Bristol’s mayor has rejected plans to build an arena in the city centre to make way for a £300m mixed‑use scheme, provoking opposition. Joey Gardiner reports on whether there will be another arena, what this means for the city and whether this puts the role of mayor in the spotlight
This month, Bristol’s Labour mayor Marvin Rees made the decision to scrap the planned Populous-designed city centre arena amid local controversy surrounding an expenses-paid overseas trip with the plans’ commercial rivals.
Rees says the £156m scheme, pushed by his independent predecessor in the role, former RIBA president George Ferguson, had to be scrapped given rising costs, big risks and the huge public sector financial commitment involved. But opponents say the move, which potentially clears the way for a largely privately funded arena to proceed on the northern fringe of the city, is a huge potential blow to the centre’s regeneration efforts.
“To put in more luxury apartments, offices and a ‘blind’ conference centre with no public engagement is a waste of a great site”
Rob Gregory, Purcell
Rob Gregory, associate at the Bristol office of architect Purcell, which is not directly involved in the schemes, says: “It’s really disappointing and a missed opportunity. It feels like we’ll have had eight years of a mayor in this city and it has added up to nothing.”
The creation of an elected city mayor in 2012 was supposed to allow the city – the most economically successful UK “core city” outside London, but with a reputation for being a difficult place to get planning – to make the big choices necessary for it to fulfil its potential. Undoubtedly, this month’s decision was a blow for the scheme’s architect Populous, fellow designer Feilden Clegg Bradley and project contractor Buckingham Group. But already proposals by developer YTL for a much bigger arena four miles north in the suburb of Filton are surging ahead, while developer Legal & General (L&G) has proposed a £300m, 100,000m2 commercial scheme on the former arena site in the centre of the city. So, what has happened, and what does it say about the effectiveness of mayors in getting projects delivered – and Bristol’s big city ambitions?
Bristol is the only UK core city without a purpose-built arena, with residents forced to travel to Cardiff and Birmingham for major gigs. Plans to address this deficit were first mooted in 2003 with a site, Temple Island, purchased by the council next to the city’s main station. After one false start, the plans were turbo-charged with the election of architect Ferguson in 2012 on a promise to get it built. Despite costs rising above the £91m budget, Ferguson now says he came within a hair’s breadth of signing contracts with contractor Bouygues to build the 12,000-capacity venue.
But with Ferguson voted out in 2016 and costs still going up, incoming mayor Rees – who had also made an election pledge to deliver the arena – parted ways with Bouygues and instead pressed on with the scheme with Buckingham Group under a pre-construction services agreement.
“[The mayor] has made up his mind on this against the advice of the council. He doesn’t understand how cities tick”
George Ferguson, former mayor
At the same time, deepening central government funding cuts were taking their toll. The council claims funding reductions have left the city with a £108m budget shortfall between 2018 and 2023, making the £104m public sector contribution for the arena a large commitment to swallow. So despite his election commitment, Rees decided in summer 2017 to appoint KPMG to review it. The process finally concluded this month, with the council cabinet voting on 4 September to terminate the scheme and instead pursue L&G’s proposal for housing, a conference centre and offices on the Temple Island site.
Rees says this was the only responsible choice. KPMG reported that L&G’s scheme, albeit not yet fully developed, was likely to generate three times the economic value for the city, and three times as many jobs, without the risks associated with the arena.
Rees told Building: “The question we’re dealing with is what’s the best use for Temple Island, that’s what people keep missing. We’re not choosing where to build the arena,” adding that Bristol council would be left with a huge further cost if the stadium didn’t succeed commercially and the selected operator – Arena Island Ltd, run by SMG and Live Nation – walked away.
“The arena can only go ahead [on Temple Island] if the city council goes ahead and takes out £150m of debt and builds it. My question is what is your appetite for risk […] in a time when music venues are difficult to make stack up generally, in a retail crisis and a potential economic slump, with Mark Carney saying house prices could drop by a third. At some point someone has to stand up and say this is a huge gamble. You can’t run a city on crossed fingers,” says Rees.
Rees also rejects any suggestion this decision betrayed a lack of confidence in the city. “The Filton development is a bigger proposition, and now we’ve got two private sector developers competing together to build an arena. Why’s it a lack of confidence?” he says, adding that the letter of support for the decision from Homes England chair Sir Edward Lister proves his decision made the city more investable.
From Rees’ perspective, cancelling the arena both allows L&G’s commercial scheme to deliver a £500m bigger boost to the city’s economy than that offered by the city centre arena, while YTL’s plan at Filton solves the venue deficit. YTL arena project lead Andrew Billingham says the Malaysian developer, which also owns Wessex Water, is “absolutely committed” to a fully privately funded 16,000-capacity arena within the historic Brabazon aircraft hangar as part of its broader 2,500-home scheme. “Now we’ve got a positive decision, we’re absolutely cracking on,” he says.
Despite all this, on 3 September city councillors voted overwhelmingly in favour of a motion saying Temple Island should be the location for the arena, and local newspapers report strong public support for the original scheme, which also has the backing of local music royalty in Massive Attack’s Robert Del Naja.
Purcell’s Gregory says to replace the arena plan with the commercial scheme would be a real blow for placemaking in the city. “To put in more luxury apartments, offices and a ‘blind’ conference centre with no public engagement is a waste of a great site,” he says. “The arena is a public space in the way a conference centre – always booked out – just isn’t.
“It’s really sad. The whole thing should be about creating liveable, walkable cities. If you stick loads of private space on that site, creating [public use] is much more challenged,” he added.
L&G declined to comment but in a statement in August said its proposal “would provide significant transformational benefits to the city of Bristol”.
