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Consortium in talks with 10 potential customers about rocket launches from Spaceport 1

Iain Stephen Morrison

Am Pàipear has learnt that the Spaceport 1 consortium is in talks with ten potential customers about rocket launches from the proposed facility at Scolpaig.

Comhairle nan Eilean Siar is developing the spaceport plans in partnership with organisations including Hebrides Range operator QinetiQ.

QinetiQ last month issued a series of airspace applications on behalf of the consortium to the Civil Aviation Authority, with one of the forms noting there is a commercial demand to launch sounding rockets this year from the Spaceport 1 site at Scolpaig.

“Discussions with several spaceport customers are advanced with one client demonstrating they will be ready to launch their first rocket by September 2021, with a second and third launch in November 2021,” continued the application to the Civil Aviation Authority.

Joe MacPhee, Head of Economic Development wit Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, commented on the demand to launch sounding rockets from Spaceport 1.

“We are currently in discussion with ten launch organisations. Not all will choose Spaceport 1 but we have two customers already committed to launching from the site, subject to all the necessary consents and licences, and others we would describe as extremely good prospects. Customers include universities and commercial companies who wish to launch small vehicles for scientific, research and development or test and evaluation purposes.”

North Uist is described as an ideal location for the spaceport development as both sun synchronous and polar orbital launches are considered achievable from the proposed site and the existing capabilities and technology at Hebrides Range would benefit operations and reduce the capital cost of a potential spaceport at Scolpaig.

It is believed that the business case for Spaceport 1 estimates the operator, over a decade, could turnover £540 million.

However, significant resistance has been recorded in the form of more than 600 objections lodged against an initial application for planning permission for the first phase of work to test the viability of a spaceport at Scolpaig. Concern has been raised about the impact of the proposed spaceport on numerous elements of life on North Uist. Some local residents voiced their fears about the impact on the environment, safety, noise, pollutants and the appearance of the development in the landscape on North Uist.

Support has also been expressed for the development and the potential economic benefits for the island and the wider Outer Hebrides.

Comhairle nan Eilean Siar submitted an application for planning permission for the first phase of works to be undertaken on the proposed site of the spaceport in the summer of 2019. It is anticipated that an amendment to the initial application will be submitted later in 2021.

“Following the submission of the original planning application and the series of seven community meetings in 2019, we have been focussing on developing a comprehensive environmental impact assessment to support our proposal and to respond to concerns raised,” continued Mr MacPhee.

“We have also been doing a lot of work to ensure that we are ready to engage with the Space Industry Act licensing processes when they go live later this year.

“We will not undertake any activity without planning consent, but we are progressing as many strands of the project as we can in parallel, so we can be ready to offer suborbital launch services if consent is granted.

“However, the lead-in to each launch project takes many months as we must continuously engage with the various agencies to ensure we are compliant with the legislation around licensing. For example, a good example of this is the consortium’s recent airspace applications to the Civil Aviation Authority. We need airspace to operate, so from project management perspective it is prudent to be thinking about future launch opportunities now rather than have many months of delay later on.”

Earlier this year Spaceport 1 was listed with the ‘Heads of Terms’ document signed to formalise the Islands Deal, a multimillion pound government investment in the Outer Hebrides and Northern Isles.

“Inclusion in the Islands Deal is hugely positive, but there are several stages for us to go through first in order to agree the capital elements which the Scottish Government wish to fund. It is our intention to present a robust business case which will allow us to put in place the necessary infrastructure to offer a competitive suborbital launch service should we get planning consent,” explained Mr MacPhee.

Comhairle nan Eilean Siar has also confirmed it received a substantial response to the advertisement of grazing rights at Scolpaig Farm, the 687 acre holding that would be the site of Spaceport 1, which the council acquired in 2019.

“We received a large number of expressions of interest to our advertisement for a seasonal grazings lease of Scolpaig Farm. We are working closely with RSPB to ensure that the environmental stewardship measures we agree with the successful applicant will protect and enhance the natural environment of the site.”

Due to coronavirus restrictions being reduced to tier 3, the thrift shop, located beside the airport, has announced its reopening times.

