The speech made by Jamie Stone, the Liberal Democrat MP for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, in the House of Commons on 4 February 2021.
I am absolutely delighted that the hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) has secured this debate.
As we have heard, the UK’s main proposal for a vertical launch site from the UK mainland is in Sutherland in my constituency. It would be churlish of me not to thank Her Majesty’s Government—the UK Government —and indeed the Scottish Government and the Minister for the work they have put into making this project come to the point that it has. Let me emphasise the massive local support in Sutherland for this project. It is enthusiastically supported. Local people see it as one way of stopping depopulation of the highlands, to which I shall return in a moment. At Dounreay in Caithness, we have a huge skills resource. It was, and still is, a nuclear facility, but it is being decommissioned. These people have tremendous skills and they must be redeployed. My ambition is to see the best-quality employment opportunities being offered to them as they leave the site in future.
We have the weather for this. We have a rail link to Thurso, which is nearby. We have a good road link up the A9. Most importantly, today the Scottish Government have confirmed that an SPO—specialised operations— permit will be given to Wick John O’ Groats airport in the next four years. That is crucially important in terms of the air link. The site has planning permission, as the hon. Member for Midlothian mentioned. A full environmental audit has been carried out. Both the UK Government and the Scottish Government have kept a close eye on all these aspects. This is massively important. As the hon. Gentleman said, if we get going with it, we will steal a march on other countries and we can do very well. It is important to be optimistic and look to the future once we get through the pandemic.
I started with thanks and I conclude with thanks—first, to Highlands and Islands Enterprise. This is a very simple equation. Making the Sutherland space launch become a reality will be a major factor in heading off our ancestral nightmare—depopulation and the prospect of highlanders, particularly the young, leaving their homeland to find work. That would be a tragedy. This project is one way of keeping the lights on in the straths and glens.
I have one final thanks—this may seem rather unusual—and it is to somebody who has actually gone out of his way to be enthusiastic about space launches from the UK: none other than the Prime Minister. When we come to the first launch, I hope that I will have the opportunity to buy him a dram. Indeed, I extend a warm welcome to all other Members to join us to watch the first rocket into space—I will pick up the bill.