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.