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Take-off for Sutherland space port after councillors approve £17.3m project

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Councillors have given the go-ahead to a £17.3 million space port that could bring 250 jobs to the Highlands.

The Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) project at A’Mhoine, near Tongue in Sutherland, was approved today at a North Planning meeting.

The unanimous decision was described as “making history” by approving “a key part of the national jigsaw” in the space industry.

But battle lines were drawn in the aftermath, as billionaire local landowner Anders Povlsen’s company described the project as ‘deeply damaging’.

A spokesman for his company Wild Land Ltd said grave environmental, ecological and economic concerns ‘remain unanswered’.

“We were disappointed to learn that this application passed through committee today, particularly with more than 30 conditions of consent, which is quite out of the ordinary, in addition to concerns over the Flow Country’s world heritage site bid status.

“We will continue to follow this matter closely.”

During the meeting, local councillor Kirsteen Currie warned the committee not to think of the landscape as ‘non-industrial’.

She said: “Do not make the mistake of thinking this is a barren landscape.

“I’m interested in breeding pairs of humans and we need to think about the people of our communities instead of breeding birds.”

As part of its planning application, HIE commissioned specialists to carry out extensive environmental impact assessments over a two-year period, and said it would ensure the conditions are delivered.

David Oxley, HIE’s director of business growth, said:  “Gaining planning approval from the council is a huge step forward for Space Hub Sutherland.

“The UK’s space ambitions present a wonderful opportunity for the Highlands and Islands. A vertical launch spaceport is a key piece of the national jigsaw, along with the design and manufacture of satellites and launch vehicles, that will ensure Scotland can derive maximum economic benefits from this growing and exciting sector.

“We are very aware of the environmental challenges presented by a project of this kind, particularly in such wild and unspoilt area as A’ Mhòine.”

A budget of £17.3m has been slated for the project, including contributions of £2.5m from the UK Space Agency and £5m from the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority.

HIE says the spaceport could support around 250 high quality jobs in the region, including 61 in Sutherland and Caithness, with 44 on the site itself.

The agency’s launch partner Orbex has established a design and manufacturing facility in Forres, Moray, as a base to make the satellite launch rocket to put into orbit from Sutherland, potentially in 2022.

No more than 12 launches a year can be permitted, according to the many conditions imposed by planners.

The satellites launched from the Highland site will be used for earth observation, including gathering data to monitor and address the effects of climate change around the world.

Local MP Jamie Stone said: “It’s a tribute to the thoroughness to the way the planning application was dealt with and also the willingness of councillors of all political colours to work together for the future of the far north. They made history today. I am very grateful, as I am sure future generations will be.”

Local councillor Kirsteen Currie told councillors: “The decision was a difficult one to make, but I believe it to be the right one.

“The balance that is to be struck between development and environmental protection is exceptionally important, however, I believe that the conditions that have been placed on HIE will ensure that the community and the environment will be fully considered and respected during the construction and operation.

“With any application such as this there will inevitably be folks who will be against it, for many different reasons. I have to thank those who’ve been in touch, on both sides of the debate, to raise their concerns or support.

“The conditions of planning permission states that the developer, in this case HIE, must engage meaningfully with all of the community.

“Dialogue must be open and all sides need to make room for each others views in the weeks and months to come.”

She went on: “The future of our rural economy cannot be pinned upon tourism, we must diversify and we must look to the future.

“The possibilities from this development and the associated supply chain are unimaginable in the long term, but I look forward to the day when students in UHI can use data from a satellite launched at this site in their research.”

Council planners acknowledged the large number of objections lodged from across the world, but said there was support for the development from Tongue Community Council as well as other surrounding community councils across Caithness and north Sutherland.

The application will now go to Scottish ministers for review.