MAD little ISLAND – an update on Spaceport 1

The long – awaited public information on-line event regarding the proposed development of Spaceport 1 at Scolpaig on North Uist took place on Wednesday  17th November 2021. It consisted of a power-point type event, with a number of slides detailing the results of the ongoing Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). Only it didn’t. Our Environmental assessment ‘experts’ were introduced with their, no doubt sincere, intentions (as they are all being paid by the developer). They were there to reassure the public that all reasonable attempts had been made to address the environmental shortcomings of developing a major Spaceport on such a tiny island, one of the U.K.’s remaining wild places. 

The Aquatera (Orkney) badged, EIA summary information slide describes an important function of the Environmental Impact Assessment as its ‘Purpose being to remove, or reduce negative impacts on the environment through mitigation measures’ In fact, the removal of such negative impacts on the process are procedural and perceptual rather than actual. No information regarding the actual outcomes of the assessment was presented although it is suggested that these will not negatively affect the outcome of the planning process. We were told of the public meetings and consultations during the previous 2 years but Covid happened and these meetings, if they were planned, they mostly never happened. 

There were vague references to Corncrakes and Otters (although answering a later question, Bats were omitted from the study because ‘we didn’t include bats’ and that the conditions will be improved for Corncrakes (supply of headphones?) In addition, great commitment was given to re-assuring us all that multiple licences from numerous important agencies will be required to permit launch activities. There was also a time-line of the many consultative frameworks and the inclusion of a ‘desk based’ assessment on tourism and recreational activity around Scolpaig and North Uist. Numerous agency logos associated with the project (willingly or not)  were displayed. Well, that’s all right then. As Private Eye might comment ‘trebles all round!’

The focus of the 2 proposed launch area zones of activity are to the West and the North, effectively either side of St. Kilda (A UNESCO World Heritage Site and the Monach Islands, Designated Nature Reserves). No matter, the 10 launches per year (of ‘sub-orbital vehicles’) up to 10 metres or so in height) with a range of up to 250 kilometres (worst case scenario) although more usually within 25 kilometres (not perhaps as re-assuring as intended) was outlined. It is possible that the noise alone will scare any living creature to death that it does not deafen or put to rapid flight, not to mention the occasional sonic BOOM! Illegible maps were shown on our screens and vague references made to the number of households likely to be impacted. Only the sheep, so common around here, are woollier. 

When asked about the ‘road improvements’ that would be necessary. There was an embarrassing silence – who could have thought that rockets and other associated paraphernalia might need to be brought to the sites on massive trucks? Eventually it was suggested that widening of the roads would be necessary but there was no detail whatsoever about exactly what and where this would be required. Although Traffic and Transport was supposed to be an important topic for the EIA alongside Aviation, Defence, Telecoms, Accidents and Unplanned Events, answers came there none. No need to talk about Climate Change, because some of the ‘vehicles’ (Rockets to you and me) might in the future use eFuels – so that’s fine then, despite the fact, that however all available narratives regarding the development of efuels and other synthetics are presented and spun (in their manufacture and combustion) they all make a significant contribution to the overall level of dangerous emissions, contributing to Climate Change. It may have seemed that beyond informing us of the fact that there had been some sort of EIA in progress, that the event might begin to properly address some of the bigger questions surrounding this development.

When thinking about the ‘why’ of the proposed Spaceport, there is little to report. The site is to be used by a number of outside agencies for ‘Vehicle Developments’ and informing the ‘Science Community’ with such information as ‘atmospheric measurements, communications etc’.  Again, no details whatsoever are forthcoming. Who is this ‘Scientific Community’ and why do they need the information available to them at such great cost to the environment? We have perfectly good weather reports for this part of the World (courtesy of the Met Office and other agencies) and more space pollution is unlikely to affect communications that are useful to the vast majority of us. 

The development of testing rockets for commercial gain and the military is a far more likely reason, given the background of the lead partner (deep space attack)  together with the financial returns and  incentives available to operators such as the RHEA Group. To date, there has been no disclosure of the metrics involved beyond the mention of the £1 million investment by the Western Isles Council (no doubt this lack of information as to who profits, and by how much, is due to commercial sensitivity..)  I remember a member of the public storming into a previous public meeting shouting at the panel. He said “Its all about f****** money! before storming out of the meeting, and slamming the door. His communication skills were not silky, but he was not wrong. 

