I do think Bristol needs an arena. We are the only core city without one, and an arena would attract globally recognised artists to Bristol, creating jobs and boosting the city’s economy. But it cannot be at any cost.
For a major project like this, there needs to be every assurance that the significant amount of funding required is being put to best use. A recent assessment of the Temple Island Arena project revealed that the total predicted cost would be at least £30 million over its already-approved budget, and would force the Council to borrow £150 million against council taxpayers’ money.
Local authorities have experienced massive cuts to their budgets under this Government’s (and the previous Coalition’s) austerity agenda, with Bristol City Council having lost over 40% of its Government funding since 2010 and still having to find greater savings in its day to day budget of over £100 million. This has had a great effect on what services the Council is able to provide, and it has been forced to reduce expenditure on public toilets, parks, and other services just in order to stay afloat whilst fulfilling its legal obligations. Northamptonshire County Council faced similar pressures and was recently forced to issue a Section 114 notice and declare bankruptcy, and this should serve as a warning as to what the result can be of misspending council money.
I do agree that a city-centre idea location would be ideal for an arena, and Marvin Rees himself has acknowledged this. However the geography of Temple Island makes it particularly hard to construct an arena there at a suitable capacity, with relevant transport mitigations included. Due to it being surrounded by water on three sides, construction would be more expensive than an alternative location, meaning it was forecast to be one of the most expensive arenas in the world for its size. Other concerns are that the small amount of land which could be built on meant that the arena’s capacity would be limited to 12,000, which is a cause for concern considering that other arenas are significantly larger, and Cardiff is proposing the development of a new arena with a capacity of 15,000. There also would not be space for on-site parking. Regardless of public transport links there are many people who will drive to a show, and a busy event would bring thousands of cars to the city centre which would cause parking chaos and potential gridlock. There already is regular congestion and long queues of traffic on the A4, particularly during peak times, and an arena on Temple Island would, I believe, add significantly to the queues and delays.
It is a genuine possibility that we could end up with an arena which isn’t large enough to attract the biggest artists and visitors, and which does not create the economic benefit we had hoped for. This would then leave the Council in significant debt and could mean further cuts to services. I appreciate that people in Bristol have been waiting a very long time to see the arena built, and I can understand their impatience. However, it is crucial that any decision to embark on a project like this is the right one, and we can’t rush through a project which has serious shortcomings.
I think it is a shame that the previous Mayor designated Temple Island as the location for the arena so early on, which has meant there hasn’t been much consideration of other locations which might be more suitable. For instance only recently was the idea raised to have an arena on the existing Bristol Fruit Market in St Phillips, which is closer to a rail link than Temple Island and doesn’t have the same size constraints.
Marvin Rees has also been in discussion with the construction company YTL about proposals to build a major arena in the Brabazon hangar in Filton Airfield. This project could be privately financed, this saving the Council a huge sum of money. The final arena would be larger than one at Temple Island, and could include suitable parking facilities. A new railway station in Filton is to be constructed anyway, so it would be possible to have a rail link which you could get to from Temple Meads very quickly. However I fully appreciate that having a major arena outside of the city centre would be a loss, so appropriate alternative central locations should also be considered, even if it is difficult to find such locations which haven’t already been developed.
I can understand the reasoning behind the Cabinet’s decision to approve alternative development on Temple Island. We know that Temple Island is not a good location to have a major arena for the reasons set out above. A recent report also showed that alternative development of housing, retail outlets, a hotel and a conference centre would bring more economic benefit to Bristol and create more jobs than an arena. By allowing development, the Council is ensuring that the site will be providing the homes and jobs that Bristolians need. The preparatory works on Temple Island which the Council has already happened were necessary for any development, so these efforts have not been wasted.
I think the administration we have here is doing a good job in providing for the people of Bristol. The first thing Marvin did on taking office was to put the Council’s finances in order, after the mismanagement of the previous Mayor: an essential, but difficult task. Over £200m over the next five years will be spent on providing affordable and council rented homes, increasing the number of new affordable homes built each year from fewer than 200 to 800, and the Council is setting up a Council owned housing company. Despite having its budget slashed significantly, I was pleased that the administration was able to guarantee that all of Bristol’s libraries could remain open with the Council’s support, unlike many other cities.
I will remain in close communication with Councillors and the Mayor about issues in Bristol and future proposals for an arena.