Supporters hope to get Circuit of Wales back on track

The future of a proposed race track is hanging in the balance after the Welsh Government decided not to provide the 100% underwriting wanted by private investors, causing concern to both environmentalists and sections of the motor racing industry. 

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Supporters of the motor racing circuit earmarked for South Wales seem assured that the development will go ahead despite the failure to obtain the 100% Government financial guarantee they hoped for. A revised funding offer to Carwyn Jones’ Labour-led administration reduces the safety net requested because EU state aid rules limit public sector guarantee to approximately 80%. The firm behind the project is looking for further underwriting from local councils that would benefit from the investment.

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Shaun Meadows, Business Development Director of the Heads of the Valleys Development Company, told BBC Countryfile Magazine the company is “confident of being able to secure further resources being underwritten” by local authorities in Blaenau Gwent and Monmouthshire. The timing of the recent election is thought to have slowed progress down slightly, but as the project has been discussed “with all Assembly Members, Councils and communities for some time… the limited impact which could occur would be limited to the time [until] Ministers get their feet under the table”.

Given the company’s “continuous engagement with both Carwyn Jones and [new Economy Secretary] Ken Skates”, Meadows does not expect much of a delay.

On the environmental impact of the circuit, he said “We have major obligations set out under the planning approval for the site to meet and improve on the socio and ecological elements of the site. We have set up a number of groups to ensure that all the work we undertake… is carried out in conjunction with those with interest”.

But the Open Spaces Society has previously called plans to set up an ecological trust to fund environmental work around the circuit “irrelevant” given that the sites offered in exchange for the square mile of common land to be used are “grossly inferior”. The conservation body says a large proportion of the proposed exchange land is already open to walkers: “The proposal for an environmental trust does nothing to improve this situation. If the Circuit of Wales had not opted to use common land in the first place, the development could have been completed by now. It just goes to show that you meddle with commons at your peril.”

In addition to race days, the track could be used for testing by Formula One teams and certain car manufacturers. Developers have also expressed an interest in creating what would be one of the biggest campsites in Britain.

Supporters of the circuit claim it would generate £50m for the Welsh economy each year and create, directly or indirectly, as many as 6,000 jobs. Blaenau Gwent MP Nick Smith says it would be “a real turning point in Blaenau Gwent’s history”.

Among others, Lord Kinnock and Lewis Hamilton have also given the circuit their backing.

But in April, Christopher Tate, Donington Park’s Managing Director, and a Director of the Association of Motor Racing Circuit Owners, said there has been “an eyebrow raised” among fellow circuit owners about the Circuit of Wales’ apparent reliance on government underwriting: “‘Wouldn’t be nice if all our private investors got underwritten by our Government?”

Tate also expressed scepticism about the “much-vaunted 6,000 jobs” and questioned the proposed location of the track, which would be well outside “Motorsport Valley”, which is broadly in the Midlands, where most other British circuits are based. He stressed that he would have the same reservations about a circuit in Aberdeenshire, Cornwall or Norfolk.

The company behind the project has pledged to use steel made in Wales.

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The debate goes on, but developers still hope to build the circuit by as early as September 2018.