Address: Heads Of The Valleys Development Company Limited, 1 Finsbury Circus, London, England, EC2M 7SH
Circuit type: Permanent road course
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 has endured planning and financial setbacks, leaving some to doubt whether it would ever become a reality.
The scheme would see 830 acres of land at Rassau, near Ebbw Vale in South Wales, transformed into an international standard circuit, capable of hosting top-level motorcycle racing and everything on four wheels all except Formula One. In addition, the Heads of the Valleys Development Company says that the circuit will be worth £45 million annually to the Welsh economy, 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 are certainly ambitious figures and have 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, have questioned the visitor and employment figures, while the proposed location – on common land – has drawn 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 still left the Heads of the Valley Development Company seeking the funding to complete the project. While the majority of funding is 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. 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 not 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 films. A new deal was subsequently struck with Silverstone for two years, while the Circuit of Wales was constructed. The irony of the situation was not lost on Silverstone's bosses...
One further obstacle that the circuit will have to overcome before getting its full planning permission is 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 has to provide new land to offset the loss of the common land on which the track will be built. Environmental groups say that much of this new land is open woodland which already has protection and is not a good 'like for like' substitute for the open moorland. Planning inspector Emyr Jones will make a recommendation to the Welsh First Minister, who in turn is then expected to make a final decision over the project within a month.
Should the scheme get the go-ahead, construction could start in the summer of 2015, meaning the circuit would still be on schedule to host its first British Grand Prix in 2017.
The Circuit of Wales will be built at Rassau, near Ebbw Vale in South Wales. Currently, the site is common land to the rear of an industrial estate and there is nothing of any significance to denote the circuit.