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Fears MoD want to use spaceport

By Mike Merritt

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Opponents of the planned £17.3 million spaceport in Sutherland have claimed that the military could end up using it.

John Williams, chairman of the Protect the Mhoine campaign group, said one of its “biggest fears” was the MoD getting involved.

He claimed the military had looked at the site in the 1980s and pointed out that it was “strategically” half-way between the Cape Wrath bombing range and Dounreay in Caithness.

“It has strategic advantages and the MoD stand to win if the spaceport goes ahead,” he said.

“If it is a commercial success they will want to be involved and if it is a failure they will step in to save it.

“They will end up with a missile site – capable of firing ballistic missiles – without the opprobrium they would have got if they had proposed the project originally. They want a ballistic missile site on the north coast. One thing we know about the MoD is that they do not give up.”

Mr Williams said rival bids for spaceports in Unst – and now, announced this week, North Uist – were much better.

“The Unst site has it nailed from a commercial point of view. It has got fewer drawbacks about launching across the Pentland Firth,” he said.

“And North Uist seems a much more sensible way forward altogether – given it already has the MoD infrastructure.”

A UK government spokesman for the MoD said: “We have no plans to use this site for missile launches.”

And a spokesman for Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) said: “We are developing plans for Space Hub Sutherland as a vertical launch site for small satellites, and no other purpose.”

A planning application for the development is due to be lodged with Highland Council in September and HIE officials are planning to hold a board meeting and a site visit in Sutherland in the same month.

Meanwhile, the board of HIE will consider the “full business case” for the ambitious project at a meeting in December.

Newly-published minutes from the agency’s February board meeting state: “It was noted that this remained a high-risk project and that there was a need to actively pursue a funding strategy and engage with stakeholders to secure funding as part of the consideration of the full business case.”

Documents previously showed that, at one point last year, HIE was “not comfortable with being the majority funder of the spaceport facility for what is viewed as a relatively high-risk investment”, and that “some form of loan guarantee” from the Scottish Government was being discussed.

In March, HIE said: “We are continuing to explore opportunities to gain funding from other sources, including government.”

HIE is leading the scheme that includes a £2.5 million grant from the UK Space Agency (UKSA).

Several nature conservation measures applied to the Mhoine. The proposed spot is next to a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and a National Scenic Area. It also sits on the area’s internationally-recognised blanket bog eco-system.

The flora, fauna and scenery behind the natural significance of the area will need to be taken into account as part of the spaceport’s design and construction, said HIE.

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