Space Hub Sutherland

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

Overview

In June 2019, Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) sought an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Scoping Opinion from The Highland Council (THC) for the development of a space hub on the A’ Mhòine peninsula, North Sutherland. Seeking a scoping opinion is a way of a developer or applicant asking what they need to include in an EIA before they submit a planning application.

HIE submitted a scoping report to help the Council form a view. In this they have said that the site would be to launch small satellites and cargo loads into orbit. At this stage, they are proposing that the site would include two launch pads, antenna farms, a control centre, security fences, vehicle access and parking. The EIA submitted with any application will allow the impacts of the proposal to be fully assessed.

In July 2019 we commented on the scoping report and highlighted the highly sensitive nature of the site. The site boundary presented at the scoping stage overlaps and is adjacent to the Caithness and Sutherland Peatlands Special Protection Area (SPA), Special Area of Conservation (SAC) and Ramsar wetland, as well as the Ben Hutig and A’ Mhoine Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs). The North Sutherland Coastal Islands SPA is also within close proximity. It is therefore critical that impacts on these protected sites, which are designated for their internationally and nationally important bird, mammal and habitat interest, are avoided. This is an unusual proposal and it is essential that sufficient information is submitted to allow impacts to be properly assessed.

Due to the nature and size of the proposal it is a ‘Major Development’ and the applicant must notify the Council before they submit an application and carry out public consultation. HIE submitted this notice in September 2019 and is to hold a number of community engagement events and invite public comments.

Map

 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 I of the Birds Directive and Schedule 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act. This means they are given special legal protection.

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 I of the Habitats Directive. The Flow Country’s blanket bogs store more than three times the amount of carbon in all British Woodlands and therefore it's essential to keep it in tact to help regulate climate change.

The development is overlapping or close to a number of sites which are designated for their international and national importance for wildlife. Given the importance of the area for key bird species we are concerned about any potential noise and other disturbance impacts.

Our Position

This is an unusual proposal and at this stage we don’t have a full understanding of what the impacts could be and need to know more. We are pleased that the developer will be carrying out an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) as part of the planning application process to ensure the proposals effect on nature can be fully assessed.

A planning application hasn’t been submitted yet and although we do not know the full details at this stage, we do have concerns that breeding birds could be disturbed and displaced by the rocket launches and any increased activity in the area, such as lighting, noise, vibration, traffic and increased visitor numbers. With a proposed 12 launches per year the proposal could have significant negative effects. It may not be possible for birds to get used to activities at the Space Hub which may result in disturbance to birds that have eggs or dependant young. We also note that the site is expected to be operational for 50 years so predicted impacts would be very long-term.

We also have concerns about the public safety launch exclusion zone (LEZ) extending into protected areas and potentially disturbing birds in the area.

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. It is important to understand what these impacts are and how they will be avoided or offset by the developers.

We also need more information on what would happen if things went wrong. For instance, if a launch fails, whether there could be a risk of damage to habitat from fires or falling debris or pollution of ground water or the marine environment.

It is essential that potential impacts on the internationally important wildlife sites are properly assessed. If the potential impacts of the proposal cannot be sufficiently mitigated and there could be an adverse effect on the integrity of these sites, then it is unlikely that THC would be able to grant consent in accordance with the Habitats Regulations requirements.

We understand that the EIA and full planning application are expected to be submitted in December 2019. We will continue to engage with the developer and the planning system in the interests of nature.

How you can help

The developers, Highland and Island Enterprise, are currently seeking public views on the proposals. More information can be found on the community engagement section of their website.

Timeline

  • October/November 2019
    Applicant carries out pre-application public consultation.

  • September 2019
    The applicant submitted 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.

Further reading

Reserves affected:

  • RSPB Forsinard Flows nature reserve is approximately 25 km from the site at its closest point. Until more information is provided, we don’t know how far the impacts from the launch site could extend.

Useful links:

Key species affected: