Highland spaceports – a development dilemma

Over the past year or so, the potential of the Scottish Highlands as a suitable area for launching small rockets has been recognised with proposals for development in Sutherland, Shetland and, most recently, North Uist. My twitter feed has been full of retweets recently from outdoor folks asking me to write to the Western Isles Council opposing the North Uist development.

The immediate and understandable reaction from outdoors people to such developments in a wonderful area like North Uist is to oppose them. Undoubtedly, a spaceport will change the character of the area forever and will disturb its tranquility for visitors. I don’t much like the idea but I do wonder if this is not a better approach to economic development than yet more tourism.

Tourism in the Highlands has increased dramatically in the past few years and, along with the public sector, is the main source of jobs. Unfortunately, tourism jobs are mostly McJobs – a term coined by Douglas Coupland to describe minimum wage and seasonal jobs. There are very few jobs for qualified young local people – most of them leave after finishing school and only a minority return to raise families in the Highlands and Islands. Furthermore, tourism, in some parts at least, is destroying the landscape that attracts tourists and the infrastructure simply cannot cope with the number of people on routes such as the North Coast 500.

The publicity for the North Uist development suggests that it will create 50-70 jobs and create the potential for supplier companies to locate close to the spaceport. I have no idea how many jobs will actually be created but, for sure, these jobs are likely to be permanent and better paid than tourism jobs. There is a potential here to help revive the community and create opportunities for talented young people that will allow them to stay on the island and contribute to the community.

For this reason, I haven’t signed petitions against the spaceport. I haven’t been to North Uist for many years and when I go back, I’d prefer it to be unspoiled. But I do wonder if the damage to the environment caused by a launch facility is not preferable to over-tourism and ageing communities with few permanent residents under 50.

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