Scotland’s biggest private landowner has been attacked as “manipulative” and “undemocratic” after The Ferret revealed that his company secretly lobbied the Scottish Government to stymie plans for a spaceport in Sutherland.
A letter released under freedom of information law shows that Wildland Limited — which runs three large estates across Scotland for Danish billionaire, Anders Holch Povlsen — warned the former rural economy minister, Fergus Ewing, that its planned investments could be endangered by the spaceport.
Some campaigners are angered by the lobbying, while others are disappointed. Land reformers criticise the political influence wielded by large landowners.
But Wildland says it took an “opportunity to raise long-standing and well-known concerns”. It fears the port, which would be used to launch satellites into space, could damage an “important, environmentally vulnerable landscape”.
Povlsen, who made his money from the clothes retailer, Bestseller, and has a 25 per cent stake in online retailer, Asos, was listed in May as Scotland’s richest man. He is reportedly worth £6 billion.
He has actively opposed the Sutherland Space Hub proposed by Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) for the A’ Mhoine peninsula on the north coast of Sutherland, near to one of his estates.
He has taken Highland Council to court in a bid to overturn planning permission for the development. He has also invested £1.5 million in a competing space port planned for Unst, the most northerly of the Shetland Islands.
Povlsen’s opposition to the Sutherland plan has upset those in the local community who welcome its economic benefits, but his stance has been quietly supported by environmentalists worried about wildlife. The Ferret reported in September 2020 that the arms industry was planning to use the site to launch military spy satellites.
Now we have obtained a copy of a letter sent by Wildland’s chief executive, Tim Kirkwood, to Ewing on 30 January 2020. It followed a visit from the minister and a meeting to talk about planting woodlands to help combat climate change.
“At the meeting we touched upon HIE’s involvement as developer of the proposed Sutherland Space Hub,” wrote Kirkwood.
“It would be very unfortunate if the dilemma ultimately boils down to a choice that Wildland has to make about continuing with its ambitions for its north coast estate or not.”
He reiterated a point he’d made at an earlier meeting with HIE’s chief executive, Charlotte Wright: “It seems to me that a launch facility in Shetland and the Wildland developments in Tongue present a win/win.”
Kirkwood also referred to planned meetings he was having about Wildland’s investments in North Coast 500, the road trip around the top of the Scottish mainland, and Inverness Castle. He also “undertook to consider development proposals for Cairngorm Mountain”.
The letter prompted the local action group, Space Port United Residents, to accuse Povlsen and his company of being “manipulators” making threats. “Wildland will be threatening to pull out its investment,” said the group’s founder, Scott Coghill.
“That’s how he and Wildland behave. They are like cowboys in the wild west, except it’s money they use to get their way. There’s an uneasy feeling in this area just now about the way he has gone about things. It feels undemocratic.”
The Melness Crofters’ Estate, on whose land the spaceport would be built, are looking forward to the 40 new jobs that it will bring. “I am very disappointed that any individual or organisation should try to stop such an important development for North Sutherland,” said the estate’s chair, Dorothy Pritchard.
“Melness Crofters’ Estate remains resolute and positive. Our seven directors are unanimous in their support for the space hub and enjoy the majority backing of our members.”
Community Land Scotland, which represents community land owners, criticised the behaviour of big landowners. “It’s vital that any vision for the future sustainability of the Highlands is determined by the communities that live there rather than by monopoly landowners with deep pockets and political influence,” said policy director, Dr Calum MacLeod.
“That’s why Community Land Scotland is calling for the Scottish Parliament to legislate for a new land reform act early in the current parliamentary session to introduce a public interest test and related measures to diversify Scotland’s uniquely concentrated pattern of rural land ownership.”
Highlands and Islands Enterprise stressed the value of its proposed development. “Space Hub Sutherland is a major economic opportunity for a remote, rural part of northern Scotland and a strategic project in the growing UK space sector,” said a spokesperson.
“We have always recognised the need for the spaceport design to respect the natural environment and continue to have regular dialogue with Mr Povlsen and his company Wildland.”
Wildland’s Tim Kirkwood defended the company’s role. “This was a meeting held in January 2020 at the minister’s request to discuss a range of topics, from Wildland’s woodland and conservation plans and the role we’re playing in support of Scotland’s national climate change agenda, to potential investment by Wildland in a number of strategic tourism projects in the north,” he told The Ferret.
“In conversation we took the opportunity to raise long-standing and well-known concerns about the proposed Sutherland space hub and articulate our support for the protection of such an important, environmentally vulnerable landscape and the protected species that it contains.
“Those matters are the subject of an ongoing judicial review and it would be inappropriate to comment further on them at this time.”
Kirkwood stressed Wildland’s commitment to the area. “We are taking forward an extensive programme of investment both in and around our north coast and other estates,” he added.
“We are continuing to work constructively with ministers and other key stakeholders to increase understanding of our long-term vision for landscape conservation and the shared economic opportunities we want to help realise for the highlands and islands.”
According to Wildland’s website, it has planted more than four million trees in the highlands and invested in local businesses such as North Coast 500. “We wish to restore our parts of the highlands to their former magnificent natural state and repair the harm that man has inflicted on them,” said a statement from Polvsen and his wife, Anne.
“Our vision of Wildland is of a project that provides security and an enduring connection, not just for those that work and live on our estates but also for the greater communities of which we see ourselves a part of.”
The Scottish Government said it had ambitions for Scotland to become Europe’s leading sustainable space nation. “Wildland also recognises the importance of the sector to Scotland’s economy and that spaceports are key to enabling growth,” added a spokesperson.
“Scottish Ministers continue to engage positively and constructively with Wildland and local communities to see that ambition delivered.”
The letter from Wildland to Fergus Ewing
This investigation is part of our wider series Who Runs Scotland. We will be shedding a light on ownership and power in Scotland’s economy, environment and politics.
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Photo Credit: iStock/Vladimir Zapletin