Council divided over Bristol’s controversial new arts arena 

“Bristol has got a reputation for being edgy; that doesn’t mean building things on the edge”, says Green Party councillor Charlie Bolton, responding to alternative proposals for Brabazon Hangar to become Bristol’s notorious new arena. 

An artist’s impression of the Arena at Temple Meads. With Permission: Bristol Temple Quarter Enterprise Zone

The council plans to build a world-class entertainment and sports venue, hosting over 100 events each year. Yet the council and even the Labour Mayor Marvin Rees’ own party are divided over the best location for the project. Current proposals are for a site near Temple Meads station where the council has already spent over £9 million clearing the land. The alternative is Brabazon Hangar on Filton Airfield, North Bristol, which private investment company YTL aims to develop 

A March vote revealed 34 out of 70 councillors want to keep the Arena at the original location. 12 votes were against, and 17 councillors abstained. All present Conservative councillors abstained, including councillor Tony Carey, “for the sake of party unity”. He had wanted to vote for Temple Meads.  

By contrast, Labour councillors were not lobbied to vote with the party whip. Revealing disunity within the Mayor’s party, 17 from 35 councillors voted in favour of the original site. All votes against were from Labour. Six councillors abstained including three cabinet members. Helen Holland was the only cabinet member supporting the city centre location. 

Construction at the Temple Meads site has been paused until Mayor Marvin Rees’ decision. Photo: Elizabeth Roberts

Amid reports that the 12,000 capacity venue could escalate £20 million over budget, Mayor Rees paused the 15-year-old project in November 2017. A Value for Money assessment by KPMG was commissioned, and subsequently different proposals welcomed. January 2018 saw the Malaysian investment company announce their plans. 

An artist’s impression of the inside of the Arena at Temple Meads. With Permission: Bristol Temple Quarter Enterprise Zone

As a larger site, Brabazon Hangar could accommodate 4,000 more spectators, additional bars, restaurants and ample car parking. Yet “a site in North Bristol will not benefit the city as well as a site in central Bristol”, says Cllr Carey. Over five miles from Bristol’s centre, a Filton Arena would “pull hospitality businesses and jobs, out of central Bristol”, worries Liberal Democrat councillor Mark Wright, “away from where they are needed most in south and east Bristol.”

Cllr Bolton compares an out-of-town Arena to “widely discredited” out-of-town shopping centres. However, Temple Meads is frequently criticised for its lack of suitable transport infrastructure to accommodate large audiences. 

Bristol’s controversial new Arena. Photo: Elizabeth Roberts

Cllr Wright acknowledges “clearly this is a major issue. However, city centres are the best neighbourhoods . . . to absorb the kind of flows generated by an arena. Any expansion of capacity in Temple Meads will be welcome, and will benefit the rest of the city as well. The lack of a major car park. . . will also make car transport to the arena much less likely.”

“Wherever [the arena] . . . goes we need to make it as sustainable as possible”, stresses Cllr Bolton.  “The city is committed to being carbon neutral by 2050 . . . so you’ve got to build in the added measures to [facilitate this].”  These include selling tickets incorporating discounted public transport, encouraging attendees not to come by car. Cllr Bolton points out the Brabazon Hangar would need “£50 million of road improvements,” which would hamper this carbon commitment.  

The final location was to be announced on May 1. However, this deadline was postponed for the council’s scrutiny committee to examine the Value for Money assessment, though councillors remain sceptical.  

“I know a lot of people who think [Mayor Rees] made the decision some time ago and all we’re doing now is . . . coming up with the justification to move it,” said Cllr Bolton. Cllr Wright doesn’t believe the analysis will be “anything other than short term finances . . . inevitably favour[ing] the out-of-town option”.  

“If the landowners up in Filton come up with quite a big offer . . . I fear that Marvin’s hands will be tied,” said Cllr Carey.  “He won’t be able to ignore . . . that it may cost a lot more at Temple Meads because there is no one to support the development [t]here.” However, Mayor Rees said, “the content of the [Value for Money] report will influence both the decision and the timescale. We have been carrying out extensive evaluation of both potential options so . . . we can make an informed decision.”

The arena has become controversial among Bristolians, who could now wait until the end of May to learn its location. The full council debate followed a petition in favour of Temple Meads started by Dave Wilcox, collating almost 4,000 signatures in under two weeks.

The final decision regarding the Arena’s location is yet to be made. Photo: Elizabeth Roberts

The council’s vote, however, has little actual influence over the final decision, which rests with Marvin Rees as Mayor.  “But it is a steer”, said Cllr Bolton, “to the Mayor, of where councillors think the arena should . . . [be] built”. 

“The comprehensive margin on the vote makes it clear to the Mayor that the Filton site will be resisted firmly if he goes ahead with it,” Cllr Wright said. Ultimately, Mayor Rees will decide if he can ignore such overwhelming support, democratically evidenced, for a Temple Meads Arena.  

 Labour councillors did not respond when contacted for comment.