2.6km from some of their homes. With an average six per cent launch failure rate, as quoted in NASA monitoring data, we can expect in the region of 36 accidents in the lifetime of the project.

"If just one of those results in a major peat fire there will be enormous environmental damage, beyond any mitigation, and huge carbon emissions confounding Scottish climate change targets.

"The potential for World Heritage Site status must also be in jeopardy now, as this facility will have an impact on the integrity and size of the peatlands that make up the Flow Country and make it so internationally significant. It looks as though we will damage part of this before it is protected.

"Thank you to the thousands of people locally, nationally and internationally who have supported our cause. We will continue to campaign against this environmental vandalism.

"Will the next generation, for whom we are apparently creating jobs, forgive us for the environmental damage we have just approved, in the heated-climate and wildlife-depleted future?"

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