Ambitions to create hundreds of space sector jobs have suffered a major setback over concerns for a protected site of historic importance.
Shetland Space Centre’s scheduled monument application was refused yesterday (Monday), posing questions for the project’s future.
Historic Environment Scotland (HES) said it would cause “extensive and adverse impact on the cultural significance” of Skaw radar station.
However, SSC chief executive Frank Strang has hit back saying he would “vigorously contest” the refusal.
Mr Strang said he was “greatly surprised” by the decision, claiming HES had “done nothing to preserve the site for the last 50 years”.
Skaw is the UK’s most northerly Second World War radar station and protected as a scheduled monument of national importance.
The proposed space centre would be built almost entirely with in the RAF radar station site.
It would require the removal of nine buildings, including air raid shelters, guard huts and those associated with the radar system.
More than 200 archaeological features, such as foundations of buildings, gun emplacements and bomb craters would also be removed.
HES questioned why SSC had not approached it sooner for advice.
It said an earlier approach would have provided opportunities to highlight the “significant challenges” at a time when alternative solutions could have been proposed.
Instead, the project is nearly finalised in terms of its location, design and layout.
The SSC team had been making rapid progress on its plans, which are hoped to create more than 600 jobs across Scotland, including many in Unst and the rest of Shetland.
The UK Space Agency announced in October the approval of plans for Lockheed Martin to transfer its satellite launch operations to the SSC.
Several other launch companies have also announced plans to use the site.
It has attracted support from Shetland politicians and community representatives.
Public opinion has also been generally supportive with more than half of the 70 comments made on the application coming out in support of the plan.
Opponents have raised concerns about the possible environmental impact, particularly on bird populations, as well as noise and traffic issues. Skaw’s designation as a nationally important monument was also referenced by objectors.
Many of those in support, however, highlighted the new jobs and boost for Unst’s economy.
HES said that while it recognised the “probable benefits” of a national space centre, the application failed to demonstrate why the location was necessary.
“There is therefore no compelling case for the nationally important historic environment considerations to be set aside for the development,” it said.
“The application has not demonstrated that any benefits that would arise from the application could not be achieved elsewhere, outwith the scheduled area.”
HES, which is the lead public body protecting Scotland’s historic environment, wields significant power in the planning process. It is a criminal offence to carry out works to a scheduled monument, without HES’s authorisation.
Mr Strang said the SSC team hoped to enter into constructive dialogue with HES to “allow them the appropriate comfort to allow consent”.
“But be in no doubt: we will vigorously contest HES’s refusal of permission to develop and enhance a site which, while evidently of national significance, has for years been left in a dilapidated state,” he said.
“Our mitigation plans include the provision of resurfacing and repairing the visitor road access, building of an interpretation centre and public conveniences as well as the creation of local jobs.
“Our plans show little or no negative impact on the old RAF concrete buildings and by melding the old with the new will create economic prosperity in Unst and Shetland for years to come.”