We have joined the Brecon Beacons Park Society and Gwent Wildlife Trust in condemning the Heads of the Valleys Development Company’s proposed land swap to enable it to build the Circuit of Wales motorsports development. We are among those who have sent strong objections to the Planning Inspectorate (PINS).
Because the development would take more than 248 hectares (one square mile) of common land,(4) the developers must provide suitable land in exchange. They must then obtain the consent of Welsh ministers, via PINS, for that land to be registered as a common. The exchange land would carry the same rights as the existing common.
In deciding the application (under section 16 of the Commons Act 2006), PINS must have regard, among other factors, to the interests of local people, the public, nature and landscape conservation.
The public has legal rights to walk and ride over the whole of the existing common, known as Trefil Las and Twyn Bryn-March Common at Rassau, Blaenau Gwent.
The developers have offered seven sites in exchange. Six are owned by Blaenau Gwent Council.* One, which is more than one third of the total exchange land, is leased by the Welsh Government—part of Wentwood Forest in Monmouthshire, which is more than 30 miles from the site.
The objectors have argued, among other things, that:
1 The exchange land is already subject to public access, so the public would gain little from its registration as common land.
2 The exchange land is some distance from the land to be taken, so that those who currently enjoy the common on foot and horseback will lose an important amenity and will not benefit from the new common land.
3 The Welsh Government, which is leaseholder of part of the exchange land, is the decision maker on the issue. It therefore cannot demonstrate independence and has a clear conflict of interest.
Lindi Rich, conservation officer of the Gwent Wildlife Trust, says: ‘The proposals are grossly unfair. Most of the exchange sites are already open to the public. Wentwood Forest is heavily used by walkers and riders. Many sites are Local Nature Reserves. Garden City Woodlands have a covenant requiring them to be used as open space for recreation; a large part of Greenmeadow Farm is already mapped for public access; there are surfaced paths and welcome notices. The public would gain little if anything from this exercise.’
Jim Wilson, chairman of the Brecon Beacons Park Society, comments: ‘The site borders the Brecon Beacons National Park, being part of a continuous stretch of moorland which extends into the park. The development would be easily visible from within the National Park. By the same token, walkers and riders on the common can enjoy the dramatic views of the Beacons, which they cannot see from the exchange land. The public will lose out from this proposed exchange.
‘We are also concerned that Welsh Ministers have agreed to vary their leasehold interests in Wentwood Forest in order that the land can be designated as common, when these same Welsh Ministers are to take the decision on the exchange as a whole. We question whether this is acceptable or accountable.
Kate Ashbrook, general secretary of the Open Spaces Society adds: ‘It is evident that the exchange land is already much used by walkers. However, horse-riders would also acquire rights over the whole area and clearly this has not been considered. The report to Blaenau Gwent members, recommending that they offer council land, failed to mention that riders would gain rights over every part of the land. Much of it is unsuitable for riding. The committee members might have come to a different conclusion if they had been given the whole story.’
Other objectors include the Brecon Beacons National Park Authority and the British Horse Society.
PINS will now determine the application and make a recommendation to Welsh Ministers, possibly after holding a public inquiry. The Circuit of Wales cannot proceed unless the common-land issue is resolved.
* The six sites offered by Blaenau Gwent Council are: Bryn Farm, Garden City woodlands, Waun-y-Pound, Greenmeadow Farm, Sirhowy Woodlands and Crown Avenue.