Filton vs Temple Meads: Why can’t Bristol decide where its new arena should be?

Bristol mayor Marvin Rees speaking in 2016. Image: Getty.

It is the kind of story to inspire local conspiracy theories. For 15 years, the idea of building an arena in Bristol has focused on a site in the south of the city, particularly around Temple Meads. But then, all of a sudden, an alternative proposal emerged, suggesting Filton in north Bristol as the more suitable site.

There are quite a lot of angry people hotly debating the matter now, while Bristol mayor Marvin Rees remains adamant that he will not make a final decision until the results of an ongoing assessment have been published.

The arena project has been subject to constant delay, as the debate about its viability and funding has dragged on. The original location proposed for the venue was at Temple Quay, near Bristol Temple Meads station. Bristol City Council spent £13m clearing the site – but some Bristolians considered it little more than a vanity project launched by the previous mayor, George Ferguson.

In the face of constant central government cuts, mayor Marvin Rees launched a value-for-money assessment in Spring 2017. In November, he expanded the assessment to consider locations other than Temple Meads. And in January, Malaysian property company YTL put forward its own proposal to build the Arena inside the Brabazon Hangar on Filton Airfield in north Bristol.

Now there is a hot debate going on around which of the two sites is the most suitable. A campaign launched by the council’s Green Group, and a petition with over 5,000 signatures, forced a council debate on the issue.

But the final decision will be made by the mayor – and he has made it clear that he will not do so until he sees the results of the assessment.

The arguments in favour of Temple Meads are indeed persuasive. It has a central location, and is close to several of the city’s most deprived areas, south of the river where residents are in urgent need of job opportunities. The site’s transport links are already good; but they’re likely to grow in importance once electrification of the Great Western Main Line (GWML) is complete, and as the Bristol MetroBus bus rapid transit (BRT) scheme expands. An arena constructed at Temple Meads would also support the development of the Temple Quarter Enterprise Zone – and since it would be owned by Bristol City Council, revenue could help to support vital public services.

In favour of the Filton proposal, YTL development director Colin Skellett argues there is more space at the north Bristol site: it could support 4,000 more seats than the Temple Meads site and 1,000 more than the new arena in Cardiff.

But the Brabazon Hangar site is owned by a private company, meaning there would be less revenue available for public services in the city. There are also concerns about the economic impact an arena at Filton would have on the city centre. Thangam Debbonaire, Labour MP for Bristol West, argues for instance that a Filton Arena could create a new town centre in South Gloucestershire which would strangle the plan to redevelop Broadmead shopping centre.

This argument builds on existing fears regarding the possible negative impact that an expansion of Cribbs Causeway would have on city centre businesses, something that an Arena in Filton could exacerbate. Critics also argue that the Filton site is too dependent on car transport, and would encourage congestion and increase air pollution at a time when Bristol is attempting to become more environmentally conscious.

Filton is already one of the wealthiest areas of the city, and benefits widely from higher than average economic opportunities. Conversely, the greatest levels of deprivation in the city are to be found in Whitchurch, Hartcliffe, Filwood and Lawrence Hill – all of them in south Bristol. These areas could all benefit from an arena at Temple Meads, according to Bristol South MP Karin Smyth. Furthermore, Temple Meads is already within easy reach of accommodation, food outlets and other attractions that the Brabazon site does not have.

Marvin Rees has made clear he is not going to be rushed on this one. He believes that the first question that has to be asked is whether Bristol can afford to build the arena at all: only then can the city turn to its probable location.

“This debate is happening without key facts,” Rees told Bristol 24/7, “and without a full understanding of the current situation.” He claimed in an interview last week that work will start on the arena, soon – but has yet to reveal where it will be. The rest of us await his decision, with no small amount of nervousness.


What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.

Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.