Circuit of Wales
There have been few racetrack developments in recent years which have stirred up as much controversy and divided opinion as much as the Circuit of Wales. Announced in 2011, the £325 million project to build a new home for Britain's round of the MotoGP series endured planning and financial setbacks, before finally becoming a giant white elephant project.
The plans gained fierce opposition from other circuit operators, particularly after securing the backing of the Welsh Government, while environmental groups were deeply scathing of plans to build on what was formerly common land. Ultimately, the finances could not be raised the project imploded.
Announced to some fanfare, the Circuit of Wales project would have transformed 830 acres of land at the former steel town of Rassau, near Ebbw Vale in South Wales. Under the plans developed by the Heads of the Valleys Development Company, the new international-standard circuit was to have been capable of hosting top-level motorcycle racing and everything on four wheels all except Formula One.
The attraction for politicians and investors was the estimated £45 million the circuit would attract annually to the Welsh economy. Associated activities were said to be capable of generating some 6,000 permanent jobs through provision of facilities for motorsport industries. An on-site hotel, race academy and training facilities would boost employment opportunities further and help attract up to 750,000 visitors a year.
They were certainly ambitious figures and helped sway considerable local support in an area which has seen high unemployment since the decline of the coal-mining and steel industries. Opponents of the project, however, were quick to questioned the visitor and employment figures, while the proposed location – on common land – drew vocal opposition from countryside, wildlife and environmental groups.
An early coup for the developers came with the news that they had signed a five-year deal with MotoGP organisers Dorna to host the British Grand Prix from 2015 onwards, taking over the event from Silverstone. Significant hurdles still had to be overcome, not least raising the finance and obtaining the necessary planning permissions. By July 2013, the circuit had received outline planning permission from Blaenau Gwent County Borough Council but in July of the same year, the Welsh Government stepped in to halt the process while it took further time to decide if the plans should be subjected to further scrutiny.
Environmental body Natural Resources Wales (NRW) had initially raised fears about the visual impact of the circuit and had been asked by ministers to advise them on whether the scheme should be 'called in' for further investigations. However, by August 2013 the organisation said that its concerns had been lifted following talks with the Heads of the Valleys Development Company. As a consequence the Welsh Government decided not to delay proceedings further, leaving the matter to the normal planning process and leaving the final decision with the county council.
This was not without its controversies and it certainly seemed to some bystanders that the politicians were overly keen on the project, possibly beyond the realms of prudence. This accusation gained credence when in July 2014, Alun Davies, Blaenau Gwent AM, was found to have broken the Ministerial Code through lobbying Natural Resources Wales in favour of the racetrack. He was sacked the following week.
Nevertheless, the lobbying of government for support continued. While the majority of funding was privately raised (mainly from Asian and American investors), the Welsh and UK Governments were approached for a £50 million loan to help bring the project to reality. The investors were said to be unwilling to put money into the project unless the Welsh Government provided a loan guarantee of around £210m. Funding for an undisclosed amount was subsequently granted, a move which sparked fury from other British circuits – Silverstone in particular – who had previously failed to win any public money for circuit improvements.
Several setbacks in achieving full planning permission meant a predicted December 2013 construction start date came and went and it became clear that the Heads of the Valleys Development Company was going to be in the embarrassing position of having a contract to host the race but no circuit to host it on. Agreement was duly struck to hire Donington Park to host the 2015 event, but this deal collapsed in January 2015 amid claims of unpaid fees. A new deal was subsequently struck with Silverstone for two years, while the Circuit of Wales was supposedly constructed. The irony of the situation was not lost on Silverstone's bosses...
One major obstacle that the circuit was facing before getting its full planning permission was a planning inquiry into its proposal to de-register common land on which it will be built. The Welsh Planning Inspectorate called the eight-day hearing in March 2015, to hear arguments for and against the plans the circuit company had to provide new land to offset the loss of the common land on which the track will be built. Environmental groups claimed that much of the new land was open woodland which already has protection and is not a good 'like for like' substitute for the open moorland.
Following a report by the planning inspector to the Welsh government, final approval to deregister the common land was given in November 2015. It was subsequently reported that construction could begin in 2016. Insurance company Aviva was said to be prepared to back the project, assuming the Welsh Government's financial underwriting of the deal. The on-off nature of the circuit's progress had attracted plenty of detractors, however, with much scepticism that the plans would ever come to fruition.
Perhaps the biggest hammer blow for the project came in April 2016 when the Welsh Government said it would not underwrite the project following legal advice. Economy Minister Edwina Hart said there was a "significant question around the viability of the project" and an "unacceptable risk" to the government underwriting the entire project. Instead, the government said it would invest in an automotive business park, with sportscar manufacturer TVR set to be among the new tenants.
The Heads of the Valleys Development Company said that discussions would continue with investors and local authorities but in reality, the game was up. In May 2018, the company entered a Company Voluntary Arrangement (CVA) with its creditors to avoid liquidation, with debts of around £24 million reported. Among those losing out was the the Welsh Government, which had invested £9 million in the scheme prior to its collapse.
In September 2018 the local council applied for the lapsed planning permission to be renewed so that "any future development opportunities, should they arise, can be explored fully'. This was more in hope than anticipation and none have been forthcoming.
Finally, in 2020, the Welsh Government agreed to write off money worth £14.9 million which was owed by the developers, marking a final footnote in what became a very sorry saga.
This is an undeveloped circuit proposal.
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The Circuit of Wales was to be built at Rassau, near Ebbw Vale in South Wales.
The site is was to be on an area of land to the rear of an industrial estate but today there is nothing of any significance to denote the circuit was ever due to be built there.