Plans to build a spaceport in Sutherland could help create ‘significantly more’ than 400 jobs

Plans to build a spaceport in Sutherland could help create “significantly more” than 400 jobs – and the sector could become as important to the economy as renewable energy.

The hopes were expressed by a senior figure at Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), who envisaged a “space cluster” in the region, with “a dozen companies” in the supply chain.

A jobs boom has been mooted since the agency unveiled its bid to develop a £17.5 million rocket-launching site at Melness, dubbed “Space Hub Sutherland”.

The first evidence emerged last month when start-up firm Orbex opened a new base at Forres, with the promise of creating up to 40 posts this year, and to expand to around 150.

US aerospace giant Lockheed Martin, another of HIE’s partners on the project, is also expected to create jobs and apprenticeships.

In an interview with the P&J, HIE’s director of business and sector development David Oxley said he viewed the stated target of 400 jobs in the region as a “minimum”.

“I think there’s a definite opportunity for a space cluster to develop in the Highlands and islands,” he said.

“I don’t think it’s going to be any one physical area, but there are certainly opportunities in Moray, where you’ve got the skilled ex-RAF workforce, there are opportunities in Inverness with the airport business park, there will definitely be something in Shetland, definitely be something in Caithness and Sutherland, almost certainly in the Western Isles and Argyll.

“The last economic impact assessment we had for the Sutherland site was talking about 400 jobs across the region. I think that’s the minimum we’re aiming for. We want to see a lot more than that.”

Mr Oxley compared the potential economic impact to fish-farming and renewable energy.

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”Historically HIE was very much involved in the start-up of aquaculture, the fish-farming industry, and we have seen hundreds and thousands of jobs created in the last 40 years in that,” he said.

”HIE has also led on the renewable energy sector, particularly wave and tidal and offshore wind, and we’re starting to see hundreds and thousands of jobs coming from that.

”So there’s no reason it couldn’t be significantly more, but it’s very early stages to give a full number.”

The Sutherland project, which was backed with funding from the UK Space Agency last year, aims to create a base to send 2,000 small satellites into orbit each year.

It is one of the most ambitious schemes in the history of HIE.

The agency hopes to soon appoint a “launch-site operator”, to be followed by a planning application in the second half of this year.

Construction of the spaceport is scheduled for the first half of next year, and its inaugural launch is targeted for 2021.

Critics question whether these timescales can be met, however, with the local community in Melness deeply divided over the proposals.

A dispute over the proposed site also due to go to the Scottish Land Court, and concerns have been raised about its impact on local infrastructure, as well as eagles and other wildlife.

”It’s not without its challenges,” Mr Oxley admitted.

”There’s a lot of work to do. We need to get planning, we need to finish up all the environmental studies, we continually need to engage with the community to make sure they are aware of everything that is happening.

2021 is ambitious but it’s achievable. That’s our current view.

In yesterday’s P&J, the directors of Shetland Space Centre (SSC), which is progressing its own plans for a spaceport on Unst, criticised HIE’s handling of the site selection process.

They claimed the agency ignored its own study showing that Shetland was a better location, and raised fears that the region could fail to cash in on the space sector because of delays at the Sutherland site.

Defending the process, Mr Oxley said the UK Space Agency funding competition “was open for anybody to apply to and Shetland did not apply”, although the SSC claim HIE deliberately kept it in the dark.

”We had a decision to make as HIE as to whether there were opportunities to support one, two or three opportunities, depending on how big the prize was,” said Mr Oxley.

”We did a lot of work looking at the potential market and our view was, at this stage in an emerging sector, there realistically only the opportunity for one launch facility.”

Asked if it was a difficult decision, he said: “Yes, it was a board decision that took some time to get to. There was a lot of due diligence to the process. It was a very, very detailed decision.

“I think the fundamental reason behind the Sutherland decision was the greater advancement in terms of working with partners.

“We’re working with two launchers in Lockheed and Orbex who have been pretty clear that their priority is Sutherland in terms of a UK launch facility, and only Sutherland.”

Mr Oxley paused when questioned on whether the site in Sutherland was the “best” location for launching rockets, before responding: “It depends what criteria you look at in terms of ‘best’.

“I wouldn’t say that any site is the best. They all have their advantages and disadvantages. It is certainly a very suitable site for launch.”

Another factor in opting for the north coast appears to have been the area’s socio-economic challenges, with figures this month suggesting the population of Caithness could fall by 21% by 2041, while Sutherland’s could drop by 12%.

“Dounreay is to close down over the next decade or so, so we’ve been working with partners for a long time to identify areas of opportunity that can start to build up the basing of a post-Dounreay facility, and this was one of the things that came up,” said Mr Oxley.

He added: “There’s the opportunity for our young people in all of this. We’ve had Orbex and Lockheed speaking to children, most recently I think last week Orbex speaking to Tongue Primary around the opportunities there.

“Who imagined growing up in Tongue you could be involved in the space sector? That’s a story.”