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No Bristol Arena, so what now for our city centre?

September 7, 2018

Bristol’s elected Mayor has scrapped plans for an entertainment Arena near the city’s Temple Meads mainline station. In making this decision Mayor Marvin Rees has binned plans going back over a decade that have been promoted by previous city leaders and several government ministers and agencies. He’s discarded a fully worked up design for a building that received planning permission in 2016 and was assumed to be a done deal by most Bristolians. The future of one of the last large city centre development sites has been thrown into confusion. Bristol, once again, looks like a city that struggles to deliver big projects and is led currently by a politician without a vision.

Bristol should have a large capacity arena, capable of staging some of the world’s biggest acts in music and entertainment. I’ve long believed that the largest city in the south west of England and the country’s most economically successful city region should have the very best cultural, entertainment and sporting facilities. We lag behind on most fronts, apart from theatre and art house cinema and in recent times our sporting facilities have improved. Our concert hall, currently bearing the name Colston, is closed for a revamp that should put it into the premier league for orchestral music and venues hosting other events for a crowd of up to two thousand.  The O2 Academy also sits about 2,000 but Bristol can’t stage anything indoors on a scale beyond that number. An Arena, with a capacity exceeding five thousand, would mean Bristol attracting the acts that currently by-pass us for Cardiff, Birmingham and Bournemouth.

But while I’ve consistently supported Bristol having a new arena, I’ve also always thought that it should be in the city centre. An arena in the centre would complement Bristol’s existing cultural facilities and provide a boost to hotels and the hospitality industry. Its location would be sustainable, located right next the region’s busiest main line rail station, itself due for a revamp. The signalling and line improvements currently being made will increase its capacity. Many major bus routes pass the station. The city centre is the core of radial road routes and there are plenty of car parks nearby that are under used (or closed at the moment) in the evenings.  I don’t agree that a city centre arena would cause unbearable gridlock.  The city centre of Cardiff has the 74,000 capacity Principality Stadium, the 7,000 capacity Motorpoint Arena and the 2,000 capacity St David’s Hall.  I am not aware of any calls for these facilities to be relocated to the northern outskirts of the city. People enjoy congregating in city centres.

If Bristol isn’t to have a large arena in its centre, then I would rather it didn’t have one at all.  An arena at Filton, which appears to be the Mayor’s preference, would definitely cause traffic congestion on a smaller road network, with far fewer public transport options. Like Cribbs Causeway is to Broadmead, an arena at Filton would be a rival for city centre attractions and businesses. Competition is fine if it leads to overall growth in the combined economy.  But I think a damaged city centre is the more likely outcome.

This leaves two questions and problems to solve – what to do with the abandoned Temple Island site and what to do with the Brabazon hangars at Filton?

Let’s take Temple Island first.  Bristol is a city without an obvious centre.  When I came to Bristol as a student I was puzzled by people referring to “The Centre”, which at the time was strip of greenery resembling a sea front garden.  The only major attraction there (and now) was the Hippodrome. The name derives from “Tramways Centre”, which has been irrelevant for about 80 years!  The truth is that Bristol’s shopping, commercial, cultural, political and transport hubs are strung out in a lineal pattern from the Victoria Rooms on the edge of Clifton, down Park Street to College Green, through the “Centre” to Broadmead with a gap before reaching Temple Meads station.

The area around Temple Meads station was derelict for a long time but in recent years a transformation has got underway. New commercial office buildings and blocks of flats have sprung up.  The Coalition Government made the Temple Meads area into the Temple Quarter Enterprise Zone, with favoured business rates retention for the council as an incentive to encourage development. The zone was billed as a hub for Bristol’s creative industries.  The government provided £12million for a new bridge over the Avon to improve connectivity with the “island” earmarked for an arena. While cutting the sod for the bridge in May 2014 I announced another grant, £6million which was to be spent (though for commercial reasons I couldn’t say so) on the acquisition of the derelict former Royal Mail sorting office (which ironically closed in favour of a facility at Filton), an unsightly blot on the landscape greeting all train arrivals from London.  I was hopeful that the BBC would relocate from Whiteladies Road to the sorting office site, freeing up their old home for expansion of the Bristol University precinct.  Instead we’ve got a new university campus at Temple Meads.  This in itself may be a good thing, if the research activities complement the city’s digital and creative sector. But it also means lots of precious land given over to student flats.

