Scottish court rejects billionaire's challenge against UK spaceport

An illustration of the planned spaceport in Sutherland, Scotland, that will be used for vertically launched rockets.
An illustration of the planned spaceport in Sutherland, Scotland, that will be used for vertically launched rockets. (Image credit: Perfect Circle PV)

A Scottish court has thrown out objections of a billionaire landowner against a planning permission granted to an operator of a prospective spaceport in the north of Scotland.

Anders Povlsen, a Danish fast-fashion tycoon who, according to The Scotsman owns more land in the U.K. than the queen and the Church of Scotland combined, launched a judicial review against Space Hub Sutherland earlier this year. 

But judge Raymond Doherty of the Supreme Courts of Scotland rejected all points of Povlsen's petition in a 30-page ruling released on Friday (Aug. 20), saying that "none of the grounds of the challenge is well founded."

Povlsen's nature conservation and tourism company Wildland Limited, which owns an estate adjacent to the prospective spaceport, protested against the decision of the local authority, the Highlands Council, which green-lit the construction of the space hub in August 2020. If granted, the challenge could have halted plans to see rockets fly from the U.K. soil next year. 

Related: In photos: First look inside Orbex's Scotland rocket factory

In the company's complaint, Wildland Limited officials said the spaceport could disturb the pristine environment of the area where it would be located, the A'Mhoine peninsula, which is known for its peatlands and rich biodiversity. The company’s lawyers questioned whether the environmental impact assessment submitted by Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), the Scottish Government's economic and community development agency overseeing the development Space Hub Sutherland, took into account the number of visitors traveling to the site.

However, investment company Wild Ventures Limited, also owned by Povlsen, last year invested an undisclosed sum into a rival spaceport venture, the Shetland Space Centre.

Unlike Space Hub Sutherland, the Shetland Space Centre, to be located on the island of Unst some 200 miles (320 kilometers) north of A'Mhoine, has not yet received a planning permission. Scotland's nature protection agency NatureScot protested against the plans to launch vertical rockets from the Shetland site, citing concerns over the impact on bird populations, local media reported. Historic Environment Scotland, a public body in charge of protecting Scottish national heritage, also rejected the plans, claiming the center would harm the historic Skaw radar station, an important national monument from World War II. 

Wildland Limited's now-dismissed claim is not the only factor holding up work on Space Hub Sutherland. HIE is still awaiting a decision by the Scottish Land Court before construction of the spaceport can commence, an agency spokesperson told in an email. The land court has to approve the plans because the land that the spaceport would operate on belongs to a crofters' estate, a community of small-scale farmers who use it as a grazing ground for cattle. 

If the land court grants its permission, farmers that currently use the 2,464-acre (10 square kilometer) estate will be asked to remove their animals around launch dates. Up to 12 small-satellite launches are expected to lift from Space Hub Sutherland every year, according to HIE plans. 

The HIE spokesperson noted that the agency expects to receive a decision soon. Work on infrastructure needed to operate the spaceport would start shortly thereafter. A control center, assembly facilities, offices, roadway, launchpad and antennas must be built before the spaceport can host its first rocket launch. 

U.K. rocket builder Orbex, based in nearby Forres, told the company is still targeting 2022 for its debut flight from the Space Hub Sutherland. 

HIE said in a statement the spaceport could generate up to 250 high-skilled jobs in an region mostly known for biodiversity and pristine nature.

The U.K. government has recently passed legislation that provides the framework for issuing spaceflight licenses to spaceports as well as rocket companies. In addition to Sutherland and the Shetland Islands, the Newquay Airport in Cornwall also plans to launch satellites to space. Unlike the two Scottish sites, which both expect to provide facilities for vertical rockets, Cornwall will host launches by Virgin Orbit that take off from a regular runway.

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Tereza Pultarova
Senior Writer

Tereza is a London-based science and technology journalist, aspiring fiction writer and amateur gymnast. Originally from Prague, the Czech Republic, she spent the first seven years of her career working as a reporter, script-writer and presenter for various TV programmes of the Czech Public Service Television. She later took a career break to pursue further education and added a Master's in Science from the International Space University, France, to her Bachelor's in Journalism and Master's in Cultural Anthropology from Prague's Charles University. She worked as a reporter at the Engineering and Technology magazine, freelanced for a range of publications including Live Science,, Professional Engineering, Via Satellite and Space News and served as a maternity cover science editor at the European Space Agency.