29 June 2020
Lockheed Martin, Sutherland and the Space Hub Jigsaw
By George Gunn
I have a friend called Jigsaw John. He’s called that because he had a heart bypass operation. He is a lovable but complicated man. Now, as another friend called him, he’s “a puzzle with a bit missing.” I thought of Jigsaw John when I read the following two newspaper pieces last week. The first comes from the mighty Press and Journal:
“Space Hub Sutherland was granted planning approval by the Highland Council North Planning Applications Committee on 26 June 2020. That decision has now been notified to Scottish Ministers for review.”
and the second from the even mightier Inverness Courier:
“Highland Council missed out on furlough cash hand-outs, while authorities across the country claimed money from the UK government.”
The Space Hub story, the proposed construction of a rocket launch site on the Moine peninsula on the North Sutherland coast, I have written about before (‘The Same Old Selfish Quest’). If this episode were a jigsaw then it is a strange one because it simultaneously gets bigger whilst at the same time loses vital pieces of the picture.
David Oxley, Highlands and Islands Enterprise’s Director of Business Growth, seems to agree, because after the project was granted planning permission, subject to review by the Scottish Government, he said:
“Gaining planning approval from the council is a huge step forward for Space Hub Sutherland. The UK’s space ambitions present a wonderful opportunity for the Highlands and Islands. A vertical launch spaceport is a key piece of the national jigsaw, along with the design and manufacture of satellites and launch vehicles, that will ensure Scotland can derive maximum economic benefits from this growing and exciting sector.”
There are all sorts of vital pieces of information in that statement and also important bits missing. One piece is the competency of Highland Council itself to decide on anything as it currently running at a total estimated loss of £96.9 million and refuses to come clean on why it hasn’t claimed a single penny in government help to furlough non-essential staff. A state of affairs described by SNP councillor Ron MacWilliam as being on of “eye-watering incompetence”. The other missing piece in the jigsaw is the US company Lockheed Martin, one of the biggest arms manufactures in the world and one of the main players in the Moine project. Except they may not be. According to “Orbital Today”,
“The Scottish spaceport in Sutherland has seen multiple investments in the last few years. However, US-based company Lockheed Martin, one of this project’s major backers, is also supposedly looking to invest in the Shetland Space Centre (SSC) project (on Unst). It has been suggested in the local press that Lockheed Martin is expected to focus its efforts on SSC, which could be a heavy blow to Sutherland.”
In 2018, the US-based company was awarded a combined £23.5m from the UK Space Agency to establish vertical launch operations in Sutherland using proven technology, and to develop an innovative new system in Reading for deploying small satellites. But now Lockheed Martin is expected to invest in the Shetland scheme, ensuring the space race in the north of Scotland enters a new phase. There is also a proposed space port being planned for North Uist.
According to “Orbital Today”, “One of the reasons for public growing concern about the fate of Sutherland construction site is that it was supposed to create 400 new jobs for local residents. But in reality it is likely that only 40 new job positions would emerge and many of those would be incoming people. Of course, this was a welcome and important change for the local economy, but a far cry from the initial employment opportunities that were banded about.”
The “jobs” are another bit of the jigsaw, only they vary in number depending on who is talking. Jamie Stone, the Liberal Democrat MP for Caithness Sutherland and Easter Ross evangelically believes in the 400 jobs scenario. Highland councillors have opted for space port because it “could bring” 250 jobs to the Highlands. According to “Orbital Today” it could be 40. What I suggest the Space Hub on the Moine does is bring the wrong project to the wrong place at the wrong time for the wrong reasons. It also throws light on the less than democratic way the Highland region is governed. The questions no-one seems to be asking are: Why this project? Why the Moine? Why now? Who benefits? Why are several senior managers of HIE now working for the Sutherland Space Hub? Is this ethical?
The Sutherland Space Hub is a UK project. The Scottish Government is only directly involved when it comes to finalising planning permission as, in reality, is the Highland Council. It is a reactive process and not an example of positive, active governance. Was a space port a part of the local development plan, for example? Which brings us to Highlands and Islands Enterprise, who are a government created quango and not democratic or, as has been repeatedly shown in the past, accountable. The HIE’s contribution to the initial £17.3 million Sutherland Space Hub budget is £9.8m, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) are putting in £5m, although the final details have not been confirmed, and the UK Space Agency will chip in the remaining £2.5m. The reason the NDA is involved is because it needs to be seen to be helping create new jobs to replace those lost from the eventual closure of the Dounreay nuclear power site in Caithness. The rockets, if they ever lift off from the Moine, will have a Union Jack on them. If it is a success Westminster and the press will celebrate it as a British achievement. Poor housing, a lack of affordable homes, a deteriorating social and transport infrastructure, low wages, unemployment, poverty and emigration will all have a Saltire put on them by the media and the Scottish government will be condemned for it. £9.8m would go a long way to alleviate some of that.
Be that as it may it is the way the Space Hub project has been discussed in public which I find alarming. During the meeting, Kirsteen Currie, who is a highly regarded SNP councillor for North, West and Central Sutherland, warned the Highland Council planning committee not to think of the landscape as ‘non-industrial’. She said:
“Do not make the mistake of thinking this is a barren landscape. I’m interested in breeding pairs of humans and we need to think about the people of our communities instead of breeding birds.”
