Home   News   Article

Walkers face ban during Highland spaceport rocket launches

By Ally Tibbitt

Register for free to read more of the latest local news. It's easy and will only take a moment.

Click here to sign up to our free newsletters!
A lease agreement has been signed for the spaceport plan.
A lease agreement has been signed for the spaceport plan.

People could be banned from an area covering more than 50 sq km when a rocket is launched from a new Highland spaceport.

The Sutherland spaceport is set to be the first in Scotland to use a new byelaw to revoke “right-to-roam” land access rules around the launchpad.

Highland Council is in the process of finalising the details of the proposed byelaw before it is put out for public consultation and approved by councillors.

A map of the proposed exclusion zone and accompanying briefing documents, obtained by a Freedom of Information request from Highland News and Media to Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), outlines the extent of the access restrictions that are proposed by the developers.

The briefing document was authored by David Howie, HIE head of Innovation and technology, for legal firm Brodies. It is dated January 2022 and marked, “Confidential to HIE.”

The proposed “Launch Exclusion Zone” (LEZ) would cover much of the Melness Crofter Estate and take in a significant part of a neighbouring Wildland Ltd estate, owned by Anne and Anders Polvsen. It would run all the way from the coast in the north to the A838 Tongue-Laxford Bridge road to the south.

The briefing notes set out how visitor restrictions could vary in the run up to a launch event. For several hours before each planned launch, the public would be banned from the full exclusion zone. The site has planning permission for 12 launches per year.

In between launches, the public would be restricted from a smaller area, with a boundary 1800m around the launch pad.

Council officials have agreed to a byelaw that allows the council to delegate the power to exclude people from the area to security guards paid by the operator of the launch site.

Ramblers Scotland, which campaigns for public access to land, said it would study the final proposals carefully when they were released by the council.

Helen Todd, campaigns and policy manager, said: “This is the first Scottish spaceport to consider the use of an access exclusion byelaw during its launching operations.

“We understand this is to ensure public safety and will only apply during the period immediately before the launch, on a limited number of days each year.

“To make sure that members of the public comply with any byelaw it’s crucial that any restrictions to access cover the minimum time period possible, and the minimum area of land required for public safety. More than anything, clear communication will be needed to make sure people, who may have a legitimate interest in the launch, are aware of the restrictions and why they are in place.

“We aren’t yet clear whether a byelaw is necessary to manage the launch site, given the terrain and location.”

Work has been under way for some time at the site.
Work has been under way for some time at the site.

Much of the LEZ area is also designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest, as it is important for golden eagles and red-throated divers among other species. Nature conservation charity the RSPB objected to the spaceport proposals because of concerns that crowds of people keen to view a rocket launch may disturb protected habitats.

The LEZ area also covers areas of common grazing and apportionments on the Melness Crofters Estate.

However, “The proposed zone would meet the three aims of environmental protection, safety and security by adopting logical, clear and identifiable boundaries for a Launch Exclusion Zone,” according to the HIE briefing document.

Forres-based space firm Orbex has a 50-year sublease of the spaceport site from HIE. HIE, in turn leases the site from the Melness Crofters Estate.

Orbex plans to use the site to launch satellites into space and claims to have developed, “one of the most advanced, low carbon, high performance micro-launch vehicles in the world.” The firm has received considerable investment from public agencies such as the Scottish National Investment Bank to build and operate the spaceport.

The Polvsens, who also own land that will be affected by the proposed restrictions and are thought to be among Scotland’s largest landowners, sought to block planning permission for the spaceport. They lost a legal challenge in 2021. They declined to comment for this story.

A spokesperson for Highland Council said: “When considering any access restriction we always stress the need for the minimum time over the minimum area.

“We are carefully considering the needs of the launch site operators and public safety and are working out the specifics required for access exclusion around launch dates and clear communication. We will be undertaking further consultation before finalisation of the proposed byelaw.”

HIE, Orbex and Melness Crofters Estate were also approached for comment.

Do you want to respond to this article? If so, click here to submit your thoughts and they may be published in print.

This site uses cookies. By continuing to browse the site you are agreeing to our use of cookies - Learn More