On 4 March 2021, Lord Willetts (Conservative) is due to ask the Government “what steps they are taking to support the United Kingdom space industry”. This article examines the space industry in the UK, including recent measures taken by the Government to support the industry.
Size and health of the UK space industry
In January 2019, the UK Space Agency published its biennial report into the size and health of the UK space industry. The report found that the total income for the industry grew by 3.3% in the year to £14.8 billion in 2016/17. The report stated that this was the equivalent to 5.1% of the global space economy for 2016/17 (taking into account exchange rates at the time). The report also noted that income was forecast to grow by 4.8% to £15.5 billion in 2017/18.
The report stated that UK exports in the space industry grew to £5.5 billion (37.4%) in 2016/17, up from 36.4% in 2014/15. It also noted that 54% of exports were to the rest of Europe, representing 20% of total income. In addition, Europe was the source of 69% of imports.
Overall, the report found that the UK space industry directly contributed £5.7 billion of GVA to UK economic output, which was 0.29% of UK GDP in 2016/17. This was up from 0.27% in 2014/15.
As of May 2020, the UK space sector employed 42,000 people, which the Government stated had generated more than £300 billion for the wider economy.
Recent Government policy
The Government has introduced several measures to support the UK space industry in recent years. This included legislation to create a regulatory framework for commercial space activities and the establishment of a National Space Council.
Space Industry Act 2018
The Space Industry Act 2018 obtained royal assent on 15 March 2018. It was intended to create a regulatory framework for the expansion of commercial space activities and the development of a UK space port. It also covers both orbital and sub-orbital activities, and horizontal and vertical launches from the UK.
In July 2020, the Government published a consultation on draft regulations and guidance made under the 2018 act. In a written statement, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Transport, Baroness Vere of Norbiton, stated that the draft regulations contained in the consultation were “required to create the regulatory framework necessary for commercial launch operations to be licensed in the UK”.
The consultation closed on 21 October 2020. The Government has yet to respond to the consultation.
National Space Council and the UK space strategy
In July 2019, the Government announced plans to establish a National Space Council by the end of 2019 to “improve UK space strategy”. It stated that the role of the National Space Council would be to “provide strategic leadership on space across government, coordinating all aspects of the UK’s space strategy, investment and use of space through a new National Space Framework”. The Government said the National Space Framework would consist of three priority areas:
- prosperity and knowledge;
- security and protection; and
- global influence.
In the Queen’s Speech on 19 December 2019, the Government provided further detail on its plans for a National Space Council and UK space strategy. It stated that both would:
Help the UK lead the way in this fast-growing, high-technology sector, creating thousands of jobs across the country and generating opportunities to strengthen the UK’s global influence while keeping people safe.
The Cabinet-level National Space Council will help put space at the heart of Government policy and help us deliver a UK space strategy. The space strategy will boost future funding and lead to a dedicated innovation programme to support future space exploration and exploitation of technology developments by funding cutting-edge British innovation in AI, robotics and satellites.
In August 2020, the Government was asked in a written parliamentary question when it planned to publish its national space strategy. In response, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Lord Callanan, stated that the National Space Council—which would be chaired by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak—would consider its strategy “in due course”.
On 4 February 2021, a backbench debate on the future of the UK space industry took place in the House of Commons. Moving the debate, Owen Thompson (Scottish National Party MP for Midlothian) called on the Government to clarify its long-term goals for the space industry.
The Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Amanda Solloway, stated that the Government’s partnership with the space sector had “been at the heart of its success”.
Ms Solloway also discussed the impact on the space industry of the UK leaving the European Union. She stated that the UK’s free trade agreement with the EU “paves the way” for the UK to remain in the Copernicus programme, which is the EU’s Earth observation programme. Outside the EU, she said that the UK invests £374 million annually in the European Space Agency, “ensuring that UK scientists and engineers take lead roles in this decade’s most exciting missions”.
Ms Solloway also stated that the Government was:
- Establishing “major new national programmes” to build space capabilities “vital to our prosperity and security”. This includes the UK’s space-based positioning, navigation and timing programme used by UK energy networks and communication in the maritime, aviation and defence sectors.
- Launching a £15 million national space innovation programme, which is the UK’s “first dedicated fund for pioneering space technologies”.
- “Kickstarting” work to build the UK’s first spaceports, supported by grants worth £40 million. Ms Solloway announced that the Government expected the first launch to take place from 2022.
- House of Commons Library, Future of the UK Space Industry, 3 February 2021
- UK Space Agency, Understanding the Space Industry Act, 8 February 2019
Cover image from pxhere.