It’s autumn 2024 and more than 1,000 workers are being put through their final paces ahead of the opening of a large adventure resort in a valley north-east of Port Talbot.
Many of them come from the area, and they are awaiting the arrival of some 3,000 visitors to the new Wildfox Resort Afan Valley project, just to the west of Croeserw.
The land – around 400 acres of it – has been transformed into alpine, extreme sports, tracks and trails, and forest zones, with up to 600 lodges, restaurants, and a car park. A hotel and spa could also be ready for action.
Guests are forking hundreds of pounds for a three-day stay in a studio, and a four-figure sum for a four-bed executive lodge.
The resort will bring in nearly £115 million revenue in its first full year, based on 85% occupancy levels, and the Afan Valley – already very popular with mountain bikers – will be on the path to becoming a top UK tourist destination.
This is the plan of Martin Bellamy, chairman and chief executive of London-based merchant banking firm Salamanca Group, which is taking the project forward via a new entity it is creating.
Last week Neath Port Talbot Council reaffirmed outline planning approval to build the adventure resort following concerns relating to a businessman – with no links to Salamanca Group – involved in the original scheme.
The new developers will have to sign a legal agreement with the council by mid-April next year to mitigate ecological impacts, provide a solar farm, and contribute £180,000 towards the nearby national cycle network route.
Mr Bellamy, talking to the Local Democracy Reporting Service, said: “We envisage signing the 106 agreement within two weeks.”
He also said an agreement was in place with the two current private owners of the land to transfer it when the legal agreement was concluded.
Mr Bellamy said the habitat management and mitigation aspects of the agreement were “critically important” for the project.
As the report before the council’s planning committee said last week, the project will have “significant adverse impacts on biodiversity”. But it added that as long as the agreement was signed, the impact on the region’s economy and tourism sector of delaying the resort outweighed any remaining environmental ones.
Mr Bellamy said he felt his team had the expertise to satisfy the planning requirements, adding that it had been working hard “on the shape” of the legal agreement with the council.
Asked what attracted him to the project, he said: “The size, scale and sheer ambition.”
He added: “We like to feel we specialise in large-scale projects.”
Mr Bellamy said he passionately believed in an adventure resort concept which blended in with the landscape, provided top-class facilities and service, and created a large number of jobs.
He added: “There is an increasing focus on adventure sports, and we feel this is a market which is not particularly well-served.
“Building what we believe is the first proper adventure resort in the UK in such a beautiful part of the country as the Afan Valley is very, very exciting.”
On the challenges of delivering this concept, Mr Bellamy said: “Making sure you get the design right. This has to fit in the natural landscape.”
Getting the quality of offer right, he added, was also a priority.
“We want to create a ‘wow’ factor,” said Mr Bellamy. “We want people to spend a week there and go away saying this is the best holiday we’ve had.”
He said it was also important to engage with the council, communities surrounding the site, local businesses and the Welsh Government.
His team hasn’t had direct conversations yet with Cardiff Bay officials but, citing a Salamanca-backed business park in Somerset, he said large-scale projects needed assistance, which could come in different forms.
Mr Bellamy said he has spent a lot of time at the site by Croeserw and that the landscape reminded him of the Swiss Alps and California.
“The vistas are quite breathtaking,” he said.
Asked if he’d visited Croeserw and nearby Cymmer, he said that he had.
Villages in the Afan Valley have experienced decline over the years, and Mr Bellamy said he would like to think they will benefit significantly from job opportunities at Wildfox Resort.
He anticipated 1,200 jobs being created on site, with potentially a similar number of indirect ones involved in things like catering and maintenance.
“We very much want to make sure that we employ a very large proportion of the workforce locally,” he said.
A special training facility is being considered to bring new recruits up to speed on the service levels required.
Was he concerned about the impact of rising labour and materials’ costs?
“We have looked at the delivery cost in a huge amount of detail, which for a project like this is entirely dependent on the design,” he said.
He was very confident that the circa £250 million budget would deliver the quality product being aimed for and cater for “any reasonable inflationary pressures”.
The outline planning consent also specifies a 100-bed hotel, which Mr Bellamy said would be owner-operated if it did go ahead.
“We are still considering if the hotel element is the right element and the right thing to do,” he said.
A detailed planning application will need to be approved before any work could start, and Mr Bellamy said he anticipated this would be secured by June next year.
This could transform living standards in the area, say councillors
The outline planning approval which was reaffirmed for the Afan Valley adventure resort has been welcomed by councillors in Croeserw and the wider area.
Cllrs Scott Jones, Nicola-Jayne Davies and Jane Jones, who represent Cymmer, Glyncorrwg and Gwnfi respectively, said the £250 million project would provide significant opportunities.
They said: “This is a first real opportunity to reverse the constant decline in the population and the economy of the Upper Afan Valley since the closure of the local coal industry over 50 years ago.
“For too long, the policy for the Upper Afan Valley has been one of managed decline and this project now offers us an opportunity to look to a brighter more prosperous future.”
The trio felt it could transform living standards in the area.
They added: “It will bring change, of course, but any sector which offers as many jobs as this will have a similar beneficial impact, just as the mines did, when they were first built.
“In our view, the potential benefits of this resort project are enormous and well worth the support of the community.”
An in-principle loan to develop the scheme has been approved by UK property specialists Octopus Real Estate. In a letter presented to the council’s planning committee, Octopus Real Estate said it felt Wildfox Resort Afan Valley would “promote both ESG (environmental, social, and corporate governance) and sustainable growth in its area”.
A number of large-scale developments have failed to get off the drawing board in Wales in recent years, so what reassurance can Mr Bellamy give to supporters of the resort that it will see the light of day?
“I am aware that a lot of these big projects can get into difficulty,” he replied.
“It’s usually because the wrong people are involved. They key to delivering is having an experienced team with a strong track record. I believe we have that.
“I can certainly reassure supporters of the resort that past mistakes will not be repeated in any shape or form. We have come to the project with fresh eyes and lot of enthusiasm.”
A key project adviser who was involved in the original scheme, but who was not in any way linked to the financial allegations which subsequently arose, is Peter Moore.
Mr Moore had previously founded the UK branch of leisure resorts company Center Parcs, and he remains a big part of the new-look Afan Valley project as a board member of the new entity taking it forward.
“His experience is extremely valuable,” said Mr Bellamy. “People should applaud his determination to keep going and to keep this candle alight.”
Large-scale projects inevitably lead to questions and often reservations from people living nearby, so what Mr Bellamy’s be if a development of this scale was planned near his home?
“One of the things we want to ensure is that the materials and the fabric and the design are considerate, and also a fusion of the built and natural environment,” he said.
“We are talking about a very beautiful area.”
He said he would also want to be kept updated about such a project, adding: “That’s something we will do”.
He went on: “I would be very interested in ensuring that local people get the opportunity for employment.”
The price point for the Afan Valley scheme will also be a key judgement. The project team has come up with figures based on comparisons with Center Parcs sites.
According to a Wildfox Resorts business plan, the price for a couple staying at a studio for three nights would be £590 – including leisure activities – £238 less than at Center Parcs.
A family of four would pay £815, considerably less than the £1,309 quoted for Center Parcs.
Mr Bellamy said he expected very high occupancy rates.
“We will not judge our delivery of the project a success if we are not fully occupied on a permanent basis,” he said.
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