Cock-up of Wales

2 March 2015

Two years ago the society objected to the planning application for the Circuit of Wales motor-sports development on common land, just north of Ebbw Vale in south Wales.  At that time the developer, the Heads of the Valleys Development Company, stated optimistically and inaccurately on its website that ‘planning permission is the final hurdle’.

Although the development now has planning permission it has not yet gone ahead—because it would take common land.  There are many who claim that the objectors are holding up a development which will bring jobs and prosperity to the area.  Their ire should be directed at the developers who opted to site the motor circuit on a common.  For the applicant has had to find land to offer in exchange for the 245 hectares (nearly one square mile) of open moorland which would be submerged under concrete, and to make an application to Welsh ministers for the exchange, under section 16 of the Commons Act 2006.  The public inquiry into the application opens on 10 March.

 

The application site

The application site, before

 

and after

and after

 

 

 

 

 

 

It seems a bizarre idea to plonk this development on a windy moor, and even more bizarre to use common land with all its constraints.  But apparently the developers knew little about commons and the laws which protect them when they started out, otherwise they would not have claimed two years ago to be nearly there.

The land to be taken, a great stretch of moorland reaching up to the Brecon Beacons National Park border, is in the former urban district of Ebbw Vale, and thus it is subject to section 193 of the Law of Property Act 1925.  Walkers and riders have rights to enjoy every square inch of this common and it is an exhilarating place, with wide views towards the beacons and south to the valleys.

Struggled
It is clear that the developers have struggled to find exchange land.  They have persuaded Blaenau Gwent County Borough Council (BGCBC) to offer up six sites for registration as common.  The remainder, more than one third, is to come from Wentwood Forest, 30 miles away in Monmouthshire, which is leased by the Welsh Government to Natural Resources Wales. Of course the Welsh Government is the decision-maker in this case so there is the question of conflict of interest.  Since the minister must consider the interests of the neighbourhood, this site must fail on its distance from the neighbourhood which enjoys the existing common.

None of the parties appears to have considered its obligations towards horse-riders.  A report went to the BGCBC executive on 16 April 2014, by Andrea Jones, the council’s head of legal and corporate compliance, recommending the council to offer sites in its ownership as replacement land.  In this report she stated that the replacement land would become ‘subject to an automatic right of open access to the public in accordance with the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, unless the land was within 20 metres of residential properties’.  That is wrong on two counts—the land would become subject to section 193 of the Law of Property Act 1925 (not the CROW Act) with rights for riders, and on s193 land there is no restriction for land within 20 metres of residential properties.  Might councillors have taken a different decision if they had been correctly advised?

 

Greenmeadow, seen from the opposite hillside. Much of it is already mapped as access land

Greenmeadow, seen from the opposite hillside. Much of it is already mapped as access land

In any case the six sites are not suitable as exchange land. They are some distance from the replacement land and serve a completely different purpose. They are small and scattered. They are already subject to public access on foot, indeed some of them have been gifted (Garden City woodlands, Ebbw Vale) or publicly-funded for that purpose (Sirhowy woodland, Ebbw Vale).  Byrn Farm at Brynmawr is close to a residential area and, in common with the other sites, is already enjoyed for recreation.

 

Byrn Farm, already heavily used by walkers and for informal recreation

Byrn Farm, already used by walkers and cyclists and games

Bryn Farm and Greenmeadow Farm (at Abertillery) are already partly mapped as access land under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000.

 

Bryn Farm, already access land.

Bryn Farm, already mapped as access land.

Greenmeadow Farm, already mapped as access land

Greenmeadow Farm, already mapped as access land

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The sites are in the main not suitable for horse-riders.

 

Garden City exchange land, too steep for riders

Garden City exchange land, too steep for riders

And, as walkers and riders have access to the whole of the land to be taken, they will have rights over the whole of the replacement land.  This may be provided in law, but in practice it won’t happen as many of the sites are densely wooded and criss-crossed by fences.

 

Fencing at Waun y Pound proposed exchange land

Fencing at Waun y Pound, Ebbw Vale, on the proposed exchange land

We have seen the draft management plans for the sites, and there is no reference to clear-felling the woodland or removing the encroachments such as fencing. Indeed, the opposite, there is mention of erecting stock-proof fencing to introduce grazing, and the applicants even expect to do this later this year!  Once again they seem to have forgotten the constraints of common land and the requirement to obtain ministerial consent for any works there.

 

Dense woodland makes much of the Crown Avenue site inaccessible on foot or horseback

Dense woodland makes much of the Crown Avenue site inaccessible on foot or horseback

Dense woodland at Waun y Pound

Dense woodland at Waun y Pound

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As for Wentwood Forest, this is already accessible since it is part of the forest estate, and the British Horse Society has a concordat with the Forestry Commission Wales (now part of Natural Resources Wales) to provide access for riders.  And once again, there is no plan to clear-fell the forest so the access would only be along rides and not freely available as it is on the land to be taken.

Objectors
Our general secretary will raise these and many other points at the public inquiry later this month, and will call Mark Weston, director of access at the British Horse Society, as a witness.  Other objectors include the Brecon Beacons Park Society and Gwent Wildlife Trust. Natural Resources Wales, the Welsh Government’s adviser, has put in excellent submissions.  Its access statement includes a detailed analysis, ending with ‘it is difficult to conclude that the replacement land is of equal value’.

We hope that the Heads of the Valleys Development Company is regretting that it decided to meddle with common land. Its handling of the matter has been sloppy and disingenuous.  The delays are of its own making.