Questions over race track

It was hardly a ringing endorsement of the Minister for Natural Resources and Food, Alun Davies, from Carwyn Jones during First Minister's Questions.

He was asked repeatedly about whether Alun Davies had broken the ministerial code in his dealings with the body he oversees, Natural Resources Wales (NRW), over the proposal for a motor racing track in his Blaenau Gwent constituency.

The first minister was quick to point out that the first he heard of the controversial email exchange between the minister and Natural Resources Wales was last week.

He then bought himself some time by dispatching his most senior civil servant Derek Jones to look into the matter. He'll report back in a fortnight.

The question is whether there was a conflict of interest in Alun Davies's desire for the circuit to go ahead in the area he represents and his role as a government minister potentially able to influence the planning process.

Critical role

Carwyn Jones's main defence during First Minister's Questions was that Alun Davies was not the main decision-making minister and as a result he had the right as an AM to represent those in his constituency.

The problem with that defence is that while NRW didn't have the final say, it still played a critical role in the planning process when it made the recommendation last year to the Welsh government not to call in the proposal.

If that had happened it would have set the project back by up to a year.

NRW initially objected to the circuit on environmental grounds. In August last year that view changed.

In June last year, Alun Davies wrote to NRW saying: "I am very disappointed with the approach that NRW has taken in this matter. I felt that NRW would be taking an entirely different approach to planning matters and would be seeking to adopt a positive approach, working with applicants to deliver developments that will enhance the sustainability of communities across Wales.

"I am very anxious that this development goes ahead and does so in a way that enhances the community of Blaenau Gwent in the widest sense."

Shaky

NRW insists that nothing changed from its perspective, saying it always had concerns but what changed was the information it received from the developers.

It also insists that any communication it had with the minister was routine.

The opposition parties have all weighed in. The Tories claim the central defence about him not being the main decision maker is shaky, Plaid say there are questions over why he chose to approach NRW and not the main planning authority and the Lib Dems have renewed their calls for the ministerial code to be strengthened.

Alun Davies is not doing any interviews until the inquiry has been completed.

Another defence is that he, like the Welsh government, has made no secret of its support for this project so in that sense the email exchange does not reveal anything new.

Huge desire

The context of this of course is the Circuit of Wales itself, a hugely ambitious scheme for the Heads of the Valleys.

I was at Blaenau Gwent council when planning permission was first granted in an area of hundreds of acres of moorland on the edge of the Brecon Beacons near Ebbw Vale.

In such an economically deprived area there is a huge desire locally for the project to go ahead.

No work has started yet. There are all sorts of financial reasons why it may not go-ahead but the politicians will be keen to ensure that if the Circuit of Wales does not happen it will not be because of stumbling blocks that they put in the way.