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

9 thoughts on “Blaenau Gwent faces game changing choice

  1. Peter,

    I think your points are very well made. I agree that Wales has a well-established reputation for sport. Certainly, in more recent times, private sector leaders (naturally, supported by teams) have played a key part. For example:

    • Paul Russell – Sophia Gardens hosting the first match of the 2009 Ashes test series.
    • Terry Matthews – The 2010 Ryder Cup.
    • Paul Guy – PMG Developments, the Lead Developer behind the development which included the Cardiff City football stadium.

    The same is true now of the promoters of Circuit of Wales: Michael Carrick, Peter Thomas and Chris Herring. I wish them well with this exciting project which really could make a tangible difference to the local economy of Blaenau Gwent accepting that it forms part of the wider functional economic market area, namely, the Cardiff city-region.

    The potential economic impact of such projects is really important. Previously, I have suggested that economic development has been hijacked by regeneration – see

    The same issue was recognised by the Roger Tym & Partners and Asbri Planning report ‘Planning for Sustainable Economic Renewal’ – in essence a report on how planning could become more economy friendly:

    So, yes, I do hope the sustainable economic impact of the project is given close attention by the local planning authority bearing in mind that Blaenau Gwent is often described as being one of the worst economic black-spots of Wales. Just imagine the opportunities for enterprise if this project does motor – forgive the pun. Wearing my regeneration practitioner hat for a moment, I was thinking of Blaenau Gwent’s ‘enterprise facilitation’ project in the guise of Bg Effect – an initiative to encourage a cultural shift towards greater enterprise and entrepreneurship. Engagement between Bg Effect and Circuit of Wales (if not already occurring) would be a great coup.

  2. Given that the largest employer in the area, which was a recipient of very generous Welsh Government funding employs only Eastern Europeans and Portuguese, one hopes that some caveats come with whatever tax payer backed money attached to this scheme. So far most Welsh Government money seems to have little benefit to the average Welsh worker.

  3. As a Sports photographer, and also someone who lives about two miles away from where the Circuit of Wales is planned to be developed, I have to say this surely has to be the best investment opportunity that has ever been presented to the Borough of Blaenau Gwent. If it doesn’t get the go ahead there are going to be a whole lot of residents in this borough who will miss out on not just getting a most exciting project, but also of demonstrating achieving world-wide , what we as a community can achieve. I am so excited about seeing the “Circuit of Wales” becoming a REALITY.

  4. “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”. This is a welcome point and helps position Wales as an economic entity. These kind of investments in Wales’ poorer regions have to be grasped with both hands.

  5. Don’t really agree with Lionel’s point either. Wales is part of the EU and eastern Europeans can work here freely as part of that bargaining (which is a net positive for us). Welsh Government cash for Bridgend Ford, Tata Steel, even Airbus (considering it’s on the border) all helped Welsh workers stay in jobs. Local procurement and supply chain clauses would be ideal, but ultimately it’s up to companies who they hire, and who has the right skills.

  6. For decades, Blaenau Gwent produced steel and coal which gave good employment to the local population. While this served the area it was of little interest to the outside world. With the Circuit of Wales we should not only have well-paid jobs, but the potential of attracting thousands of visitors to the area. This development cannot come soon enough for Blaenau Gwent which has suffered with high unemployment for far too long.

  7. In 2009 when it looked as if Silverstone might lose the British Grand Prix SQW Consultants produced a report on the economic benefits of the race track to the local area. The potential job total from the proposed new developments at Silverstone came to 2993 and that includes proposed conference facilities, education campus and business park. Virtually exactly the same facilities are now being proposed for the Ebbw Vale scheme. I suppose the key question is whether there is a market for more than one all singing and all dancing motorsport facility in the UK. The promoters of the scheme would obviously say that there is. It would obviously make a huge difference to Blaenau Gwent but some of us remember the consultants reports in 1980s which argued that Rhondda Heritage park would attract 400,000 visitors a year. I also cannot understand why on their website they talk about the support of the Spanish construction company FCC. Since 2008 FCC has lost four fifths of its market value because of the economic downturn in Spain and in 2012 it posted losses of over €1 billion.

  8. To come a little late to the debate, Jeff’s point is the vital one here, and there’s an obvious comparison to be made. Donington Park tried to set itself up as the UK’s top facility a few years back but couldn’t raise the cash, despite having the MotoGP already in place, a contract for Formula 1 and a good central location with an international airport literally next door!

    “Circuit of Wales” has none of those advantages and is currently a £250m gamble on a press release from the MotoGP bosses (which is akin to gambling that much money on Bernie Ecclestone being nice to you…) Much is made of the comparison with Motorland Aragon, but that circuit has (a) A country that is absolutely nuts for the sport (as opposed to the UK, which hasn’t had a grand prix winner in my lifetime); and (b) Significantly more sunshine allowing year-round testing use (something that messes with all UK circuits)

    There is undoubtedly a place for a facility that could improve on what Pembrey used to offer when I watched F3 there as a boy, but “Circuit of Wales” is overegging the pudding and could well be accused of offering false hope to an area that needs the real thing.

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