The Temple Island site itself needs a new use.  Mayor Rees favours a “medium sized” conference centre.  This could be a good solution, if the surrounding uses are got right. A medium sized conference venue could be on a similar scale to the centres familiar to most politicians at Bournemouth and Brighton, hosting conferences and music and entertainment acts for about 5,000 people.  For this to work, there will need to be an adjoining hotel plus plenty of smaller halls and break out rooms for fringe events.  A convention centre that is used during the day as well as evenings will provide a stimulus for more cafes and bars nearby so mixed use developments should be stipulated in a masterplan.  Ideally, the council should draw up a masterplan for outline planning approval and invite applicants to come forward with designs that can deliver the vision for the site.

Temple Quarter should become a new thriving East End of the city centre.  What is needed is a plan to deliver an arc of prosperity and sustainable living through to the West End and Clifton.  Temple Meads needs to be better integrated to the city.  This means improvements to both Victoria Street and Redcliffe Way. It’s time to dust down plans for Redcliffe Way that I first saw as councillor for the city centre back in the 1990s.  Redcliffe Way should be traffic calmed and turned into an attractive boulevard linking Temple Meads to Queen Square.  The road should be moved towards the Portwall, enabling the creation of a new square in front of St Mary Redcliffe church.

At the end of Victoria Street and over Bristol Bridge we have the total mess at the corner of Castle Park that was the heart of the medieval city. The junction of High Street and Wine Street badly needs new development.  The unsightly disused bank buildings should be demolished.  New buildings will recreate the historic heart of the city and should enable a new public space around the hidden ruins of St Mary le Port church.  This will provide a boost to the struggling west side of Broadmead, a counterpoise to Cabot Circus.

Our linear city centre needs to be joined up and made accessible in a sustainable way. I would like to see a city centre circle line, with trams joining Temple Meads to College Green via Victoria Street, Baldwin Street and back through the Centre and Broadmead.  As an interim measure this is the perfect short haul route for clean electric buses.  Something for our Regional Mayor Tim Bowles to take up…

What about Filton?  The huge Brabazon hangars need a new purpose.  Siting an arena there would be a huge mistake, for the reasons already given.  Maybe the spaces lend themselves to sporting use, for indoor hockey, basketball and 5-a-side football.  I think the site owners YTL should set aside their private chats with the Bristol Mayor and open up a conversation with the people of Bristol and South Gloucestershire, asking them for what they would like to see there.  The Regional Mayor should lobby Network Rail and the government for swift reopening of the nearby Henbury rail link.

Finally, a comment about the state of our local government.  Bristol now has experience of two very different directly-elected Mayors.  I’m fonder of George Ferguson than most of my fellow local Liberal Democrat politicians.  But his flinty temperament meant he lacked the diplomacy to persuade councillors to buy into his plans. But nobody could credibly accuse him of lack of vision for Bristol. His successor Marvin Rees doesn’t seem to have much of a vision about the sort of Bristol he wants to build.  His lack of any political experience prior to being elected Mayor (never once standing for election as a ward councillor for instance) means that there is no platform of experience to carry his ego. Politicians need self-belief but they need to be grounded as well.  Mayor Rees has set aside the clear desire of most councillors (and the tens of thousands of people that they represent) for a city centre sited arena. The opaque way he has arrived at this point and the somewhat lofty manner he has dealt with questions and challenge has undermined his office. An air of suspicion hangs over his dealings with Malaysian property developer YTL, the owners of the former Filton Airfield, and his apparent failure to give serious consideration to an offer from Bristolian property magnate Stephen Fear and impresario Harvey Goldsmith to develop the Temple Island Arena.

