“I think the decision is daft and harmful to the city,” says Liberal Democrat councillor Mark Wright. In September this year Bristol Mayor, Marvin Rees, decided to abandon existing proposals for a new 12,000 capacity arena next to Temple Meads Railway station.
Instead, Mayor Rees announced a mixed-use development for the site in conjunction with Legal & General, including a conference centre, housing, offices and shops.
Mayor Rees said “an alternative development for Temple Island is at the heart of [my] vision” for Bristol. “It is the council’s duty to seek the best possible value for public money and the greatest economic benefit for Bristol.”
This decision paves the way for Brabazon Hangar on Filton Airfield, North Bristol, to be developed as an alternative arena by YTL investment company, after announcing plans in January 2018. This arena would accommodate 16,000 spectators, additional bars, restaurants and ample car parking, but has divided the council.
Mayor Rees said an alternative “mixed-use scheme on Temple Island would bring an extra £500 million in economic benefit to our city and create three times the number of jobs”.
However, opposition voices say this is a red herring. “The simple GDP return on any urban site will be higher as flats and offices, than as an arena,” says Cllr. Wright. “Using that logic, we should demolish the Bristol Hippodrome and Colston Hall and build flats and offices because they have higher simple GDP return!”
Sandy Hore-Ruthven, the Green Party candidate for Mayor in 2020, says development should be seen as “more than just money”. He has promised to revive the Temple Meads plans if elected.
“An arena would grow the cultural offer of the city, benefit [businesses] across the city centre and put Bristol on the regional map. It is a visionary development that will have a far broader impact than just money.”
Bristol is currently the largest city in the UK without such a venue. Its proposed arena is a saga with a long history.
Initial plans were announced in 2003, intending to open in 2008. After increasing delays and costs, the council bought the Temple Meads site in 2012, spending over £9 million preparing it for construction.
A review of these city centre plans by auditors KPMG in June 2018 showed costs had spiralled to a staggering £188.6 million, after Mayor Rees paused the 16-year-old project in November 2017.
However, this ‘value for money’ report received heavy criticism. Council officers and KPMG met with YTL and visited Brabazon Hangar, but refused contact with the contractor Buckingham Group and operator Arena Island Ltd of the original site.
“Reports like that are designed to deliver the answer the person paying for them wants,” said Cllr. Wright, “otherwise no one would pay.”
Additionally, the economic impact calculations for the mixed-use development were based on projected development use, and employment figures not independently verified. Buckingham Group and Arena Island Ltd contested the reported costs for a city centre arena.
Labour’s Deputy Mayor for Finance Craig Cheney claims the mixed-use development has no risk to city council finances, and won’t involve borrowing £150 million.
Yet “the council borrows big sums all the time to deliver its projects,” said Cllr. Wright. If there is “a good revenue stream to cover the loan […] it’s no different to taking out a mortgage – at the end you own a big venue worth lots of money.”
“Bristol City Council’s borrowing is relatively low,” said Hore-Ruthven. “It can therefore afford to invest in the city. Forward looking Councils […] are investing in projects like this because they are an investment in the future of a city.”
Mayor Rees said: “By not borrowing the huge sums needed to build the arena we will […] release capital for other exciting city projects.”
Indeed, his decision came just days before plans for another £100 million purpose-built indoor sports and convention centre next to Ashton Gate were announced. This new 4,000-capacity venue will also host entertainment events, and form the largest indoor venue in the city when built.
Cllr. Cheney claims the support of the Chambers of Commerce, Business West, the unions, the voluntary sector and the leader of the Labour Party for the mixed-use development. Yet Hore-Ruthven says really these institutions supported “housing and job creation […] new office space and a convention centre – they did not support the scrapping of the arena plans”.
Hore-Ruthven argues the mixed-use development could be built elsewhere in Bristol’s centre, bringing the same benefits alongside those of an arena. “The Mayor presented the decision as a choice between one or the other but in fact it is perfectly possible to have [both].”
Despite the Mayor’s unpopular decision, no steps are being taken to overturn it. There isn’t “the financial resource or expertise” within political parties, said Cllr. Wright.
With the city centre plans scrapped, many councillors fear the arena will not happen at all.
“We are genuinely now of the opinion that Bristol’s arena plan […] is dead”, said Conservative councillor Tony Carey.
The sequential planning test may prove the biggest stumbling block to an alternative location, which specifies no other site must be available within the city before permission is granted for options out of town. Thus, Arena Island will need to be developed before permission is given for an arena at Brabazon Hangar.
“The Filton arena would, at best, take 7 [more] years,” said Sandy Hore-Ruthven.
However, Mayor Marvin said “I remain committed to delivering an arena for Bristol and we will continue to work [to] make this a reality.”
Yet when taken all together, it is hard not to question whether the Bristol arena will actually go ahead.
Labour councillors did not respond when contacted for comment.