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Transport / Space centre planning decision bolsters case for Unst fixed link, council chief says

Meanwhile North Isles councillor says ‘fixed links are absolutely essential to fulfilling the full potential of the space industry’

Photo: Chris Cope/Shetland News

THE OPPORTUNITY for talks with government over a fixed link to Unst is “far more advanced” now that the island’s spaceport is in line to receive planning permission, according to chief executive Maggie Sandison.

Shetland Islands Council leaders have already sounded out UK Government minister for Scotland Iain Stewart on the topic and more work is planned.

Earlier this week the council told Scottish ministers that it was minded to approve the planning application for a launch facility at Lamba Ness on Britain’s most northerly island.

The UK’s first vertical satellite launch is expected to take off from SaxaVord Spaceport in Unst later this year.

Construction of the privately funded space centre will cost around £43 million – with costs expected to rise to £100 million in the next five years. Work could get underway in late March, if Scottish ministers are happy with the planning decision.

It is expected to support hundreds of new jobs, and has UK government-backed launches in the offing.

The SaxaVord space port is expected to host the first vertical satellite launching the UK late in 2022. Image: Rory Gillies for SaxaVord (UK) Spaceport

The ultimate aim is to host up to 30 launches a year, but as it stands people coming to Unst to work on space activity will have to take two ferries from the Shetland mainland.

With the prospective space centre described as “national, critical infrastructure”, Sandison suggested the UK Government is the best bet for discussions about a fixed link between Yell and Unst, even though transport is a devolved matter to Scotland.

The UK Government’s Levelling Up fund, which aims to distribute opportunity across the country and has already received an SIC bid for a new Fair Isle ferry, is seen as a potential funding avenue.

While fixed links are aspirational due to the age of the council’s ferry fleet, the capital cost has always been the stumbling block.

“I think that the potential for us to pursue that conversation [around Bluemull Sound] with UK Government is now far more advanced as we move ahead with the space project working alongside how we solve the connectivity,” Sandison told Shetland News.

In addition to raising the matter with MP Stewart on his visit to Shetland last month, Sandison and SIC leader Steven Coutts also met government representatives in Edinburgh earlier this year – with fixed links, including Bluemull Sound, among the discussion topics.

Sandison said the UK Government has provided local authorities with around £100,000 to help Levelling Up bids.

“There has been a recognition that councils need to put in time, money, effort, resources, to take a project from a concept to a point where it could be a business case,” she said.

SIC chief executive Maggie Sandison. Photo: Shetland News

“So we have got a small amount of money to help us work up levelling up bids. Clearly Fair Isle was our first Levelling Up bid, but we’re hoping on the back of Fair Isle we’ll be able to start the conversations particularly with UK Government around Unst, because of that connection for the space centre.”

North Isles councillor Ryan Thomson, who is from Unst, said there is “no doubt” that the space industry coming to Shetland means looking at investing in new infrastructure.

“Fixed links are no longer nice-to-haves, but if we have serious ambitions on adequately supporting industry of this scale, fixed links are absolutely essential to fulfilling the full potential of the space industry, along with the socio economic and environmental benefits they will bring,” he said.

“We have made big strides on fixed links over the last 12 months or so, and we must continue to move at pace so Shetland can see the proper economic effects of the space industry, and to help and support all other industries in the North Isles and Bressay fulfil their potential.”

Meanwhile, the progress for the SaxaVord Spaceport has been welcomed in the Commons in the form of an early day motion brought forward by Northern Isles MP Alistair Carmichael.

“This is an exciting time for our community, and I am glad to be able to recognise that in Parliament. With any luck this will now be full steam ahead for the project and the first vertical launches later this year,” he said.

“We always have to work harder than most places in the UK to grab economic opportunities and to ensure that we have diverse and well-paid jobs here in the isles.

“We need to do all we can to attract and retain people here and so securing this long-term investment could be significant.”