Blaenau Gwent faces game changing choice

Peter Hurn says the Circuit of Wales motor cycle racing track would transform the prospects for the heads of the Valleys

Wales has a well-established reputation as a destination for sport. Look at the 2010 Ryder Cup, the 1999 Rugby World Cup, and now premiership football, with both Swansea and Cardiff now promoted. The proposed Circuit of Wales in Blaenau Gwent, led by the Heads of the Valleys Development Company, offers the opportunity to take this to another level. Projected figures suggest annual visitors to the track in the region of 750,000. That’s equivalent to four Ryder Cups a year.

The economic benefits and inward investment opportunities of a project on this scale are vast. Yet, working in commercial property, I have seen that the biggest hurdle for a developer in getting large-scale plans off the ground can be getting the green light from the planning authority. Crucial to success is on-going dialogue between the applicant and the planning authority, and pre-submission talks are the norm with any large-scale development. Without this early engagement with the local authority, developers run a high risk of failing to include necessary information – such as ecological surveys and traffic assessments – which could in turn lead to their submission being refused.

I have been professionally involved in Carmarthenshire’s Ffôs Las project, which was a leading example of how the private and public sector worked efficiently together to see the racecourse through from planning submission to completion. After acquiring the land in 2001 (a former opencast site that was due for regeneration) the developer, Walters, set out plans for a racetrack, housing and commercial opportunities. Carmarthenshire County Council saw the plans as a beneficial development opportunity in an area that was crying out for investment. This is mirrored in Blaenau Gwent where unemployment rates are at 7.5 per cent – significantly above the Welsh average of 5.2 per cent.

Carmarthenshire Council bought into the vision of the developers of Ffôs Las, helped by the track attracting support from the British Horse Racing Board from the outset. This gave the Local Authority the confidence to see that the racetrack could be practical and feasible from a commercial perspective.

Continued dialogue and engagement, from pre-submission right through to the planning decision, resulted in no major delays to the planning submission and approval process for Ffôs Las. Planning was submitted late 2005, permission was granted early 2007 and the first tranche of land was sold later that year.

The proposed Circuit of Wales draws many comparisons with Ffôs Las. As an area in need of investment, the plans promise a truly transformational project for the area, set to provide approximately 3000 construction jobs over two years, and around 6,000 jobs once it is up and running. It is also set to be a development of national importance, bringing around £50 million a year to the Welsh economy and seeing the largest investment in automotive infrastructure in the UK for 50 years.

From the developer’s point of view, the pieces of the jigsaw are now in place. The project has achieved Welsh Government support, £250 million funding has been assembled, and construction partners – including FCC from Spain and Abergavenny-based Griffiths – have been appointed. The Federation Internationale de l’Automobile have pledged their support for the project, and Moto GP – the world’s premier motor bike racing competition with 70,000-90,000 fans that travel to watch races – want to be racing on the circuit in 2015. A reassurance that the plans are commercially viable and have the potential to make real impact in the area. Planning is the last remaining hurdle for the project, and delays to planning consent would have a huge knock-on effect.

That said, no developer can push through a planning application any faster than it will reasonably take. Both sides will want to ensure that if planning permission is granted, it is beyond reproach and won’t get called to judicial review. With outline planning documents for the proposed Circuit of Wales having been submitted in February, the ball is in the court of the local authority.  What the developer and the local authority can now do – as exemplified by Ffôs Las – is ensure that the planning process runs as smoothly as possible by continuing to co-operate and communicate with each other.

Given that the planning submission will go to full Cabinet due to the scale of the proposals, councillors will need to ensure they are acting in the interests of their constituents. In this sense, the developer has acted in the best possible way by engaging at very early stages with the local community through public consultation meetings, and is continuing to maintain this engagement.

Of course, there is always scope for something going wrong in planning terms. A question that could face the proposed Circuit of Wales is the surrounding infrastructure. Blaenau Gwent County Borough Council will want to be assured that the transport infrastructure, in particular, is capable of accommodating extra traffic.

The developer could look to build partnerships with the public sector to see where they can work together on such issues. Given that the Welsh Government has now appointed a Chief Executive to Cardiff Airport, the developer of the Circuit could plan to ensure that Cardiff Airport – as opposed to Bristol or Birmingham – is positioned as the entrance to the Circuit.

Despite being the smallest of the Welsh local authorities, Blaenau Gwent now has the potential to make a game-changing decision which could truly revolutionise their area. Providing that the local authority and the developer are co-operating closely to see that the submission process is as comprehensive and robust as possible, we could well be on the cusp of something very exciting not only for Blaenau Gwent, but for Wales as a whole.

Peter Hurn is partner in Hugh James’s Commercial Property team

Comments are closed.

Also within Politics and Policy