MSPs have hailed plans to build the UK’s first spaceport in the Highlands as a “giant leap” for the local economy – and an “absolute lifeline” for the remote north coast.
Holyrood heard that the facility – which could still be based in north Sutherland, Unst on Shetland, or the Uists – would plug a “gap in the market” and enable the region to share a slice of an expected £4 billion market in Scotland.
A £17 million rocket-launching site has been proposed for land on the Melness Crofting Estate, near Tongue in Sutherland, and the plans are being driven forward by Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), with backing from the UK Space Agency.
Local MSP Gail Ross used a Scottish Parliament debate on the subject yesterday to call for communities to start “working together as Team Scotland” to reap the rewards.
“With the run-down of Dounreay, it will provide confidence to my area that other industries can and will move into the area, and offset the impact that the closure of Dounreay will have, especially on those people who want to remain and work there,” she said.
The SNP MSP added: “This project is an absolute lifeline for my constituency, in one of the most remote, rural, economically-fragile, demographically-challenged parts of Scotland.
“We must get behind it and show north Sutherland that they are not forgotten, and to show the world that this little piece of the Highlands is open for business.”
But concerns have been expressed in the P&J this week that HIE’s backing for the Sutherland scheme was unfair on other projects, including rival proposals for Unst, which have secured private sector support.
Shetland MSP Tavish Scott called for the creation of local enterprise zones to avoid such issues, claiming HIE had been “running down Shetland”. The agency has strongly denied the accusation.
“Be in no doubt, Unst will be the centre of this exciting new industrial future, and it will be the final frontier,” said the Liberal Democrat, who is a director of Shetland Space Centre.
David Stewart, Labour MSP for the Highlands and Islands, said that the country must press ahead or risk losing out on the lucrative windfall.
“There is intensive competition across Europe – and it is crucial the UK gets there first. The prize is immense,” he said.
Edward Mountain, Conservative MSP for the region, said: “We are under no illusions. All the sites have merits and all the sites can deliver for Scotland.
“Choosing Sutherland as Scotland’s first spaceport must be just the start. While this might be just one step for the UK launch programme, it could be a giant leap for the Highlands economy.”
Amid reports of divisions in the communities of Tongue and Melness over HIE’s proposals, Mr Mountain said: “It’s vital that the investment in the space industry is made to work for local communities.
“I believe that the appropriate channel for support or opposing the development is through the planning system. I believe the communities will see the benefit.”