Bristol’s three opposition parties have joined forces to challenge the cabinet decision to forge a strategic partnership with a multinational company set to develop Temple Island.
Asset management firm Legal & General (L&G) first revealed plans for the land in August 2018, just two weeks before mayor Marvin Rees officially pulled the plug on a long-held vision to build an arena on the city centre site.
Fast forward to earlier this month and Bristol City Council’s cabinet agreed to enter into a strategic partnership with the company that would grant L&G exclusive rights to develop the land and see £500,000 public money committed to progressing the proposals.
Speaking at the cabinet meeting on July 2, deputy mayor Craig Cheney said the mixed-use development is the most sustainable option for the site and will bring homes and families to the city centre. L&G has already invested some £240m in the regeneration of Temple Quarter.
But Cheney admitted that the council has little power to hold L&G to its pledge of providing 40 per cent affordable housing at Temple Island – leading opposition councillors to question why the mayor is “rolling out the red carpet” for the firm, which has a track record on going back on such promises.
The city’s Green, Conservative and Lib Dem councillors have now united and have called-in the decision, meaning it must go back to a committee on July 23.
The Labour administration has hit back, accusing those involved of “trying to gridlock the council with obscure processes and turn back the clock to a Bristol which gets nothing done”.
Giving her reasons for supporting the call-in, Green group leader Eleanor Combley said: “The city has already invested millions of pounds in our land at Arena Island.
“Now the mayor is proposing to spend even more to upgrade it, and then hand the whole lot over to a multi-billion-pound financial services company.
“Then, as if this deal wasn’t sweet enough, the council will pay L&G half a million to fund planning and design work for the land and promise to cover the rent on office space for 40 years (even if tenants can’t be found).
“In short, the council will shoulder the risk in order to provide the private company with a guaranteed profit.”
It is not the first time this plot has been the subject of a call-in challenge. Tory and Lib Dem councillors took the rare step in September 2018 over the decision to scrap plans for a city centre arena. On that occasion, it was dismissed.
The procedure is a scrutiny mechanism to delay the decision-making process by reviewing whether a decision should go back to cabinet or full council, or stand. In order to successfully call-in a decision, a number of criteria must be met.
Anthony Negus, a Lib Dem councillor for Cotham, said: “This long-term and expensive bail-out is a stab in the back for Bristol taxpayers, who did not accept the mayor’s doctrinaire decision to close down the option for an arena in Bristol, citing social and financial reasons.
“Instead it’s now clear that vital funds will be taken to try to kick-start this site by underwriting a commercial developer”.
Conservative group leader Mark Weston added: “We did not decide to join the cross party call-in lightly, but did so because members have a responsibility to Bristol taxpayers.
“The mayor’s decision appears to have been taken without scrutiny or market testing. This is quite extraordinary.
“Consequently, before he should be allowed to proceed with striking up this strategic partnership, opposition councillors must be absolutely sure that this is the best deal for the development of this important site.
“Closer examination of the Mayor’s reasoning should also provide us with some answers and shed light on the opaque and rather mysterious process which has been followed in this matter.”
Responding to the call, a spokesperson for the Labour group said: “Some individuals are trying to gridlock the council with obscure processes and turn back the clock to a Bristol which gets nothing done.
“There’s nothing we can do to stop the opposition parties engaging in such outdated politics which sees them chase headlines, stall new jobs for Bristolians and delay much-needed new affordable housing.
“But what we can control, is our approach. Labour remains focused on delivery, getting stuff done for Bristol: winning new investment and jobs for Bristolians, pushing forward to become the UK’s first Living Wage City, taking unprecedented steps to tackle the housing crisis.”
The call-in will now go to a committee meeting in City Hall at 2pm on Tuesday, July 23. After this meeting the decision could be sent back to the administration to reconsider, dismissed or referred to a debate at a full council meeting.