There was confirmation that  25 well paid, mostly engineering, jobs would be created (plus 2 security guards to keep us off) , with recruitment from the local island communities being a priority. This at least means that all of those local Space Engineers on the Uists that have been scanning the local papers for such opportunities can relax..

North Uist is a small island situated in the Atlantic Ocean. It has a rural community that has developed symbiotically with its environment. It is an island with some of the best and most unspoilt environments in Western Europe. It is home to many rare species of birds, animals, plants and marine life. The seas are clean and the air is unpolluted. Light pollution is minimal and it is a place of silence. It is a massive carbon sink with its peat resources and has developed over the millennia alongside some of the most ancient Geology in Europe. There are many special conservation sites to focus upon, and visitors and tourists to the island come to enjoy its special qualities, unique within the UK. Paul Whitehouse and Bob Mortimer in their recent programme ‘Gone Fishing’ referred to North Uist as the most wonderful place in the UK that they had visited.” Thanks to Scotland it is probably the best show we have ever done and that is down to the extraordinary environment” 

 The Spaceport (developed by insensitive people who live outwith the Island) will change the essential nature and the extraordinary environment of this place forever. Despite the inevitable platitudes and (mostly uninformed and inadequately) researched waffle relating to the environmental destruction planned – this fact is inescapable. Scolpaig is a place that many islanders enjoy the wonderful, wild coastline,  walks, lochs, swimming, diving and fishing, alongside its proximity to nature. To watch the seals displaying themselves and the gannets diving into the sea whilst standing on the rocks is exhilarating, although these are but a fraction of the wildlife in the area. Even the bees and the fish are special. Such developments as the proposed development of Spaceport 1, come at a terrible cost. What next? Spaceport 2,  perhaps. Maybe we will be renamed ‘Tracey Island’ where rockets are GO!  This is a one-way trip for our Lemming Government. 

Although it may seem initially attractive, the island does not need jobs like those proposed at all costs (Even if they were ever to happen). There are far better ways to develop the economies of such places, many of which are sensibly suggested in the Western Isles Council’s contribution to their own policy document regarding Island Development in partnership with Orkney and Shetland. The Council (and its Commercial partner the RHEA Group (Belgium) will now submit its own Planning Application to its own Planning Department (Located in Lewis) which is re-assuring and guarantees an impartial outcome….

There will then be a 3 month interlude where there will be further time for objections (the details of which have not yet been made public, but numbered over 600 and according to the Council’s interim report on the process, are considered relatively insignificant). There are a further 10, 000 or so signatories objecting to the proposals due to be presented. These are both local and from the wider UK and Europe. After all, Scolpaig belongs to all of them too. This is not just a local issue. 

The Green party have replied to a letter that we sent to our local representative Ariane Burgess MSP requesting their position on the proposals, with her assistant replying that that ‘they Support the developments of Spaceports in Scotland’. What they stand for I cannot imagine but It certainly is not Green. But talk is cheap and the hunger for power is great. The local M.P. Angus MacNeil M.P. –  our man in Westminster, has not deigned to reply to our letters (although requesting our address to ascertain an island address- so he knows he should) and the local M.S.P Alsadair Allan MSP is broadly in favour of the development, although he did graciously take the time to visit us and explain his position and although we could not agree, we exchanged our differing views on the project for which we are grateful. Government agencies such as S.E.P.A, and Nature Scot are almost impossible to contact in any meaningful way although we did try via their ‘contact us’ portals. Just don’t contact us about anything you want to talk about.

It is difficult to think of these inappropriate proposals gaining traction, but such is the world in which we live. We are in thrall to those with power and those with money helping themselves. The much loved Compton MacKenzie follow up to ‘Whisky Galore’ (book and film) was entitled ‘Rockets Galore’. It was one of those wonderful, mischievous British comedy films that imagined the ludicrous concept of developing a rocket launch site on a remote Scottish Island (sturdily rebuffed by the local community). In the U.S.A. it was released with a different title, one that would place the activities this small Island into a broader context. It was entitled ‘Mad Little Island’ and in the ensuing 63 or so years, it seems to have acted as an inspiration for a new assault on a small Scottish Island.  

A recording of the meeting has been posted to the Comhairle’s YouTube channel – The presentation can also be found on the Comhairle website here: 

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