Billionaire fails in bid to stop Scotland’s first spaceport

Anders Holch Povlsen instructed lawyers to go to court to stop the building of the Sutherland Space hub.

Billionaire fails in bid to stop Scotland’s first spaceport Ramboll UK
Artist's impression of Space Hub Sutherland.

A billionaire retail tycoon has failed in his legal bid to overturn a local authority’s decision to grant permission for the construction of Scotland’s first spaceport.

Anders Holch Povlsen, 48, instructed lawyers to go to the Court of Session in Edinburgh to stop the building of the Sutherland Space hub in the country’s far north. 

The businessman believed that Highland Council were wrong to grant planning permission to the vertical launch facility, which supporters believe could boost the local economy.

Lawyers for Mr Povlsen believed the August 2020 decision failed to take into account the risks to the local environment and wildlife populations. 

The action was raised by Mr Povlsen’s company – Wildland Limited. Its advocate Malcolm Thomson QC told judge Lord Doherty earlier this year that Highland Council didn’t follow correct legal procedures. 

However, in a judgement issued at the court on Friday, Lord Doherty rejected the submissions made to him by Mr Thomson. 

He wrote: “I am not persuaded that the respondent has erred in law. I am not persuaded that the respondent did not apply the correct test.

“In my opinion there is nothing in the appropriate assessment which suggests the existence of any such error, and there is nothing in the report of handling which causes me to conclude that the report led the respondent into any such error.”

Mr Povlsen is Scotland’s largest private landowner. He owns the clothing empire Bestseller and is believed to have a net worth of more than £6bn. Experts say he owns more of the UK than the Queen and the Church of Scotland combined.

Mr Povlsen is also the largest shareholder in online fashion retailer ASOS.

In February 2021, the company bought Sir Philip Green’s Arcadia retail empire – which included Topshop, Topman and Miss Selfridge – in a deal thought to be worth £330m. 

The businessman objected to the development in Sutherland on environmental grounds and later announced that he had invested more than £1.4m in a rival spaceport on Shetland.

His company Wildland Limited lodged a petition for judicial review against Highland Council’s decision to approve the scheme. 

The Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) project at A’Mhòine, near Tongue, in Sutherland, is expected to create more than 200 jobs, with satellites being launched from the station.

Highland Council received 457 objections and 118 representations in support of HIE’s planning application.

Wildland Limited has concerns over the spaceport’s impact on “environmentally vulnerable protected areas”.

During proceedings, Mr Thomson told Lord Doherty that evidence showed that the council didn’t properly consider the impact that people visiting the site could have on the local environment. 

He said that proposals for visitor facilities and the site’s launch exclusion zone would not do enough to protect wildlife.

Mr Thomson said the proposed space site is located close to an “area of environmental protection” but the council hasn’t properly considered how to mitigate the damage that visitors could cause to the area. 

Lawyers for Highland Council told the court that the local authority had properly considered the impact that the port would have on the environment. 

Lord Doherty agreed with the submissions made by the council and concluded that it had followed proper legal tests. He said that none of the grounds of the challenge were “well founded”.

He added: “Development of the visitor facilities will require a further application for planning permission. At that stage the cumulative environmental impact of SHS (Space Hub Sutherland) and the visitor facilities will require to be assessed.”

HIE has approved a budget of £17.3m to develop Space Hub Sutherland, including funding from the UK Space Agency and the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority.

Commercial satellites and launch vehicles designed and manufactured in Scotland could be taking off from the site within a few years.

Up to 12 launches a year are expected.

Chris Larmour, CEO of Orbex, the Scottish rocket company that will be launching from the site, described Friday’s judgement as “extremely positive news for a wide variety of communities and businesses”.

He said: “We’re especially pleased for the crofters of the Melness Crofters Estate, who will be able to protect and develop their community with modern jobs.

“Sutherland is still the only UK spaceport with planning permission and now, with this ruling, the countdown to space launch from the UK can begin.”

Melness Crofters’ Estate (MCE) are a voluntary committee of local crofters who support the proposed development.

With a declining population and the decommissioning of nearby former nuclear power site Dounreay, MCE sees the spaceport project as an opportunity to secure the long-term future of the community. 

Dorothy Pritchard, chair of MCE, said: “This is a game-changing moment for the local community here in Sutherland.

“We have worked tirelessly with all the stakeholders involved over the last four years to consider every stage of this development.

“Our priority has always been to ensure the close-knit crofting community, its stunning landscape, and native wildlife are protected under a proposal that would make this the world’s first working croft land and carbon-neutral space hub.

“This decision unlocks investment in a project that will undoubtedly secure a long-term future for our community, creating new job opportunities for the younger generation while also attracting new people and investment to the area.”

Wildland Ltd chief executive Tim Kirkwood said the company was “surprised and disappointed”.

The firm remains convinced “the proposed space port will be completely inappropriate for such an environmentally vulnerable area and the protected habitats it sustains”, he added.

He said: “Our grave concerns remain about the justification for the impact on such a special landscape by a scheme, which we fear is both poorly thought out and based on a weak business plan.

“There is a legacy here that goes well beyond our own interests for the area and we believe we have been right to make this challenge on behalf of our younger generation and their future.”

Wildland Ltd is wholly controlled by Mr and Mrs Povlsen and owns 221,000 acres across Scotland.

Its sister company Wild Ventures Ltd invested nearly £1.5m into the Shetland Space Centre on Unst last year.