Plans to build Britain’s answer to Cape Canaveral in remote Scotland peatland have become bogged down in a dispute with local crofters who could delay the £45million scheme ‘for years’.
The plan to create Britain’s first spaceport on the Melness Crofting Estate, on the A’Mhoine peninsula in coastal Sutherland, was approved this summer by the UK Space Agency.
The A’MHoine beat competing bids from other remote Scottish regions for the launch site, which would propel micro-satellites into low orbit as early as 2021, and is projected to create 40 jobs locally and 400 more further afield.
But now amid rumours of secret deals and strong-arm tactics, many in the remote coastal community of around 150 crofters and farmers are opposing the plan and threatening legal delays which risk scuppering the whole enterprise.
Artist’s impression: Satellites launched from the remote site would take off towards the north and from a position so close to the pole would be able to oversee a lot of the earth in a short period of time
The remote location’s population of white-tailed sea eagles (pictured above) could be disturbed by rocket-boosters and satellite launches, protesters claim
Opponents say environmental concerns – the peninsula is home to rare eagles, sea birds and a delicate peat bog ecosystem – are being ignored.
John Williams, a retired teacher, has founded Protect the Mhoine, a protest group.
The Times reported he fears white-tailed eagles, Britain’s largest bird of prey, will be threatened and that dozens of acres of bog could be replaced with concrete.
The land is controlled by the Melness Crofting Estate (MCE), a company that represents about 56 local crofters. Three of its seven directors have resigned over how the plans have been handled.
George Wyper, one of those who stepped down, claimed that much of the community had been kept in the dark.
The Melness Crofting Estate (pictured) is home to around 150 crofters and farmers. Opponents have promised legal challenges which could take years but the spaceport’s backers say there is much more support than opposition among locals
In a ballot, 27 crofters voted to press ahead with talks to lease land to the spaceport while 18 voted against. Ten failed to vote and one ballot was rejected.
Mr Wyper believes that important details were not shared. ‘Some people did not know what they were voting for,’ he said.
‘It’s getting quite vicious here — with Facebook and things. It’s causing a split in the community.’
He told the Highland Press & Journal: ‘There is quite a split in the community and a lot of bad feeling about this.
‘It could go to the Scottish Land Court, which could take years to resolve.’
A legal dispute could mean lengthy delays for the project, and consultants who investigated the potential of a spaceport in the UK say speed is crucial to win lucrative contracts in the face of competition across Europe.
The MCE said it is not yet committed to the project and that environmental and other concerns will have to be addressed first.
Lockheed Martin has said it will work with UK companies to develop rockets and fuels
Linda Munro, the local councillor, told the Times: ‘It’s absolutely true that the community is divided, but not in equal proportions.
‘There are far more people pro the spaceport than there are against it. However, nobody can get fully behind it until they have the appropriate information, and that is just not coming from HIE.’
Roy Kirk, HIE’s spaceport project director, told BBC Scotland: ‘Melness was identified by UKSA as the preferred site and approved a £2.5m grant to HIE towards the facility’s development.
‘We have always stressed the project is subject to agreement being reached with the Melness Crofting Estate and that this is something on which they will need to consult their members before entering into any formal agreement.
‘Meantime, we are developing the proposals with a view to submitting consent applications within the timescales set out, but again this is all subject to land lease agreement being reached with the estate.’
The Melness Crofting Estate, on the A’Mhoine peninsula in remote coastal Sutherland, was selected ahead of bids from the Shetlands and Western Isles by the UK Space Agencyfor the country’s first spaceport
He added: ‘We believe the spaceport will bring many benefits for the local economy and community, notably through rural job creation and community resilience.’
The UKSA said: ‘Scotland is the best place in the UK to reach in-demand satellite orbits with vertically launched rockets and there is a real opportunity here to capture the growing market for launching an estimated 2,000 small satellites by 2030.
‘The proposed spaceport in Sutherland could create 400 jobs across Scotland and contribute to further growth of the UK’s world-leading space sector.’
Five things you never knew about Sutherland
Sutherland is a historic county, registration county and lieutenancy area in the Highlands of Scotland. Sutherland borders Caithness to the east, Ross-shire to the south and the Atlantic to the north and west. But here’s five things you never knew about the quaint Scottish county.
1. Sutherland is mentioned in the book ‘Lord of the Rings’, as ‘Haradwaith’.
2. The county is home to Britain’s highest waterfall, Eas a’ Chual Aluinn has a drop of 658ft and is three times as high as Niagara falls.
3. Sutherland has a range of wonderful biking trails, notably those at Balblair near Bonar Bridge and an extensive new network on the hillside above Golspie. There’s no charge for these, and the Golspie trails also offer bike and kit hire.
4. The river Shin is one of Scotland’s best salmon rivers. Visitors can see salmon swimming upstream to spawning grounds and leaping up waterfalls to get there.
5. The towering sea cliffs of Handa Island, a bird sanctuary, are home to around 200,000 seabirds, including a wide variety of species.