THE Ministry of Defence has confirmed that it is working on a report on the planned doubling in size of a test area in Scotland for Royal Navy submarines.

Fishing is banned in an 18 square mile area in the Raasay Ranges in the Inner Sound between the northern east coast of the island of Raasay and the Applecross peninsula on the west coast of Scotland’s mainland – part of the British Underwater Test and Evaluation Centre (Butec).

The torpedo testing range is covered by byelaws which ban any underwater activity by fishermen in the area and prohibit trawling activities in the whole of the Inner Sound.

SNP MP Ian Blackford and his Holyrood counterpart Dave Thompson had raised concerns that a wider area would be restricted and this would hit the livelihoods of around 140 local fishermen.

Blackford asked the Defence Secretary in a written question last month why his department had not conducted economic impact assessments on the proposed by-law changes required for the extension.

In a reply posted in the Commons library yesterday, Defence Under-Secretary Mark Lancaster said that while the Ministry (MoD) was not bound to carry out such assessments, it had done so in this case because of the strength of public opinion.

He said: “When a change of activity, intensification of operations or a development proposal has been identified, the MoD assesses the non-statutory and statutory consenting processes that need to be considered and satisfied before work to implement such changes begins.

“As a matter of course, the MoD is not required to produce economic assessments as part of its byelaw review process. However, it is clear from the views submitted by the public and other stakeholders as part of the recent Butec byelaw public consultation that a socio-economic report is required and work to produce one is underway.”

Blackford responded with questions relating to the time-scale of the report and what implications it would have on the timing of the proposed byelaw changes.

The MP told The National he had already established that the MoD review would be separate from that commissioned by the fishing community.

He said: “I welcome this review, but there must be a solution which ensures there is a future for Butec in the Minch. I still want to see a project group set up involving the MoD, working along with QinetiQ and the fishing community to establish some sort of action plan to chart the course ahead.”

Blackford said Marine Scotland figures showed that langoustine from the area fetched £10,000 a tonne compared with £3,500 for those from other areas, and added: “These are very high-quality and valuable fish.”

Butec provides sonar and weapons system testing for the crews of Royal Navy Vanguard-class nuclear weapon submarines, as well as Astute and Trafalgar-class attack submarines. The submarine ranges are run from a site near Kyle of Lochalsh.

The torpedoes are equipped with acoustic tracking and measuring equipment in place of warheads. Other trials are carried out on the site including the use of sonar and minehunter exercises.