Abigail Taylor

From 7th April 2021, the shop will be open every Wednesday and Friday 11am-3pm. Donations are accepted by the public, which are sorted and either put up for sale within the shop or packaged and sent to Blythswood Care to be recycled further.

Benbecula Thrift Shop is a charity shop maintained by volunteers from North Uist, Benbecula and South Uist.

Tara Paterson, who works for UCVO (Uist Council of Voluntary Organisations), which manages the Thrift Shop, said: “It’s been wonderful to get the shop open for the community and the volunteers. Our opening has been warmly received on social media by the public, which just shows how important it is to everyone to be back open.”

“It was much easier to get back open this time when compared to last year. We already have all of the required safety precautions taken care of so all we had to do this time was get the volunteers back on board, which wasn’t difficult.

“The donations room is choc-a-bloc and we’ve had customers messaging about when they can come back, it’s brilliant.”

There is a wide range of clothing and shoes for mens, ladies, children and babies alongside a wide variety of books and bric a brac available.

You must keep to a safe distance, make use of the hand sanitising stations and wear a mask when in the shop in order to stick to the COVID guidelines.

Faye MacLeod looks back on the last 12 months and considers the future for island businesses after COVID-19

Sixteen out of the last seventeen years of my working life have involved a monthly visit to Uist to meet with and assist the hardworking individuals running their businesses in the islands.

Despite being able to see the Western Isles from my home on Skye, coronavirus restrictions have meant that I have very much missed my monthly trips to Uist over the last year. My colleagues and I have continued to provide support by telephone, email, and video conferencing, but it’s not quite the same as meeting in person and I look forward to getting back to my inter-island commute in the near future.

Living and working in the islands is a real privilege and over the last year, with the ongoing coronavirus restrictions, we have been able to appreciate where we live with a degree of freedom and sense of space that our city dwelling relatives have just not had.

During spells of good weather, we have been grateful for the natural beauty around us, where a beach walk or a hill climb was the order of the day. Tourists pay good money to enjoy what is an everyday norm for islanders. At the same time, it has been a tough year for those running their own businesses, many will face an uphill struggle to get back up and running again and, sadly, some will disappear altogether.

It has been quite surprising that the government has stepped in to support businesses in the way that they have with the introduction of furlough to retain jobs, Self-Employment Income Support Scheme grants, and a plethora of grant schemes designed to help various business sectors including fishing, retail, hospitality, and charities to name but a few.

These measures are aimed at helping the survival of businesses during the pandemic but unfortunately due to the speed with which these emergency measures have been introduced, there are several businesses and individuals who have fallen through the cracks, such as those who were in the process of starting new businesses or directors who were being paid via dividends.

Many businesses have taken government backed loans to survive through the pandemic and they will spend many years paying these loans back. Not all businesses will survive this ordeal.

The hospitality sector has been hit hard, and we have become even more aware of the fragility of the economy of the islands and just how many people now earn their livelihood from tourism. In the Western Isles the tourist season is shorter than in most of the country and 2020 has been described by some in hospitality as the year of the three winters.

This is particularly difficult as it is the income from the summer season that enables these businesses to survive the winter. As we head towards spring without the prospect of an early season Easter tourist boost, many businesses will be experiencing cashflow difficulties and will be counting the days until 26th April 2021 when it will be possible to reopen hospitality businesses again.

Reopening the hospitality sector however will have an added challenge in 2021 as Brexit has now taken effect and we can no longer employ staff from Europe with the ease that has been enjoyed in the past. This will be tough for an industry that can at times struggle to find enough local staff willing to work anti-social hours for relatively low pay.

Unless EU workers have previously been working in the UK and been able to get settled status under the EU Settlement Scheme, businesses will have to apply to sponsor an overseas worker with a requirement that there is a minimum annual salary of £25,600, which is in the region of £13-14 per hour. This is considerably higher than the minimum wage of £8.91 which currently exists in the UK and will inevitably result in employment shortages in hospitality.

Brexit has also had a huge impact on our industries dependant on export markets. This has been particularly apparent for our fishing industry and other seafood related businesses for whom 1st January 2021 had particularly painful significance. The free trade previously enjoyed as a member of the EU was removed and exporting time critical fresh produce became a logistical nightmare with the added burden of obtaining Export Health Certificates and customs and VAT declarations.

