UK government approach to space industry lacks coherence and investment

As satellite broadband industry rockets, report from Commons Science and Technology Committee criticises government’s failures in key technical areas and continues to question value to taxpayer of OneWeb joint venture

The last two years or so have seen huge interest and subsequent take-up of satellite information systems as information services have become available across the world, but as it aims to become a player, the UK government’s approach has been slammed by a parliamentary committee for an “uncertain and disjointed approach” that is not realising the full potential of a space and satellite industry valued at £16bn.

The Commons Science and Technology Committee noted that that even though the UK space and satellite industry was currently flourishing, the general approach to space policy across government was at present “disjointed and unclear” and lacks coherence.

The report is the result of an inquiry by a cross-party group of MPs into the industry that was launched in April 2021. In setting out the report’s frames of reference, the committee observed that the use of space and satellites was now essential for day-to-day life, with satellites supporting a range of public services, such as navigation, weather forecasting and telecommunications.

It said it is estimated that over £360bn, about 17%, of the UK’s non-financial business GDP per year, was dependent on satellites and that the negative financial impact of the UK losing access to global navigation systems could be as high as £5.2bn for a five-day disruption.

The committee recognised that over the past five years, the UK government has taken a number of steps signalling its support for the UK’s space sector. In 2018, a new regulatory framework was introduced under the Space Industry Act 2018, which provided the legal framework to enable commercial spaceflight in the UK. The new regulations supported the growth of the UK spaceflight programme, LaunchUK, which aimed to establish commercial vertical and horizontal spaceports in the UK from 2022.

Then in June 2020, the government joined Bharti Airtel to bring satellite technology firm OneWeb out of bankruptcy. It also established a new Cabinet committee on the sector, termed the National Space Council, which would consider issues “concerning prosperity, diplomacy and national security in, through and from space, as part of coordinating overall government policy”.

And in September 2021, the government published the UK’s first-ever National Space Strategy, which described its ambitions for the UK space sector. The strategy brought together the civil and defence aspects of space and set out five key goals for the UK, which it said would be achieved through the strategy’s 10-point plan.

Yet in the time since, the first UK satellite launch has been plagued by licensing delays – an issue of concern to the committee. It noted that even though a Virgin Orbit plane carrying satellites was due to take off this month at Cornwall Spaceport, the launch still does not have a licence from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). MPs recommended that the government divert more resources to the CAA. 

The committee also criticised the government’s failure to ensure the UK has access to its own secure position, navigation and timing (PNT) capabilities, needed for critical national infrastructure and defence purposes. It also regarded the UK’s current reliance on the US’s Global Positioning System (GPS) as “concerning” and warned that, if blocked from using foreign services in the future, the UK’s national security would be put at “severe risk”.

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In June 2020, admittedly before the satellite operator began a run of orders and investment, the UK Parliament’s Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee heard experts from the world of satellite communications cast doubt on the intrinsic value to taxpayers of the OneWeb project and the government’s ambition to be a sovereign satellite communications provider.

The new report concluded that the benefit of what it called the government’s “unusual” $500m stake in the satellite company was “still unclear”. The MPs called for ongoing scrutiny of the OneWeb investment which must report to Parliament and urged the government to use its so-called “golden share” to seek assurances that OneWeb will manufacture its Gen2 constellation in the UK to capitalise on the country’s strengths in space and satellite technology, and so create jobs and economic benefit.

The committee expressed concern that a major shareholder said this was not guaranteed, contradicting evidence to the inquiry.

The report also urged the government to publish a “Plan B” by the end of December 2022, should the UK not be able to participate in the European Union’s Earth observation programme, Copernicus. The plan should also include how the €750m currently set aside for participation would be spent.

There was major apprehension that the disbanding of the National Space Council under the Truss government was “set to undo” recent space policy gains because it made the responsibilities of public bodies involved in space “very unclear” and prevented productive decisions. MPs demanded an explanation for this decision and for clarity on new governance structures of the National and Defence Space Strategies.

Committee chair Greg Clark said: “The UK space and satellites industry is world class. From Harwell to Glasgow, our committee saw first-hand the ingenuity and talent driving forward global discoveries. Better cross-government coordination is sorely needed to reflect that the space sector is not just economically important, but is central to the UK’s defence, national security, and foreign relations.

“The scrapping of the National Space Council is clearly a step in the wrong direction and I hope the new government reconsiders this decision. There is palpable excitement building around the first launch of a satellite in the UK, which would propel the UK into a new space age. The licensing process needs urgent attention from the government to ensure there are no further delays to this historic moment, and the UK continues to attract satellite launches of global importance.”

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