Top officials have discussed moving the proposed site of the UK’s first spaceport, it can be revealed.
Documents obtained by The Press and Journal have shown that the “potential for alternative sites” for the £17 million rocket-launching facility was considered at high-level talks in December.
The move was discussed amid concerns that the ambitious plans could be delayed if the scheme at Melness gets caught-up in a protracted planning and legal wrangle.
And the memos have also revealed that just weeks before funding for the Sutherland proposal was announced last summer, Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) privately questioned why it was being asked to spend almost £10 million on a project where the economic benefits to the north would be “relatively limited”.
HIE and the UK Space Agency (UKSA) announced last year that they intended to progress plans to launch rockets carrying small satellites from land on the Melness Crofting Estate (MCE), on the north coast of Sutherland.
Despite concerns from some landowners and environmental campaigners, a majority of MCE shareholders voted to back the plans in November.
But it has now emerged that senior figures at the agencies involved were discussing alternative locations the following month.
The meeting is believed to have been attended by HIE chief executive Charlotte Wright, UKSA commercial space director Claire Barcham, and two top Scottish Government officials, Richard Rollison and Elisabeth Stark.
During the talks, a minute shows that Ms Barcham said that “relocating the project” would have “legal constraints” because the UKSA funding expired in 2021.
She added: “It might be possible to shift location slightly within Sutherland, but this would need to be discussed with lawyers.”
And she said “any amendment to the current site would require UKSA to review the grant agreements currently in place”.
An HIE official said at the meeting that it was “considering whether a relatively minor change in the boundaries of the existing site may help move the project forwards, although that would require a longer access road to be constructed”.
He added: “There was also a potential alternative site within Sutherland that was in public ownership.
“The main issue for any alternative site remained the requirements for environmental studies such as surveys of bird populations, which were required to encompass two breeding seasons.
“Unless such work was already well in hand an alternative site would not be able to meet the 2021 timeline.”
The group agreed to ask Shetland Islands Council about proposals for a spaceport on the northern isles, to assess the “feasibility of current delivery dates”, and for HIE to “provide more details of their options appraisal of the different site proposals, including their risk analysis of each option”.
Last night, an HIE spokesman said: “HIE remains firmly focused on securing access to the land owned by Melness Crofters Estate.
“Negotiations on a final lease agreement are well advanced and we are working towards a positive outcome.
“At an earlier stage, we judged it prudent to keep alternative options in Sutherland under consideration, but that is no longer the case.”
A UKSA spokesman said: “Plans for a spaceport in Sutherland offer an exciting opportunity for the area to join the UK’s thriving space sector. We selected the Sutherland spaceflight projects for grant funding following a rigorous process, which considered 26 different applications.
“As with all infrastructure projects, spaceport development is complex and it is right that the parties are planning for any potential challenges.
“We are not aware of any local decision to change the location of the proposed Sutherland spaceport.”
>> Keep up to date with the latest news with The P&J newsletter
The documents, released to the P&J under freedom of information laws, suggest that the proposed agreement would involve the payment of £75,000 in rent to the crofters per annum for 75 years, plus 1% of launch fees.
They also show that HIE is attempting to assess the potential impact of planning delays, including the application being called in by ministers, as well as the timescale involved in applying to the Scottish land court to change the use of the crofting land at Melness.
And there could also be an issue with a sporting lease at the site, which the agency had believed was due to terminate in 2019, but actually ends in 2024.
It cannot be terminated by MCE unless there is a breach of the lease by the tenant, and HIE could “consider the use of a compulsory purchase order” if an agreement can not be struck.
In yesterday’s P&J, bosses at HIE said they hoped that “significantly more” than 400 jobs could be created as a result of the spaceport project.
But the documents show that in May last year, a senior Scottish Government official wrote to a colleague on the “feedback I had from HIE” after its board meeting.
The memo said: “The key concern relayed to me was that HIE was being expected to spend £10m on a project where the economic benefits within HIE’s area would be relatively limited, with more benefits accruing in the rest of Scotland and the UK.”
Last night, HIE said: “The economic impact assessment that we commissioned clearly showed that the Sutherland project has the potential to generate over 400 highly skilled jobs within the Highlands and Islands, including 40 directly at the Sutherland site. That’s a significant regional impact.
“We are continuing to explore opportunities to gain funding from other sources, including government.”
As the P&J’s series on the “space race” continues, Calum Ross finds that a remote Highland community has been left divided by spaceport proposals and that development chiefs have considered a Plan B