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Fewer jobs will be created than first forecast at Sutherland Spaceport

By Mike Merritt

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A computerised illustration of the proposed Spaceport.
A computerised illustration of the proposed Spaceport.

Britain's first vertical launch spaceport near Tongue will create far fewer jobs than first announced, it has been revealed.

Development agency Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) has submitted a planning application for a vertical launch site, Space Hub Sutherland, that it wants to build on the A’ Mhoine peninsula at Melness.

If the application is approved, construction on Europe’s first vertical launch site could begin later this year, with launches starting as early as 2022.

But HIE’s director of business and sector development David Oxley previously said he viewed the stated target of 400 jobs in the region as a “minimum”.

However, according to the latest economic impact assessment, accompanying the application, a total of only 254 jobs are expected to be generated across the huge region - directly and indirectly.

Just 139 of those will be in direct employment.

Even taking into account all the 56 jobs created at the launch site - there about 100 less that will be generated in the Highlands and Islands than first promised.

A spokesman for the agency admitted yesterday:"The estimated jobs figure is based on a more thorough and up to date analysis of current market information. The previous figure was based on information available then."

In total 89 jobs will be developed in Caithness and Sutherland and 531 throughout the whole of the UK from the £17.3m project.

The economic assessment report says:"UK businesses – including in Scotland – lead the world in building and operating small satellites, as well as the applications from the data they provide. However, they must export their satellites for launch overseas. Being able to grow the space sector in Scotland can unlock significant economic impacts, well beyond those presented in this assessment.

"Through establishing the UK’s first space hub and the first commercial vertical launch facility in Europe, there is expected to be considerable opportunities from wider related space technologies and industries in Scotland."

The socio-economic assessment adds:"The report indicates that, when the optimal launch cadence is achieved, there will be 44 direct jobs created in Melness, with around 250 additional jobs elsewhere in the Highlands and Islands when all the indirect and induced factors are taken into account.

"It also forecasts that around 480 jobs are likely to be created in Scotland...

"In terms of the wider Highlands and Islands area, the benefits are already being seen with the opening of a manufacturing facility by Orbex, in Forres, to take advantage of both the skilled personnel in the region but also the proximity to SHS. It is estimated that this site could lead to a range of jobs from manufacturing, assembly, research and development and mission control. This new type of work is likely to see the training of a range of local staff and the attraction of other workers into the Forres area.

"At the Scotland level, the development of small satellite technology including, but not limited to, cube satellites and small satellites will also benefit from the development of a launch facility around 6 hours from their manufacturing sites in the central belt of Scotland. And beyond that still, centres such as Harwell in Oxfordshire will also benefit from the relative proximity of a launch facility in the North Highlands.

"Currently, satellites from these manufacturing sites are transported overseas, often involving difficult logistics, export control and other security requirements. With the introduction of the SHS facility, they will be able to drive to the site in a matter of hours."

But the scheme has split the local community.

Retired physics teacher John Williams, chairman of the Protect the Mhoine campaign group, said:"This just illustrates that you can't trust a word over the job claims. There are now a quarter less in the region than promised only months ago. Few of the jobs that will be available here will be for locals and you don't want a transient population - that is no good to protecting and caring for the area.

"The job claims have no real substance behind them. The economic benefits have been puffed up beyond belief."

In time, up to 12 launches a year could be made from Sutherland, carrying small, commercial satellites that will typically be used for Earth observation.

Designed by NORR Architects, the facility would comprise a launch control centre, a single launch pad and associated infrastructure, including roadways, fuel storage, office premises, and antennas. A temporary lightning tower would also be installed at the launch pad around flight days.

The planning application to Highland Council includes measures to address and minimise impacts on the land and marine environments.

Mr Oxley said:“This is a truly unique and innovative venture that aims to create the first launch site of its kind in Europe.

“Space presents a huge economic opportunity for Scotland, and the Highlands and Islands is well placed to benefit substantially.

“Now that the application is in, we very much hope that people will take the time to study our plans carefully and look forward to the council making a decision in due course.”

Melness Crofters Estate owns the land on the Moine Peninsula, south east of Tongue, and has agreed to HIE's development of it once planning permission has been secured.

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