Scotland’s new spaceport: Row heats up as proposals come under scrutiny for the first time

As the Highland Council prepares to discuss outline proposals for a spaceport on the Mhoine Peninsula, in Sutherland, conservationists are criticising the scheme, which they say would put the local 'fragile ecosystem' at risk.

Controversy has erupted over plans to build the UK’s first spaceport on the Mhoine Peninsula, in Sutherland.

After launching a consultation in September, Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), which is leading the Space Hub Sutherland scheme, has put forward outline proposals to be discussed by the Highland Council this  ahead of HIE applying for planning permission in December.

If the £17.3-million project goes ahead, the spaceport will comprise a launch operations and control centre, launch pad complex with towers, an assembly building with ancillary structures, antenna farms, commodity farms, access roads and car parking plus security fencing, all set in more than 800 acres of moorland and peatland.

According to HIE, the structure, which would launch low earth orbit satellites, would generate ‘about 40 highly skilled jobs in Sutherland,’ with 400 created at regional level by 2023.

Situated on the north coast of Sutherland, between the sea to the north and ‘rocky hills and moorland to the south’, the site belongs to the Melness Crofters Estate, which voted in favour of the development earlier this year.

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However, conservationists are objecting that the land is very close to several areas that are important or sensitive from an environmental perspective, including two sites of special scientific interest (Ben Hutig and A’Mhoine) and the Caithness and Sutherland Peatlands, which is a Special Area of Conservation, Scenic Protection Area and RAMSAR wetland site, plus the Ben Hope and Ben Loyal Wild Land Area and the Kyle of Tongue National Scenic Area. The planning documents recognise that some of these places are key in supporting important breeding birds.

Protect The Mhoine, a group that’s been spearheading opposition to the spaceport, argues that the peninsula is ‘a fragile ecosystem that requires tender loving care if it’s to survive for future generations.’ It also points out that peat bogs like the Mhoine have a vital role to play in absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and fighting climate change, so they should be preserved intact.

These concerns have been backed by a study, carried out by Michael Danson of Heriot-Watt University and Geoffrey Whittam of Glasgow Caledonian University and published earlier this year, which states that ‘the spaceport will lead to destructive entrepreneurship’ by causing damage to the Highland environment and effectively limiting ‘the opportunity for other more appropriate entrepreneurial ventures’.

To this, HIE has responded that ‘the space sector is a relatively new and growing area of the economy that offers significant opportunities for the Highlands and Islands.’

The Highland Council’s north planning application committee will examine the proposals next week, with a public meeting taking place at the Melness community centre on Monday, November 25, from 3pm to 8pm.

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