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The great Welsh boondoggle

According to my stats, the majority of the people who read this blog are in the United States. Even if you lived in Her Majesty’s United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, though, you might find any talk of the proposed Circuit of Wales race track to be a little hyperlocal. But, hey, it’s my blog and this seems like the appropriate forum to express my deep frustration with what I feel is yet another swindle at the expense of the people of the South Wales Valleys.

For those of you playing along elsewhere, the Circuit of Wales is an enormous knot of concrete proposed for an area of Britain that was once described as one of the most beautiful in the Empire.

In the late 1800s, however, much of the area fell victim to the Industrial Revolution and began churning out all kinds of terrible pollutants, along with coal, tin, and iron that was shipped all over the world. The Ebbw Valley, at the top of which would be the proposed CoW, became a major steel-producing area and was soon choked by all the terrible things a factory can produce. It is generally thought that the valley was partial inspiration for JRR Tolkien’s Mordor (“a dying land not yet dead”).

I used to teach Welsh in the town of Ebbw Vale — right next to the proposed CoW site — and got to have numerous conversations with folks who had worked at the Steelworks. In the 1960s and 70s some 14,000 people were directly employed by the steelworks. Things collapsed in the 80s and it was shut down completely in 2002. The area is today one of the poorest in the United Kingdom.
In the two years I spent working in Ebbw Vale I didn’t meet a single person who wished to see the steelworks return. Tales of the place at the height of the steelworks sound like hell. Kids’ soccer matches would have to be instantly cancelled because of sulphur clouds wafting across the pitch, plants refused to grow, the slag heaps glowed demonic red at night, etc.
“I didn’t like losing my job, and I never really did find anything else, but I’d do it a thousand times over to stop what they were doing to this valley,” one of the old workers told me.
But obviously, they are still desperate for something. Unemployment is high and opportunities are minimal; for every one available job there are 27 applicants. Roughly 35 percent of working-age people are without jobs. It’s important to understand the area’s history to understand why its people are apparently so willing to be duped, why they will believe any lie told to them by CoW proponents. Because they have little else to believe in.
For the most part, if you are from the Ebbw Valley and have any sort of intelligence or ambition, what you do when you grow up is leave the Ebbw Valley. There are many noble exceptions, but not so many that it keeps the local government from being populated by easily fooled simpletons — idiots who will sell the Ebbw Valley’s soul and rape its greatest asset (natural beauty) on the empty promise of 6,000 jobs.
That’s the figure that Circuit of Wales proponents throw around: 6,000 jobs. Oooooh!
Really? No, really, though? Does anyone actually believe that?
First of all, let’s take a look at the quality of those jobs. The Circuit of Wales website claims “6,000 new full time jobs in a broad range of sectors including: track stewarding, security, catering, retail, hotels, B&Bs, restaurants etc.” Are you going to be able to buy a house on the pay of a track steward? Is the salary you get from wearing a high-vis jacket and pointing people to the exit going to be enough to raise a family? Are you going to be able to send your kid to university on the money earned from serving tea?
Secondly, all those jobs in “retail, hotels, B&Bs, restaurants etc.” won’t come from Circuit of Wales. They are simply an optimistic assumption of knock-on effect. CoW proponents want you to believe their big concrete mess will turn the Ebbw Valley into a destination, that people from all across the country will suddenly start flocking to the region. These are the same sort of claims that were made for the Festival Park Outlet Shopping Centre a few years ago — a place that is now generally empty and berated by anyone who goes to it.
At the very best, a CoW might bring more business to nearby Abergavenny and Monmouthshire, which is already well-equipped to welcome visitors. The promised 6,000 jobs will not manifest in the Ebbw Valley, though, and those that do will be of poor quality. But even beyond that I can think of five reasons why CoW is a bad idea:
  1. Destruction of natural beauty: One of my favourite things about teaching at Ebbw Vale was looking out my classroom window at the surrounding hills. The valley is recovering remarkably well in the wake of the steelworks and could quite easily become a much-envied place to live and visit, serving as gateway to Brecon Beacons National Park. It is beautiful up there and all you need do to capitalise on that is tidy up a little and leave nature alone.
  2. Weather: Wales is well known for its bad weather. I read a statistic many moons ago that on average it is cloudy in Wales 300 days a year. It is measurably wetter here than elsewhere in Britain, which is the sort of thing I’d think you’d want to avoid when picking a spot to race two-wheeled vehicles. Additionally, the proposed CoW site is in one of the most miserable spots to be in winter. It snows. The wind kicks around terribly. And because of elevation it is markedly colder than just 30 miles away in Cardiff.
  3. Poor road access: In the aforementioned bad weather, roads in the Ebbw Valley are pretty much unusable. Every winter, a handful of my classes would be cancelled because people simply could not get to the centre where I taught. But even in good weather, the only means of getting to the proposed CoW site is via the Heads of the Valleys road (ie, A465), which is just a two-lane thing with multiple roundabouts and curves that help to keep most people to a speed of 40-50 mph, despite a legal limit of 60. Access to this road is via equally small and winding roads. Physically, I live about 30 miles from Ebbw Vale but it took about an hour and a half to get there with no traffic. Any traffic at all, especially coming from multiple directions and converging at the CoW site, would create huge, huge problems.
  4. Poor infrastructure: The nearest train stop to the CoW site is several miles away and takes an hour to travel from Cardiff Central. Bus travel is farcical and infrequent. This is the way of things in Blaenau Gwent. Anyone who thinks the CoW could somehow spur development at infrastructure should read this article. Public transportation is abysmal in Wales and its leaders have effectively admitted that they plan to do nothing.
  5. The state of motorsport in Britain: Even big-name tracks like Mallory, Donnington, Thruxton and Silverstone struggle to pull in crowds. Why on Earth would anyone think that a track located in a cold, wet, faraway and hard-to-reach location could perform better? Especially when motorsports are not all that popular in the UK. After a Google search, it appears the BBC have television rights to Moto GP but I have never seen it. I have never seen it being aired in a pub. I have never had a conversation with someone who was interested in it. Certainly motorcycle racing is more popular here than in the United States, but not by much outside of niche circles.
This whole thing is like the episode of “The Simpsons” when the town gets sold on a monorail. It’s a boondoggle that makes me so angry. The people of the Ebbw Valley deserve so much more. They deserve legitimate investment from legitimate businesses that can actually build something lasting and worthwhile, investment that will respect and enhance the area’s incredible natural beauty, investment that will support and foster the tremendous kindness and goodwill of the region’s people.
The people behind CoW should be ashamed for abusing that goodwill.


NB — This whole tale is also an example of the Labour Party’s utter failing of its constituents. Take a look at the list of Blaenau Gwent councillors and you will see not one Conservative, not one Liberal-Democrat, not one member of Plaid Cymru. Labour owns Blaenau Gwent and they are shitting all over it.