FEBRUARY 10, 2009

Croft and the British Grand Prix

Yorkshire's Croft racing circuit has been ordered to pay $1.2m after being found guilty of noise pollution. The ruling could result in the closure of the facility and could have knock-on effects on other racing circuits in Britain.

Croft Aerodrome has hosted races since the 1920s and, after serving as a bomber base during World War II, was used intermittently for racing between 1949 and 1957. In July 1962 Robert Ropner, the owner of the aerodrome, applied for a change of use to allow racing and permission was granted in August 1963 for no more than 20 racing days a year until 1979. Between 1982 and 1994 there was no racing at Croft apart from some rallycross. In 1989 the claimants' residences were developed from derelict buildings. Then in 1994 Croft Classic and Historic Motorsport Ltd was established to redevelop the circuit. Permission was granted for the track to host 37 race days, 24 exclusive test days and 120 days when the track would be used for other purposes. There was a public inquiry in 1996 and eventually it was agreed that the circuit could host activities on 230 days of the year, with different levels of noise being allowed. Major upgrading work was done in 1997 and since then the circuit has attracted both the British Touring Car Championship and British Superbikes.

The claimants continued to fight the circuit and Mr Justice Simon ruled in April last year that they has been "deeply affected by the noise from the circuit for a number of years". The circuit argued that the noise of racing has occurred for 40 years but the judge did not accept the argument that the character of the neighbourhood had been changed and argued that between 1949 and 1994 it was "essentially rural". The judge accepted that valuations of the claimants' properties were around half what they would be if the circuit was not there. The judge also noted that the matter was complicated by the fact that one of the complainants was the ex-wife of the man developing the circuit and the other two were his ex-parents-in-law. He nonetheless ruled that the track authorities must pay $205,000 to the claimants in compensation for their lives having been disrupted by the noise. The circuit appealed the decision arguing that if the appeal failed there would be a string of cases from other residents who would try to jump on the bandwagon and that might result in the track being puit out of business. The circuit is reckoned to bring in $4.5m a year to the area. The appeal was rejected with the claimants being awarded an injunction limiting the circuit to 40 "noisy activity" days in the year and leaving the circuit with legal costs of $1m.

Croft Promosport, the company that runs the track, called the decision "plainly wrong" and argued that two public inquiries had accepted that the noise levels were acceptable given the benefits that the facility brought to the region. The company was refused permission to make a further appeal to the House of Lords.

The claimants say that they are not trying to have the track closed but simply want less noise. The decision is not likely to be greeted with any joy by the local hotels, pubs, bed and breakfasts and shops which will all suffer if the circuit shuts.

A spokesman for Croft Promosport Ltd, said: "We are extremely disappointed with the Court of Appeal's decision in relation to the recent High Court judgment, which has serious implications for the circuit and the motor racing industry generally."

The key question is whether the Croft decision will have any legal implications for other British racing facilities, particularly Donington Park, where work has begun to upgrade the circuit for Formula 1 in 2010. British Common law is based on precedent and legal decisions affect the law that is applied in future cases. If such a decision were to be applied to Donington Park there could be dangers for the British GP.