Britain’s first vertical launch spaceport has moved closer to lift off after crofters agreed to lease the land needed for the project.

Up to 40 launches a year could take off from Sutherland according to official documents recently put before planners.

The total is nearly seven times more than locals at a remote peninsula were originally told by the government agency leading the controversial development.

And the size of the rockets could now potentially be up to 30 metres (98.4 feet) high – almost double previous estimates.

Yesterday Highlands and Islands Enterprise announced that the owners of land earmarked for the Space Hub Sutherland development on the Moine Peninsula have agreed a lease option with the agency.

READ MORE: Scottish island spaceport site suitability questioned 

Representatives of Melness Crofters Estate (MCE) and HIE signed the five-year agreement on Wednesday. It secures the option for HIE to lease the land once planning consent for the project has been granted. It is believed that if the lease is activated it could be worth around £70,000-a-year and crofters would also get a percentage of each launch fee.

HIE is leading the development, with a £2.5m grant from the UK Space Agency (UKSA), which is also funding two launch companies that plan to use the facility. Design work and scoping for environmental impact studies are well under way. This will form part of the planning application being prepared to obtain consent in time for construction to start in 2020.

Roy Kirk, HIE’s Space Hub Sutherland project director, said: “Space Hub Sutherland development is expected to generate many social and economic benefits for different parts of the region. We have maintained a constructive dialogue with the Melness Crofters Estate throughout the process.”

Dorothy Pritchard, MCE chairwoman said: “We know there is a long way to go and that the next step is to go through to the planning stage.”

READ MORE: Fears over up to 40 launches at remote spaceport 

Claire Barcham, commercial space director, UKSA, said: “The agreement of the Spaceport Sutherland leasehold option is an important milestone and brings us one step closer to realising this ambition.”

But the spaceport proposal has split the community after a report prepared by consultants for HIE

said there will be up to 40 launches each year.

John Williams, chairman of the Protect the Mhoine campaign group, said: “People were led to believe there would be up to six launches a year and that the rockets would be 17 metres high. Now we find that there will be bigger and more of them as well as now two launch pads.

“I think people are alarmed.”