Spaceport site suitability questioned in new study

The research casts doubt on Sutherland being chosen ahead of North Uist and Unst in Shetland.

Doubts have been cast on the suitability of the site chosen as the location for the UK’s first major spaceport.

The UK Space Agency announced last year the A’Mhoine peninsula in the Highlands had been selected as it is the best place in the UK to reach highly sought-after satellite orbits with vertically launched rockets.

New research questions why a “wild land” site covered by environmental designations was chosen for the Sutherland spaceport (SSP).

SCIENCE Spaceport
(PA Graphics)

It also casts doubts on claims 40 “high-quality jobs” would be created, suggesting “the jobs which will be available to local people have been stated as housekeeping and security”.

The research by Professor Mike Danskin, of Heriot-Watt University, and Geoff Whittam, of Glasgow Caledonian University, expresses concerns that far from bringing jobs and prosperity to the area, the spaceport would obstruct the development of more appropriately scaled businesses.

It states the spaceport could help stem the population decline through the creation of jobs but adds: “However, this narrative can be challenged on the grounds that the new jobs accessible to locals will be low quality, the damage caused by the construction and operation of the SSP will lead to the further destruction of this Highland ‘wild land’, and in turn this will reduce the opportunity for other more appropriate entrepreneurial ventures.

“In fact the spaceport will lead to ‘destructive entrepreneurship’.”

Sutherland was chosen ahead of sites at Unst in Shetland and North Uist in the Western Isles.

The paper questions the focus by Highlands and Islands Enterprise on the A’Mhoine site over others and suggests a consultants’ report commissioned in 2016 overstated the level of community support while not paying enough attention to infrastructural issues and environmental designations.

Other research had looked not only at A’Mhoine but also the sites in Shetland and North Uist, concluding Unst was the best.

The new study said research by Deimos Space UK found the Unst site appears to be the “best commercial and social location, also offering the best value-for-public-money” meaning the Melness/A’ Mhoine location is not “unquestionably optimal”.

The report, which will be presented at a Rural Entrepreneurship conference in Inverness on Tuesday, concludes “there are significant costs that have not been recognised in the case for the SSP while benefits for the locality and region have been exaggerated”.

Highlands and Islands Green MSP John Finnie said: “I hope Highlands and Islands Enterprise reflect on this important study.

“It casts doubt on the purported economic benefits that constructing the spaceport at A’Mhoine will bring and highlights that it could cause considerable environmental damage.

“Sutherland needs sustainable investment that will deliver long-term jobs and, while the spaceport project has brought understandable excitement, it’s not clear that it will deliver that.”

A spokesman for Highland and Islands Enterprise said: “The space sector is a relatively new and growing area of the economy that offers significant opportunities for the Highlands and Islands.

“The HIE Board approved support for the Sutherland Spaceport following the UK Space Agency (UKSA) decision 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.

“We commissioned an independent economic impact assessment as part of our due diligence.  This 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 for Space Hub Sutherland 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.”

A spokesman for the UK Space Agency said: “The UK government’s £50 million spaceflight programme is supporting a number of industry-led initiatives to build the capabilities that will launch the UK into the new space age.

“We awarded grant funding to Sutherland after conducting a rigorous assessment of 26 proposals. The proposed spaceport offers excellent opportunities for Scotland to support innovative technologies and create new space jobs”

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