Former mayor Ferguson is unsurprisingly incensed by the move, which he described as “utter madness”, pointing out that the YTL alternative arena relies on significant public infrastructure funding to go ahead – meaning it is not a totally free option. “The cost of the arena hasn’t risen to anything like the level alleged, and it’s well within the ability of the city to make money, and is justified in investment terms,” he says.
“An arena revitalises the city centre, the high streets. If you intensify the uses you help support those areas that are threatened. If you’re going to a shed on the edge of the city, people’s natural instinct will be to go by car.”
A third way?
Some spy a possible third way. In recent weeks, Bristol property developer Stephen Fear has been acting alongside Live Aid-music entrepreneur Harvey Goldsmith to represent a US investor – understood to be Oak View Group, which has a stake in New York’s Madison Square Garden. Fear says it is considering privately funding the existing Temple Island scheme (see “Temple Island – the third way?”, below). So far, however, the council remains unmoved.
Fear says an arena at Filton will damage the centre. “I think it will damage the core of Bristol. The northern fringe is being developed at the cost of the rest,” he says.
Other critics have taken exception to the £300m high-rise replacement L&G scheme, designed by Zaha Hadid Architects, within Bristol’s largely low-rise cityscape. Ferguson described it as “totally alien to Bristol”. “It’s an illusion to think tall buildings make great cities – you need great streets,” he says.
Furthermore, Rees’ critics dispute many of the figures cited in the KPMG report, and allege he has not given alternative proposals equal consideration. Critics also point to the mayor’s admission that he has had three expenses-paid meetings with Filton developer YTL over the last year, including a flights-paid trip to Malaysia. Meanwhile, arena operator Arena Island complained in the media of not being able to get a meeting with Rees to discuss its improved financial offer.
Temple Island - the third way?
The legendary music promoter behind Live Aid, Harvey Goldsmith, is working alongside Bristol property developer Stephen Fear, founder of Fear Group, and US investors to potentially stage a dramatic eleventh-hour rescue of the Temple Island arena scheme.
Fear told Building he and Goldsmith are acting as brokers between the council and US investor Oak View Group, which is understood to be considering privately financing the arena’s construction. Fear describes Oak View Group, an investor in 26 venues, as a “definitive, global brand” in the music industry and a “very serious player”, with the resources to invest £150m in a new arena. This could potentially allow the council to deliver the arena without having to borrow to build it.
However, mayor Marvin Rees did not attend a meeting with Oak View Group after they travelled to Bristol earlier this month to meet with the council, with officials telling the firm that building an arena on the site was off the agenda.
Since then a war of words has broken out over what happened at the meeting. The mayor’s head of office, Kevin Slocombe (formerly Jeremy Corbyn’s PR adviser), attended, and told Building that the US investors were “absolutely clear” that they agree Temple Island wasn’t the right site for the project, as it was too small. “No one’s looking at Temple Island,” he said.
Stephen Fear, however, said this was “absolutely not the case”, and that while the investors conceded that a 10,000-seater arena “may not be big enough” to work commercially, that they were still interested and had returned to the US to run the numbers and take consultants’ advice. He added he was “very disappointed” by the failure of Rees to attend the meeting (Rees says he was in a local enterprise partnership board meeting).
Fear said: “I’ve never been in a situation anywhere where a major investment is being offered and they’re not met by the mayor or top person. It was largely left to me to sell the city. Whether they’ll remain interested, with the reception they got, remains to be seen.”
Slocombe said: “If we put Marvin in a room with everyone with an investment proposition then he’d never be doing anything else. That’s madness.”
Rees denied he was ignoring valid offers for Temple Island: “If you can get him [Stephen Fear] to confirm categorically that they’re interested in Temple Island, I’d be very interested in that.”
Fear, likewise, has complained of a lack of engagement from the council with the approach he is brokering from the US investor Oak View Group (see “Temple Island – the third way?”, right). Fear says: “There’s no question he’s favoured the YTL scheme. I just want him to hear the alternative.”
While Ferguson is careful not to allege actual improper behaviour by Rees, he says: “He’s made up his mind on this against the advice of the council. He doesn’t understand how cities tick.” The council’s scrutiny committee threatened to “call in” the decision, citing 18 ways in which it alleged Rees ignored proper council procedures in scrapping the project.
However, last week, the committee backed down from forcing Rees to reconsider.
When asked about the allegations of possible impartiality, Rees told Building his thinking was based on commercial viability and rejected any suggestion of partiality in his decision-making out of hand. “I don’t respond to that sort of personal accusation, it’s a nonsense. Look at the evidence. The numbers speak for themselves,” he says.
Rees’ supporters downplay the suggestion that all this fuss could be harming Bristol’s investability or even undermining the concept of a city mayor. Terry Langdon, project director based in Bristol at consultant FT Squared, says: “I don’t think this has a massive impact on investors’ decisions to come to the city. It’s successful anyway and this is not catastrophic.”
Richard Bonner, chair of the Bristol Chambers of Commerce as well as a director at Arcadis, backs Rees’ call. “The fact one decision or other has been made by the local authority on its own capital project shouldn’t deter investors. The city has had a reputation for being difficult to get planning in, but that is getting better.”
And Paul Swinney, head of policy at the Centre for Cities, rejects the idea that the arena flip-flop represents a failure of the mayoral model. “The fact he’s mayor has allowed him to raise questions about the scheme and sense-check it, where a traditional leader may not have had the political capital,” he says. “It’s a better vehicle for making the big calls.”
In the meantime a consortium of consultants, led by Mott MacDonald and including Weston Williamson + Partners, GVA, Deloitte and Turley, have been appointed to draw up a new masterplan for the whole area. With continuing controversy and Fear’s US investors potentially still waiting in the wings, this tale looks to have some distance to run yet.