The UK’s largest arena was still far from being finished when Building went to see it in early February, writes Tom Lowe

It’s hard to recall a construction debacle which has had more national press coverage than this in recent years.

The Co-op Live Arena has been on the home page of BBC News almost daily for more than a week now, as concert after concert is cancelled at the last minute due to technical issues. Originally due for a grand opening on 19 April, its actual opening is now being pushed back progressively further into May as the crisis over the venue seems to deepen by the hour.

Tom Lowe headshot

Tom Lowe is a senior reporter at Building

But, as someone who toured the venue with members of the project team in early February, I can say that this does not come entirely as a surprise.

I was taken around by main contractor Bam, lead architect Populous and a member of the Co-op’s press team just over two months before the arena’s first scheduled performance. It was still very much a construction site and, very obviously, far from being finished. Although this is not unusual for sites nearing completion, which can often look to be in a state of disarray in the final weeks, this felt different. 

On the arena floor, lines of ventilation units were stacked up ready to be installed into the building’s roof. It was this ventilation system which caused the cancellation of rapper A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie’s show on Wednesday, just minutes after the doors were due to open.

I was only shown around the upper level bar areas, a couple of side corridors, a private lounge and the arena bowl seating, although not on the arena floor. I was told not to take photos of the interior of the building, as this would spoil the “grand reveal” which the team were planning ahead of the official opening. The images which were supplied were of the two 200-tonne roof trusses being installed in March last year when the arena was, at that stage, still scheduled to complete by the end of 2023 - it was later pushed back to April.

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The Co-op Live site in March last year

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CGI of how the arena should look when it is fully open

It is comparable to what happened at Wembley stadium, possibly the last great construction shambles involving this type of project which has had similar levels of press attention.

That project, built by Multiplex, had been due to open in 2006 but was pushed back by a year. The difference, then, was that the 2006 FA Cup Final, which was due to be played at Wembley, was moved to Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium three months before the event. With Co-op Live, cancellations seem to be happening on a daily basis, sometimes literally as fans are queuing up outside the gates. 

The press coverage is a shame because this is an impressive building. When the issues are ironed out, the public will hopefully see this for themselves and, just like with Wembley and Crossrail, forget how botched its opening was.

Tom Lowe is a senior reporter at Building