Last Summer, the UK Space Agency and Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) were in negotiations to fund the UK’s very first vertical launch spaceport, and three locations in Northern Scotland were in the running. Unst, at the most northern point of Shetland, was considered a strong potential site due to its proximity to the North Pole and satellite orbitals. A’Mhoine Peninsula in Sutherland also seemed a likely contender to earn funding, as the local council had already entered negotiations with the UK Space Agency and private contractors in June of 2018. However, the Scolpaig site in North Uist won out this month when the local council of the Western Isles, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, agreed to invest £1 million into the development.
Spaceport 1, as it will be called, is intended to be a launching point for satellites and a testing center for rockets. Test rockets will be fired from Scolpaig at a northwestern angle, which means they will land in the open water somewhere between Iceland and the Faroe Islands. Since the Scottish space sector is growing, Scottish Development International predicts that the spaceport will lead to more investment in the design, manufacturing, launching, and operating of UK satellites. The space industry currently employs 7,600 people in Scotland, and it is expected that Spaceport 1 will add between 40-70 new jobs. UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 8 and 9 recognize the importance of the innovation, economic growth, and job opportunities that Spaceport 1 promises. In addition to the creation of jobs, Scottish Development International reports that the Spaceport will receive a large package of funding including £2.5 million from UK Space Agency and £9.8 million from HIE. Combined with the £1 million from Comhairle nan Eilean Siar council and additional funding from private contractors, Spaceport 1 is a £17.3 million project.
While Comhairle nan Eilean Siar council claims that the majority of the community is in support of the project due to the economic prospects, there has been a significant amount of environmental controversy. The North Uist Conservation Group (NUCG) formed in response to the development proposal and aims to persuade Comhairle nan Eilean Siar council to withdraw their planning application. NUCG posits that the Council applied for planning permission and purchased land in Scolpaig without consulting the constituency or conducting an environmental impact assessment. Without an impact survey, it is unclear how the local ecosystem may be affected. NUCG currently predicts that the construction of the Spaceport would block a sizeable portion of popular walking paths and the Hebridean Way cycling route, thereby obstructing local scenery and undermining the area’s ecotourism. According to NUCG, many residents in North Uist are reliant on ecotourism, so the construction of Spaceport 1 is a threat to jobs and livelihoods. If visitors cannot access walkways, cycle paths, or scenery, they might consider travelling elsewhere. Beyond the harm to the local economy, NUCG is also concerned about the preservation of various nature reserves, Special Protected Areas (SPAs), and Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) in direct proximity to the proposed Spaceport 1 site. These designated areas, which are recognized by the Council of Europe and the Natura 2000 Network, are home to a vast quantity of legally protected species, including those on the endangered list. The construction of the spaceport in Scolpaig will also affect one of the only access points to St. Kilda, a UNESCO World Heritage Site located 64 kilometers off the coast of North Uist. The prospects of air pollution from rocket emissions and noise pollution from frequent sonic booms are therefore quite worrying for the wildlife in Scolpaig and the large colonies of endangered birds living and breeding on St. Kilda. SDGs 11, 12, 13, 14, and 15 target the sustainability of communities, the responsibility of developers to protect the environment, and the paramount goal of protecting our climate and ecosystems. Therefore, although SDGs 8 and 9 might support the spaceport on the grounds of economic development, the majority of the SDGs point to a need for conscious and sustainable development that aims to mitigate any resulting environmental damage. This stipulation is supported by the UN Environmental Rights Initiative, which aims to create networks of cooperation between governments, businesses, and civil society organisations that help protect environmental rights effectively.
This descriptive map of North and South Uist may be used for reference. Green flags demarcate just a few of the local nature reserves, special conservation areas, and the UNESCO World Heritage Site. Red flags demarcate the Spaceport 1 site and the Hebrides Deep Sea Range.
The Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) also objects to the proposed development, as the local council has not published sufficient information regarding potential environmental impacts. Despite SEPA’s attempts to collaborate with the council to produce a thorough impact survey, the development application lacks important details about the potential effects on habitats, peatland, and waterways. The Comhairle nan Eilean Siar council and UK Space Agency have also failed to address how they will handle the disposal of potentially toxic waste from fuel and explosives. Additionally, the local constituency were only given a short window of time within which complaints could be filed. That deadline was 18 July 2019. Responding to pressure from the community, the council agreed to hold three public consultations after the deadline for objections. The public consultations will be held on 15th August in Carinish Hall, on 16th August in Lochmaddy Hall, and on 30th August in Carinish Hall. While the consultations offer time for complaints, the council is not legally bound to make amendments to the development plan and constituents do not have the right of appeal. Additionally, one of the North Uist councillors has a history of employment with the Ministry of Defence and QinetiQ, an outside defence contractor, which indicates a potential conflict of interest.
The contentious environmental situation on Uist dates back to 1957. Just twenty miles south, the Ministry of Defence (MOD) leases out a large portion of South Uist to operate the Hebrides Deep Sea Range. Originally, the range was used to test the first joint nuclear missile project between the United States and the UK MOD. QinetiQ, MOD’s outside contractor, currently uses the range to test modern military missiles and other weaponry. Missiles are fired from the coast of South Uist and tracked on St. Kilda, where the MOD has positioned radar equipment. QinetiQ has a very meager report on their website about the impact of their missile range on the environmental conservation efforts conducted in the land and marine ecosystems of St. Kilda. They claim that they follow “strict procedures” to minimize their environmental impact, but it seems improbable that an ocean missile range is safe for marine wildlife. QinetiQ has also signed on as a partner for the Scolpaig spaceport project, which has further implications for the environment and economy of North Uist. Although missile launching from the Deep Sea Range is intermittent, rocket launches will occur much more frequently from the Scolpaig Site. In addition to the smaller test launches, the site intends to scale up to much larger rockets, including those with a 500 kilogram payload. Larger and more frequent launches will only increase the risk of air and noise pollution, as well as potential damage to the ecosystem. Due to MOD and QinetiQ's historical presence on the Outer Hebrides, it is likely that many of the proposed Spaceport 1 jobs will be filled by QinetiQ employees. With such close proximity to the Deep Sea Range, QinetiQ will have no trouble transporting employees and equipment between the two sites. Therefore, the immediate increase in jobs may not directly apply to residents of Uist, adding credibility to NUCG’s claims that Spaceport 1 may actually do more harm to the local economy than good.
Though the initial deadline for objections has since passed, the Comhairle nan Eilean Siar council recently decided to extend the deadline for objections until after the public consultations. An official date has yet to be confirmed, but over 452 objection letters have already been received by the council.
Those interested in this controversy can follow the outcome of the upcoming public consultations. More information can be found at the following links:
To get involved with NUCG’s efforts to hold the local Council accountable, you may email firstname.lastname@example.org. If you wish to contact the local Council directly, you may email Councillor Roddy Mackay at email@example.com or Councillor Iain Macleod at firstname.lastname@example.org.