Just outside the Brecon Beacons National Park in South Wales (pictured), on common land high above Ebbw Vale, developers want to build a 3.5 mile motor racing complex. Photo: Ross Merritt via Flickr.
The upland commons of South Wales are no place for a motor sports complex
14th June 2014
Developers are determined to build a massive motor sports complex on common land above the South Wales valleys, on the edge of the Brecon Beacons National Park, writes Kate Ashbrook. But although they have planning permission, they can still be defeated ...
Having received their planning permission the applicants were claiming that they had surmounted the last hurdle. But the Open Spaces Society warned that they still had some way to go.
A huge 260 hectare spread of common land on an open hilltop above Ebbw Vale in South Wales is under threat.
The Heads of the Valleys Development Company has a plan - now very advanced - to use the land for its 'Circuit of Wales' motor sports arena.
The company has been confident that its plans to build a multiplex of race tracks and buildings will succeed, originally expecting all to be done and dusted ready for the MotoGP event in September 2015.
And it's not afraid to pay the 'scenery versus employment' card in this deprived part of Wales, promising that the £2 million-plus project will create 6,000 jobs - though it remains to be seen if this claim stands up to scrutiny.
But its hopes must now be fading - for it hadn't bargained on the complications of destroying registered common land, nor the scale of opposition that its plans would arouse.
Commons are special
The open hilltops above the heavily-populated Welsh valleys are the recreation spaces for local people, and much of the land is common.
This is land where those living in local properties enjoy 'commoners rights' to graze sheep, ponies or cattle, dig peat or collect wood, for instance.
And more importantly for the general public, everyone has the right to walk freely on all commons, with no need to keep to set footpaths. On many, the public are also allowed to ride.
Commons have their own laws to protect them. They are special, having existed since at least medieval times, when they were vital to the survival of most rural communities. Those that remain today are a survival from the pernicious inclosure movement of the 18th and 19th centuries.
Only a vestige of our former wealth of commons survives - which makes them all the more precious. They have largely remained untouched through history and so are havens for wildlife and archaeology, as well as providing vital lungs for public enjoyment.
These South Wales commons have always served their local populations as well as the farmers.
Planning permission granted
Last summer the motor development won outline planning permission from Blaenau Gwent Council, and the Welsh government refused to call the matter in despite its enormous size.
There were many objectors, among them the Open Spaces Society, Gwent Wildlife Trust, Friends of the Earth Cymru and Brecon Beacons Park Society. The Brecon Beacons National Park Authority also expressed concern because the development is so close to the Park boundary, and is advising on mitigation.
However the Welsh government's official adviser on conservation and recreation, Natural Resources Wales, played an uncertain role in all this, being conspicuous by its low profile.
Its more narrowly-focused predecessor, the Countryside Council for Wales, objected. But once it morphed into NRW in April 2013 that objection was withdrawn - giving the Council a green light to approve the project.
So it's all over? Not yet it isn't!
Second, when a development would take a significant area of common land, the legal process under Section 16 of the Commons Act 2006 requires the developer to offer new land in exchange. Again, this must be approved by the minister.
The replacement land must be as good, if not better, for the various interests affected - the owner, graziers and public, as well as nature conservation and archaeology, to name a few.
Will they be able to do it?
This means the company needs to find about 260 hectares of land in the same area, which does not already have public access, and which is of at least the same quality as that to be lost, taking account of all the interests.
And it's far from obvious how it can do it. One solution may be to identify a number of smaller pieces of land in the area - but that will just add to the developer's problems.
Legal precedent dictates that when a developer is destroying a coherent block of common land, the exchange land, if in smaller compartments, must total a greater area than that to be lost. It is hard to see where such land will be found in the locality.
Heads of the Valleys is imminently expected to produce its proposals for exchange land - and it must surely know that any attempt to fudge the issue, or produce land that does not come up to the required standard, will be vigorously resisted - and if needs be, challenged in the courts.
Meanwhile, opposition is growing
Opposition to the motor sports plan is growing, not only in Wales but across the UK and internationally.
Recently a petition was mounted by Kristi Arnold from the United States, calling for a the scheme to be dropped, and it has already collected over 50,000 supporters.
It is evident that this battle still has a long way to go.
Kate Ashbrook has been general secretary of the Open Spaces Society, Britain's oldest national conservation body, for 30 years. She is president of the Ramblers Association, a trustee of the Campaign for National Parks and patron of the Walkers Are Welcome Towns Network.
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