I favoured the move to the Mayoral model of governance both for the city and the wider sub-region. But the lack of vision by Mayor Rees and Mayor Bowles coupled with the inadequate means of holding them to account does throw the model into doubt.  Mayors are the norm in every other country and should work in England too.  Let’s not forget the truly awful Labour Leaders of Council that were a disaster for Bristol for many years.  But just maybe what our region needs is a return to the more collegiate model of Leader and cabinet, accountable to councillors, for the city council.  A strong executive Mayor is still needed for the West of England region, with the powers and budget to deliver a vision but with robust scrutiny in place.  Whatever the model, in the end what matters is the quality of candidates and their willingness to work together for the good of our city and region.



Notes and updates

More information on the government funding for the Arena Island Bridge and Temple Quarter Enterprise Zone can be found in my blog from May 2014 here –

After the special council meeting Liberal Democrat and Conservative councillors used their power of “call in” to re-examine the Mayor’s decision.  A scrutiny committee was held on Thursday 20th September 2018. The Labour and Green Party councillors voted to uphold the Mayor’s decision so there can be no reference back to the full city councillor and the Mayor can now go ahead with whatever plans he makes for Temple Island.

Stephen Fear and a group of American investors have met with council officers (but not the Mayor) and have stated that they think Filton is a non-runner and that the Arena will work only if it is on a city centre site,  either Temple Island or elsewhere.

Meanwhile Stephen Lansdown’s company Bristol Sport announced that they would be building a new sports arena, hotel and flats next to Ashton Gate stadium. The arena will be home to the Bristol Flyers, the basketball team owned by Lansdown, who also owns Bristol City FC and Bristol RFC, both of which play at Ashton Gate.  The new basketball arena will also be able to host conferences and music events.  Is the market big enough to support a similar facility at Temple Island?

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Philip Morris permalink
    September 7, 2018 6:33 pm

    For once Stephen I agree with every word you wrote and admire you for the things yoyu have not said, but everyone I speak to is saying, ‘How many brown envelopes of evidence of the Neil Hamilton type did the Mayor accept ?

    • September 8, 2018 10:37 am

      Like the “for once”!! I agree Marvin Rees has questions to answer. Hopefully local journalists will be more discerning than the editor of the Bristol Post, who’s been gushing in his praise for St Marvin. I very much doubt if he’s taken bribes, British politics is a lot cleaner than people imagine. But I think he has been very naive and easily taken in by corporate blandishments.

  2. smoothsilk permalink
    September 8, 2018 6:13 pm

    Hi Stephen, Unfortunately I have given up on Bristol improving from when I moved there in 1989, so with some regret I moved from Greenwich Apts & now living in Monmouth, Wales.

    You may have seen all the comments on facebook on Bygone Bristol run by Paul Townsend, mostly saying that Marvin Rees is not fit to bring Bristol forward… He should take a look how he is thought of, & comment himself…

    Nothing against the man but running Bristol with a sharp eye, getting rid of old eyesores, sorting traffic, pollution, the Arena, etc etc is beyond him. He should go, maybe the office of Mayor with him, the council in Bristol have no ideas or how to run the place, after personally watching for 30years, countless schemes have come to nothing. All paid for by the tax payers.

    I think as you do if the Arena is ever built the centre is the best place, it certainly needs car parking as well. Perhaps move the Bus Station here as well.
    Filton to my mind should be Bristol’s Airport with the motorway links & already having a runway.
    A Metro linking from Bath to Bristol & all parts should by now have been built so saving traffic & pollution, we have only the recently opened section. The Centre is a joke being dug up every few months for yet another hairbrain scheme.

    A relative of mine lives in Castle St, Horizon Flats, there is a large multi deck car park there, largely empty as so expensive, a total white elephant, also he is not allowed to join the residents parking scheme.

    Kind Regards, John Yapp

  3. September 9, 2018 3:17 pm

    Well written, intelligent and articulate blog post. Thank you. If only your vision would become reality. Perhaps you should stand for mayor next election?

    • September 9, 2018 3:35 pm

      Thanks very much! Politics is very up in the air at the moment, the election of a Liberal City mayor in 2020 or regional mayor in 2021 may be possible.

  4. douglas Reid permalink
    September 9, 2018 5:46 pm

    Good thinking well described Mayor Rees may have a competitor next time & as he has ruined the City Centre site he won’t be popular

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