We have seen Scottish seafood lorries travel to London to protest at the Brexit red tape that has delayed and, in some cases, ruined exports of fresh shellfish. Grant support has been provided to fishing businesses to help them cope with financial losses, however the industry is looking for the ability to trade with the EU without unnecessary delays and bureaucracy as opposed to financial handouts.

As well as having to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic and Brexit, the islands have a further restriction imposed on their trading capacity due to limitations on ferry capacity. While the Isle of Skye enjoys the freedom of a bridge enabling unfettered tourist numbers to visit the island (although this is not always a welcome consequence) the Western Isles are limited to those tourists who can secure a ferry booking or flight to the islands.

The same ferries are also an essential lifeline service for islanders and businesses operating in the Western Isles. In addition to experiencing difficulties obtaining ferry bookings throughout the summer season, islanders have also had to deal with significant disruption due to ferry breakdowns, as the ageing fleet of ferry vessels struggles to cope with the demands of the modern traveller. Island businesses live in fear of the next major ferry breakdown and how they will cope with the consequential financial loss.

For hoteliers in Uist in particular, a major ferry breakdown during the summer season, following the losses from the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, would be the final straw. Since last March ‘furlough’ has become a part of our everyday vocabulary since the introduction of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme.

For employers and their employees in the hospitality sector, the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s announcement that such a scheme was to be rolled out was a huge relief. This scheme was not just for the hospitality sector however, and when the nation went into lockdown, most employers had a ready-made scheme to enable those employees who could not continue to do their work from home to receive 80 percent of their normal wage.

The scheme was initially expected to be a short-term measure but in the budget last month it was announced that the scheme will continue until September 2021, more than 18 months after it was first introduced. The scheme has been vital to retaining jobs that would otherwise have been lost, and this was particularly welcome over the winter period in the islands where we are dependant on seasonal work in many sectors.

Last month’s budget did not bring any major changes to the tax system, other than a future increase to the corporation tax rate from 2023, which was overall a relief for businesses and taxpayers in general. One welcome announcement was the extension to the five percent VAT rate for the hospitality until the end of September 2021, followed by a 12.5 percent VAT rate for a further six months.

Businesses are grateful to be provided with a financial measure that helps as a consequence of trading as opposed to grants to remain closed. This gives the hospitality industry an incentive and a degree of hope for the future.

Remote working has become an everyday working norm for the country. Post coronavirus there will be a return to physical office working and in-person meetings, but it is hoped that some online working will continue, and this will be a lasting benefit to islanders.

Is this also an opportunity to help repopulate the islands as those living in the cities realise that in certain jobs it is possible to work from anywhere and that for a young family, there is no better or safer place to raise children than in the islands? I hope so, particularly if we can address the housing crisis in the islands.

There is a need to find solutions to the lack of affordable housing and difficulties in young people accessing self-build mortgages in the Highlands and Islands for the continued stability and vibrancy of the islands.
Finally, as we know, islanders are a hardy bunch and a world pandemic is not going to keep the Uibhistich down.

I have been pleased to note that in the last year many islanders have continued to develop new business plans looking towards the future of the islands and some welcome job creation. Some are using the coronavirus grant schemes and loans to create new business opportunities, as well as looking to bring new investment to the islands, which gives us hope as we start to contemplate the business sector post COVID-19.

Faye MacLeod is a chartered accountant with Campbell Stewart MacLennan &Co.

isle20.com, the island business directory and shopping platform which grew out of the Covid crisis last year, is celebrating its first anniversary by welcoming the first member of staff.

Abigail Taylor

On the 22nd of March 2021, Melanie Mouat from Unst in Shetland will be joining the team as a Social Media and Vendor Manager, almost a year to the day since isle20 first appeared.

Rhoda Meek, who founded isle20.com from her home in the Isle of Tiree said: “Melanie originally moved home to Unst to set up Mella Handmade Soaps and so she is uniquely placed to understand the challenges faced by small island businesses. I’m absolutely delighted that she is joining us!”

In the 12 months since Rhoda sent the first tweet announcing “I made a thing”, the isle20.com directory and shipping site has gone from strength to strength.

