Question marks remain over Bristol Arena

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Since the First Direct Arena opened in Leeds in 2013, Bristol has been the largest city in the UK without a major arena-style venue. Currently, Colston Hall and the O2 Academy are operating as Bristol’s largest music venues, with capacities of around 2,000 people each.

This was never meant to be, as plans for a “Bristol Arena” have existed since they were first announced in March 2003. Former mayor George Ferguson even proclaimed upon election that the 12,000 seat arena would be “the most environmentally friendly venue of its kind”, while he also pledged its completion within a four-year period.

However, six years on, and with only meagre progress having been made, it is clear that things have not gone to plan.

The most recent setback occurred in November 2017, when the Bristol Post revealed proposals to construct the arena within the Brabazon Hangar at the former Filton Airfield. This would displace the long-held plans to build the arena at Temple Quay on what has since been named “Arena Island”.

Bristol City Council even approved a funding package scheme in February 2014 for the Temple Quay proposal, with the winning design by Populous being revealed in March 2015.

This Brabazon Hangar bid has therefore received a fierce backlash with a recent petition gaining in excess of 5,000 signatures demanding that the original Temple Quay proposal continues to go ahead as originally planned.

With this in mind, campaigners have sought to point out the improved travel arrangements that the site holds. As Temple Meads offers train transport for out-of-town visitors, and with “Arena Island” holding a central location within Bristol, walking, driving and public transport are all easy options for residents of Bristol.

Likewise, the arena may help to accelerate the Temple Quarter Enterprise Zone, which is a project that has existed for some years and aims to promote economic development in this region. This could be crucial to the local economy with restaurants, bars, and even a new university campus planned for the area. The arena has the potential to be at the centre of a new, vibrant area of the city.

The final factor in favour of the Temple Quay location has to be the fact that money has already been invested in the site, which was purchased for £13m in 2007. The other financial logistics have also been sorted out, as Buckingham Group has reportedly agreed a fixed fee of £110m with Bristol City Council to begin work.

Last week, this controversy over the arena’s location culminated in a vote where 34 of the city’s 70 councillors opted to back the Green Party’s motion to listen to this public support for the Temple Quay location. However, with the motion having limited power, it is not yet clear what, if any, sort of impact this vote will have.

The uncertainty is exemplified by the support which has emerged to the contrary, with some clearly favouring the new Brabazon Hangar bid. The Conservative councillors tried, but failed, to pass an amendment which would have postponed the vote until after the “value for money assessment” planned for the two sites, while many in the Labour party also voted against the motion or simply abstained.

Supporters of this Brabazon Hangar bid point to the increased parking it would allow due to the larger site, spanning 25 acres, almost four times that of the seven-acre plot at Temple Quay. It is certain that parking at the Hangar would dramatically eclipse the 480 spaces announced in early 2016 for the Temple Quay site.

In addition, the cost of this project could be significantly reduced, as the budget for an arena at Temple Quay has spiralled since its inception. However, the Malaysian company YTL have promised to cover the costs of both the building and the running of a venue in the Brabazon Hangar.

Finally, the Mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees, also voted against the motion which favoured the Temple Quay location and, with the decision ultimately resting with him, this may be seen as a rejection of this site.

The mayor has been adamant in his repetition that a decision “has not been made”, and that it will not be announced for at least another five weeks. This is so the “value for money assessment” can be contemplated, and its conclusion may prove crucial in the eventual decision.

By that point though, the saga will have been continuing for over 15 years and, with no finishing line in sight, despite the new 2020 completion date, you have to wonder if Bristol will ever get its symbolic arena.