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Legal challenge launched against Sutherland Space Hub plans as billionaire Anders Holch Povlsen's company petitions for judicial review

By John Davidson

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The Sutherland Space Hub faces a legal challenge against the planning approval which was granted by Highland Council.
The Sutherland Space Hub faces a legal challenge against the planning approval which was granted by Highland Council.

Plans to develop a space port in Sutherland have hit a problem as a nearby landowner said it would mount a legal challenge against the decision to approve the launch site.

Wildland Limited, owned by billionaire Anders Holch Povlsen, said that "following a period of review and reflection" it has lodged a petition for judicial review of the decision by Highland Council to grant planning permission.

The Scottish Government decided not to call-in the controversial scheme at the A’Mhoine Peninsula near Tongue which meant it was all systems go for lift-off.

But Wildland wanted ministers to intervene in the Sutherland Space Hub scheme – and to also consider it alongside Scotland's two other planned rocket sites in Shetland and the Outer Hebrides.

Tim Kirkwood, the company's chief executive, said: “It is absolutely vital that planning applications of such scale and significance for environmentally vulnerable protected areas like the A’Mhoine Peninsula are subject to rigorous scrutiny at the planning application stage, whoever the applicant happens to be.

“We have carefully considered Highland Council’s decision to approve a space port at the site and believe we were fully justified in our initial concerns over the granting of an application with a virtually unprecedented number of conditions. Our view is that this resulted because the planning authority did not have access to sufficiently detailed or rigorous impact assessments on key aspects of the proposal to approve the application in the way it did.

“We therefore felt we had no option but to lodge an appeal for judicial review of what we believe to be a flawed decision.”

A successful review could lead to a long drawn out public inquiry.

The space port was given the go-ahead by Highland Council on June 26. The Scottish Government had 28 days from when it was notified to decide to call in the £17.3 million project, but Highland Council formally approved the development in August.

John Williams, chairman of the Protect the Mhoine campaign group, had previously warned: "This is not the end of the matter. It is quite possible there will be a legal challenge as the whole process stinks.

"I also think there will be real difficulty getting this up and running because the planning conditions are onerous and expensive, for which there is no obvious budget."

Council officials said the space port site should not see rockets galore, with launches limited to 12 per year. Among the reasons for this is the amount of plastic and metal debris falling into the sea during rocket launches.

Twelve would see an estimated five tonnes of carbon fibre reinforced plastic and seven tonnes of metal alloy dropping into the sea each year, according to the recent planning officials' report. However, the proposed operator is considering using recoverable rockets sections, councillors were told.

Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) wants to build the controversial satellite launch site on peatland on the A'Mhoine Peninsula.

Highland Council's north planning applications committee unanimously backed the proposals for Space Hub Sutherland with more than 30 conditions, covering such issues as site operation and the environment.

The local authority received more than 450 objections to the plans and over 120 representations in support of them.

Local painter and decorator Scott Coghill submitted a petition of more than 600 signatures in favour of the space port and said the overwhelming number of objectors are not from the area. A counter petition had more than 1000 names.

Local community councils also supported the project because it is expected to create new jobs.

HIE has said by the year 2024 the space port would support 177 jobs across Scotland – 139 in the Highlands with more than 40 of these posts in and around the launch site.

A spokesperson for Highlands and Islands Enterprise said this week: “HIE undertook a series of detailed environmental impact assessments that were submitted as a core part of our planning application for Space Hub Sutherland.

“The environmental conditions that were attached to planning approval strongly reflected recommendations that we and our consultants put forward to ensure robust protection is in place. These recommendations were developed with significant input from key partners.

“It is also worth noting that we expect many satellites launched from Space Hub Sutherland to be used for Earth observation, gathering data to help measure and address the impacts of climate change across the planet.

“As this petition has now been lodged with the court, it would be inappropriate to comment further.”

Melness Crofters Estate (MCE), which own the earmarked site, would receive income from the space port. It says funding would go back into the "whole community" and it intended to set-up a charitable fund to help local projects.

Orbex, a UK company building rockets for carrying small satellites into space from the site, described the approval from Highland councillors in June as "landmark".

It said the first orbital spaceflight from the UK had come "a step closer".

However, last month Lockheed Martin said it plans to switch its support to launch satellites from the Shetland Space Centre on the island of Unst.

It has been predicted that by 2024 the space port site could support 600 jobs in Scotland, with 350 across Shetland.

The Lockheed Martin satellite launch facility plans have been approved by the UK Space Agency, which also backs the Sutherland site.

Related: Highland Council approves space hub plan

Go-ahead for hub proposal in Highlands

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