Important decisions should be informed by analysis, conducted by experts. Such information should open our eyes to opportunities and be shared for productive discussion. Instead this is being hidden somewhere inaccessible to be spun into a finished blanket for whatever is to be announced. Although the reason for the mayor’s review of building the arena on the Temple Meads site is all about financial viability, the questions to be answered should be about value in its broadest sense.
This is not just about value-for-money but overall value to the city and its residents. For such a big decision we should know about the value of the regeneration work (including improvements to transport), job and skills creation, cultural and lifestyle offers, visitor increases to the city, direct and indirect revenues including council tax and opportunity cost, as well as understanding the real cost of mitigating impacts such as transport infrastructure, environmental pressures and on our health and wellbeing. Many of these will affect and interact for and against others.
Only some of this is within the scoping document to the consultants that have just been released for scrutiny, and they are bundled very lightly. Councillors have not been told when this study will be complete and when they can review it. At the same time, another similar study has been commissioned (that Councillors have not been allowed to see!) for the Brabazon site at Filton.
This site is just within Bristol’s boundary with South Gloucester, where an alternative scheme is proposed by the Malaysian developers who own the adjacent huge housing site. This has poorer connectivity with public transport but better road access. It is likely to cost less as a development than the Temple Quarter site but will generate less value or overall benefits to Bristol. It could develop into an axis with Cribbs Causeway that in time could challenge Bristol as the heart of the sub-region.
The Mayor may consider this a reasonable price to pay to release the Temple Quarter site for a straight sale or development as a hotel or conference centre. This could deliver his arena promise, albeit devalued, and provide some spare cash. Unless the cash difference is massively more than unconfirmed estimates (and this is the information scrutiny is seeking) then I believe that the central site scores much higher.
National planning policy rules that an arena should be in the centre of the city if feasible, which it is, because a 12,000 seat arena already has planning permission. But its nearest rival would be a proposed 16,000 seat arena near the railway station in Cardiff, which, due to mayoral faint-hearts, might be built first. Interestingly, the Filton arena might now be argued as a challenge to Cardiff at 15,000 seats, which could not be fitted on the Temple Quarter site, and which therefore might be an argument to overcome the ’sequential’ planning test.
Such decisions need much weighing. The Lib Dem administration, of which I was a member, considered alternative sites and had the finances in place to deliver at our preferred site of Temple Quarter. Decisions have been slower since and costs have risen. I fear we are going to be told that it is now too expensive to build Bristol’s Arena in Temple Meads but there will be financial consequences if it isn’t. Filton may appear cheaper but cannot hope to deliver the same broad and regenerative benefits to our whole city.
This difficult decision must be founded on value and opportunity. The Lib Dems want an intelligent debate based on appreciation of comprehensive data and best estimates, which are presently either not being sought or are being withheld. Once again, a small inner circle is controlling the vital information to develop the best answer, until that decision has been made by then them. Without this evaluation, any decision will be flawed. That said, the Lib Dems’ view is that Temple Quarter is unlikely to be bettered as the site for Bristol’s arena because it is in the better location and also brings considerably better benefits to the city – some immediate and some spread over a long time – and scores better on sustainable transport issues than the Filton prospect.
The arena is a big playing piece to be best placed on our sub-regional chess board. When we factor in that the city’s planned focus for regeneration and development is in east and central Bristol, then surely this council must be a serious player, and demonstrate its commitment to this generational project by placing the arena where it will do the most good for the future of our city. If the mayor does not accept this answer then we challenge him to demonstrate that he has sought out the crucial information and to make it available in good time for scrutiny by the wider council, and by the public.
Anthony Negus is a Liberal Democrat councillor for Cotham.