Space Hub Sutherland

Tagged with: Casework status: Closed Casework type: Aviation Casework type: Construction Site designations: Ramsar site Site designations: SAC Site designations: SPA Site designations: SSSI


In February 2020 a planning application was submitted by Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) to The Highland Council for a vertical launch space port on a remote part of Sutherland. The proposal is to build a facility to launch satellites into orbit and includes a new road across the peatland, a launch operations control centre building, a launch pad and other infrastructure.

RSPB Scotland objected to the application as we believe the applicant did not demonstrate that the development would not adversely affect the Caithness and Sutherland Peatlands Special Protection Area (which is a protected area for internationally important populations of birds) and Caithness and Sutherland Peatlands Special Area of Conservation (which is protected for its amazing peatland habitat).

We are especially concerned that there are a number of unknown impacts from the proposal and much of the mitigation the applicant has said they will carry out to offset the negative impacts of the development has not been detailed or secured. As well as the actual launch activities, a large number of visitors are expected to be attracted to the area to view launches. This increase in people, and the measures needed to make sure they stay a safe distance from the launch site, are likely to be very damaging to this sensitive area and its wildlife.

RSPB Scotland is very aware that this is a novel development for Scotland, and indeed the UK. We recognise that it would have the potential to create jobs in this remote part of Sutherland and we did not object without very careful consideration of the application and Environmental Impact Assessment. However, we believe that our most precious areas and at-risk birds must be protected for future generations and the application did not assess all the risks fully or properly demonstrate how they would ensure these impacts will be mitigated.

On 26 June 2020 the North Planning Applications Committee (NPAC) of The Highland Council unanimously decided to grant permission for the development, subject to a number of conditions.  Scottish Ministers were notified of the decision, as was required, and have decided not to call in the application. The permission was issued on 5 August 2020.


 Golden eagle at nest

Why is it worth fighting for?

The area proposed for the Sutherland Space Hub is extremely important for wildlife and hosts several protected species that are sensitive to human disturbance and are listed in Annex 1 of the Birds Directive and Schedule 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act. This means they are given special legal protection.

The development is very close to and would affect a number of sites which are designated for their international and national importance for wildlife. The Caithness and Sutherland Peatlands SPA, SAC and Ramsar site, Ben Hutig  Site  of  Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and A’ Mhòine SSSI.

Given the importance of the area for key bird species we are very concerned about the potential disturbance impacts from the proposal.

The Flow Country is a vast expanse of blanket bog in the North of Scotland. Blanket bog is a rare type of peatland which forms only in cool places with plenty of rain and covers the landscape like a blanket. It is listed on Annex 1 of the Habitats Directive. The Flow Country’s blanket bogs store more than double the amount of carbon in all of Britain's Woodlands and therefore its essential to keep it intact to help regulate climate change.


The Highland Council decided to grant permission, subject to a number of conditions which control the way the spaceport can be built and operate. Some conditions require the developer to provide more information, including a Breeding Bird Protection Plan. They must also submit and get approval for their visitor management plan at least 6 months prior to the first launch from the site. An Environmental Clerk of Works must be employed to try to ensure the developer and operator do what they have said they will to protect wildlife and habitats. It is the duty of the Highland Council as planning authority to ensure that the conditions are complied with, but they have required a Planning Monitoring Officer to be employed by the developer to assist them with that task.

You can view the planning application, RSPB Scotland’s objection, the committee report and decision on the Highland Council's planning portal. The application reference is 20/00616/FUL.

The committee report and a webcast of the North Planning Applications Committee meeting are available on The Highland Council website.


Our Position

This is an unusual proposal for Scotland, and the UK, and it has been challenging to understand all the potential impacts. RSPB Scotland is also aware this development could bring a number of jobs to a remote part of Sutherland financial support to fragile communities in the area. However, it is essential that potential impacts on the internationally important wildlife sites are properly assessed. NAtureScot and The Highland Council have decided that the developer will be able to put in place sufficient mitigation to ensure  there will be no adverse effect on the integrity of these sites. It is essential that this mitigation and monitoring of effects is secured and delivered if the development goes ahead. We are pleased to see that conditions have been attached to the permission to try to address these issued but still have concerns over the potential impacts on nature. 

This is an extremely sensitive area for wildlife and the launches, people and new activity in the area would have a negative effect on breeding birds and protected areas. We are particularly concerned about the number of visitors that are likely to be attracted to the area to view launches and how the operator of the site will try to manage this. The applicant did submit a document called the ‘Visitor Management Strategy Clarification’ which was published on the Highland Council planning portal on 15 June 2020. However, much of the text had been obscured and the full document was not made public before the meeting. One of the conditions of permission required a Visitor Management Plan to be submitted and approved by the Highland Council, six months prior to the first launch. We don’t know how much of this will be public. 

There is an urgent need to tackle to climate change. Since the site is primarily situated on internationally important blanket bog, the carbon impacts of this proposal are also of concern. The applicant has proposed to restore an area of blanket bog within the site, which would help nature and carbon storage. However, more is needed if the long-term effects of such a development were to be balanced. We are concerned that not enough peatland enhancement will be delivered to offset the impact of the development.

We are grateful to Councillors on the North Planning Application Committee who raised concerns regarding impacts on protected wildlife areas, peat, carbon storage and sustainable tourism and other employment in the area. However, we are disappointed that they took the decision to grant permission for the Sutherland spaceport when many questions remain unanswered on how this development will impact internationally important wildlife and how they will off-set damage to peatland habitat.

There are opportunities to carry out extensive peatland restoration in the area and we hope that the developer will ensure that measures are put in place to minimise impacts on key species. Although we still have concerns over the impacts of the development and the ability to mitigate these, we want to try to get the best outcome for nature in the circumstances. We will now work to engage with the developers to ensure the best possible outcome for the area’s protected species and habitats.


  • 5 August 2020
    The Highland Council issued conditional planning permission
  • 03 August 2020
    The Scottish Government notified the Highland Council that they did not intend to intervene in the application and the Council is authorised to deal with it
  • 06 July 2020
    The Highland Council notified Scottish Ministers of their intention to grant permission
  • 26 June 2020
    The Highland Council’s North Planning Applications Committee decided to grant permission for the development, subject to conditions
  • 20 March 2020
    RSPB Scotland submit an objection to the application
  • 7 February 2020
    Highland and Islands Council Enterprise submit a planning application to Highland Council for the construction of a vertical launch space port with launch operations control centre, site integration facility, launch pad complex, antenna park, access road, fencing, services and associated infrastructure
  • October/November 2019
    Applicant carries out pre-application public consultation
  • September 2019
    The applicant submits a Proposal of Application Notice to let the Council know they are going to submit an application and consult publicly
  • 23 July 2019
    Highland Council issue their scoping opinion
  • 11 July 2019
    We respond to an EIA scoping consultation