This is a worry for many reasons.
One of them is the use of the word “instead”, which is a reference to the RSPB on the nearby Forsinard Estate. Whilst it could be argued that the RSPB are just another landlord and do prioritise the welfare of birds over humans they also are involved in restoring the huge expanse of peatland they own and are undoing the considerable environmental damage done during the forestation during the 1980’s of the Flow Country, which was a huge political mistake sanctioned by the predecessors of Kirsteen Currie and her Highland Council colleagues pre the local government reorganisation of 1995. Councillor Currie is absolutely right when she says, “The future of our rural economy cannot be pinned upon tourism, we must diversify and we must look to the future.” But nothing needs to be “instead” of anything else. The “breeding pairs of humans” she is rightly concerned about will need a healthy environment in which to raise their progeny. A Space Hub on the Mine does not add to this reality. To refer to the stunning beauty of North West Sutherland landscape as being “barren” and to encourage it to being opened up to industry is a depressing continuation of the mindset which gave us the ill-conceived marketing ploy which is North Coast 500, the Invergordon aluminium smelter, pulp mills in Fort William, many badly sighted wind farms, highly polluting fish farms and the Dounreay debacle on the North Coast of Caithness. I find it soul destroying when intelligent, passionate people fall into the same old trap of accepting that the economic well-being of the Highland people can only be preserved and enhanced by big industrial projects which diminish the environment they inhabit and are out with their democratic control. This inability to learn from history is a deadly habit.
It would be churlish not to point out that all Highland councillors are under immense pressure to be seen to be doing something for their communities. I for one do not envy them their task. What concerns a lot of people in the Highlands is that the jigsaw of the Highland Council itself is in danger of coming apart.
According to research by the BBC Highland Council has been the hardest hit in the UK financially from the Covid-19 crisis in terms of cash lost per head of population, standing at £411 per resident. As well as £55 million in lost income during the crisis, the Council has had £40 million in additional expenses. For example the area has an elderly population spread throughout a land mass larger than Belgium which requires care workers and other service providers to routinely travel long distances. If central government ask Highland Council to cut its deficit the result would be, according to head of finance Ed Foster, “shed loads of pain”, as most of its expenditure is tied up in staff costs, implying it would mean large-scale redundancies. The council’s failure to apply the furlough scheme to non-essential staff will only add to that “pain”. The fragile nature Highland economy means it cannot afford a single extra person to be made unemployed.
Another vital piece in the jigsaw puzzle of the Highlands is that whilst the local authority may be cash strapped the area is one of the wealthiest in Scotland. The resource is land. Scotland has the most concentrated land ownership in Europe and the ownership of Highland estates is evidence of that. Research by land campaigner and Green MSP Andy Wightman has found that 10 per cent of all private rural land in Scotland is owned by just 16 people. Scotland’s richest person, the Danish clothing billionaire Anders Povlsen, owns several estates amounting to 220,000 acres across the Highlands. Ironically Anders Povlsen was against the Moine Space Hub project, telling the planning committee that he considered it as “deeply damaging”. It may come as a surprise to Mr Povlsen that many Scots consider well-healed individuals owning vast acres of our country obscene and also “deeply damaging”.
The problem for Highland Council and for the people of Scotland is that there is no mechanism existing in order to extract a percentage of this considerable wealth form the small number of landowners, many of whom are based out with Scotland. According to Ben Wray of “Open Source”:
“The idea of a tax on land has long been mooted, but Scotland inexplicably remains stuck with the out-of-date and grossly unfair council tax introduced by the Tories almost thirty years ago… Not only could a tax on land and property raise vital revenues, it could incentivise the use of land for productive purposes, rather than as inflationary assets for the super-wealthy. That could lead to a much needed diversification of the Highlands economy and, hopefully, the break-up of large estates.”
So why have the present Scottish government not steamrollered legislation through to establish a land tax? A source at the Holyrood parliament informed me that it’s not that the Scottish Government won’t let it happen, but until the land register is complete they don’t actually know who owns every piece of land and therefore it’s impossible to tax it. “We can’t just tax some parts and not others,” I was told, “the system has to treat everyone equally.”
The Scottish Parliament passed a law in 2012 – the Land Registration etc. (Scotland) Act 2012 that states the register should be complete by 2024. It’s a hugely complicated process and some local authorities have already stated their registers won’t be completed by the deadline. The recently passed Coronavirus (Scotland) Act 2020 changed the process so applications and submissions can be done digitally to try and ensure that progress isn’t halted in the midst of the current crisis. My source concluded, “So there is a lot of work going on to try and get to the point where we can consider whether taxing the land is feasible, possible and desirable.”
A land tax is absolutely vital if we are to have a functioning independent country. It is feasible, it is possible and it is desirable if the political will is there to make it so. If it is not then local government will go into a deep freeze and we will see more examples of local authorities calling for Scottish Government funds that don’t exist while they fail to claim UK government support that actually are available. The “national jigsaw” will be spread in bits all over the civic floor, the Highlands will remain “a puzzle with a bit missing” and it will take more than a scheme to blast rockets into space form the Moine peninsula to put it back together again.