There are 530 island businesses listed on the site, 150 vendors selling their products on the platform, and 3500 products for sale.

Originally backed by the Scottish Islands Federation who helped with the initial hosting costs, the site has attracted funding from Firstport, the SJ Noble Trust and HIE.

In the last 10 months isle20.com has generated £75,000 in direct revenue for small businesses across the islands.

Rhoda said: “It’s been incredible to watch isle20.com grow over the last year, and I’m delighted by the impact it has had. The Covid crisis – and the isle20 project – have highlighted the need for a more holistic approach to growing island economies. We’re facing climate change, a housing crisis, depopulation and a loss of dialect, language and culture – from Unst to Tiree and beyond.

Tourism is only part of the answer. The more that we can do at a grassroots level – working together across islands – the more power we have to effect change. The goal is not just for our communities to survive, but to thrive.”

With that in mind, Rhoda has created Isle Develop CIC, a social enterprise which includes isle20. Profits from its projects will be ploughed back into supporting small businesses and community led projects.

Organising events is set to become much easier with the launch of new business The Wee Party Box

Abigail Taylor

Launching on Facebook, ‘The Wee Party Box’ stirred up a lot of interest in the first few weeks of February.

Having recently returned to her family roots from the Middle East, self-proclaimed “lover of event design” Donna Young decided to take the leap of faith into a new business.

“I have two little boys and we wanted to move back. When I was thinking about this I was thinking about what I would do when we got back and what I could bring to the islands as well. I’m really conscious of the community here and how we keep the economy going,” explained Donna.

That sense of community was elevated once the business page was up and running on social media, as her page has achieved more than 100 followers in just a short time.

“I’ve had such a good response so far. I have been using social media and it’s so powerful.

“I had the idea of creating a business to bring something different to the islands. Normally when people have events here on the islands like weddings or birthdays they would have to order things online or buy things that you wouldn’t ever use again. My idea was to invest in these things so that people could hire them out and people wouldn’t need to worry about what they would do with them after their event was over.”

Donna wants to provide a service that will be a sense of relief to planners, whether they’re brides, parents organising birthday parties, or baby showers.

“I wanted to create the ‘party box’ so that I could just drop it off at their door, during COVID-19, and they would have everything they need. Post-COVID-19 it would have more of a design element, I would come in and set it all up. It takes a bit of time and effort so me doing that for them would really help out.”

Her love for design originated from when she decided to plan and design every aspect of her own wedding seven years ago.

“I did it all myself and that’s where the creative element came from. Being able to do that for people here would be so good. I am sharing stories of what I’ve got online so I’m just starting the launch process and it’s harder just now under ‘Level 4’ restrictions, but we will get there.

“We will be able to have parties and events again, especially brides who have had to cancel their weddings, it gives hope. And to be able to give them something that they will be able to add into their day will be brilliant. It’s something that I feel I love.”

Donna and her family decided to move back to where she grew up after the intensity of lockdown in the Middle East.

“We were stuck inside a house in the middle of the desert with 40 degree heat outside,” recalled Donna.

“We couldn’t go outside for a walk or do anything with the kids, no school and everything was closed. Everything was taken away from us so we had no family or friends and we had to think about what to do. We missed our family and we needed to do something for the kids.”

Her boys, Lachie and Lyle, were the inspiration behind the title of the business.

“It was coming up to my youngest son’s first birthday and I was thinking about how I could make it extra special and something that we all enjoyed. From then though the pressure has been on as a mum! He knows when his birthdays are coming up and he wants to know what the plan is!

“They’re all themed, and being a working mum with two kids, it’s quite difficult to find the time to get everything made with the chosen theme. So my idea was to provide this to the parents or whoever needs it.”

Local support is also important to this mum turned businesswoman.

“My hope is to work with other small businesses as well. I think that’s so important. So with event design I can work with photographers, cake makers and florists, we can support each other here and people want to work together. That part of the community is so important to me as well.”

The pandemic has had a silver lining here for Donna and her family, who will continue to support local and invest in their community: “There are so many new businesses coming out of this which I think is brilliant. It’s the perfect time to support them and allow something a bit different to flourish here.”