UK trails European neighbours in space race, MPs say

During a Parliamentary debate on the future of the space industry, MPs have warned that the UK is falling behind France and Germany in the European space race.

“The economic output for space in the UK is estimated to be £300bn today and that’s going to rise to £340bn by 2030. Yet worryingly, only 10 per cent of that activity is actually UK-owned,” said Chris Skidmore, former science minister.

“There is a huge issue of sovereignty that we need to tackle when it comes to the UK space industry; 90 per cent of our satellite activity is by foreign-owned [companies]. We need to look again at what we deliver for the future.

“When it comes to government investment in space, yes, we are doing well, but compared to France we spend roughly £500m - that’s a third of the French government’s budget on space and half of the German government’s on space.”

Skidmore advised doubling the government’s annual space budget to £1bn to compete with other European space leaders.

He added that he was concerned at the government appearing “a bit more ambivalent” about industry strategy in recent months and years than is appropriate: “Other countries are looking at the same possibilities that we have, so I hope [the government] will take up with enthusiasm the potential of industrial strategy once again.”

According to Greg Clark, the Science and Technology Select Committee chair, the UK government should be more enthusiastic about seizing the opportunities offered by the space industry. SNP MP Owen Thompson, who led the debate, commented that the government needed a concrete strategy if it wants the UK space industry to become a leader in such a competitive marketplace.

“The growing space industry, with timely and sensible support from government, could quite literally provide a rocket boost to the economy and be a force for good for the country and for the planet,” Thompson said.

Conservative MP Mark Garnier said: “The reality is space is a component of our national power. If we want to be a global military presence, we need to have a global space presence. If we want to be a global technology leader, we need to be the global space leader.”

Writing in The Independent, Liberal Democrat MP Jamie Stone called for the government to encourage small British businesses to join the space industry, rather than falling back on established international space firms. He proposed the creation of a fund to support research projects and the establishment of a supply chain making the most of UK engineering.

The UK currently wields a six per cent share of the global space market and aims to expand this to 10 per cent by 2030 by identifying and developing high-growth markets and increasing exports.

In the past year, the government has bought a £400m stake in bankrupt satellite company OneWeb – a move interpreted as an effort to revitalise the UK’s space sector after being forced to leave the EU’s Galileo satellite navigation project – and announced a regulatory framework for spaceflight.

The government also hopes to build multiple spaceports in the UK, with a view to seeing the first UK-based launches in the early-2020s. The long-delayed national space strategy is expected to be published in the first half of 2021.

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