Wait for the Evidence

Full Council debated the Bristol arena last night.

Firstly, let me be clear that the decision has not been made and we are building an evidence base to ensure that we are best positioned to make the right decision for Bristol. There are strong arguments both ways. Do keep in mind that we now have options. This should be understood as a good place for the city to be rather than a source of political argument.

The framing of the debate is problematic. The first question that needs to be asked in this debate is not where shall we build the Arena but is can we afford to build it?

Our first priority has to be to commit to delivering an arena for Bristol at a price the city can afford – we remain the only major city in the UK without one. But this debate is happening without key facts, and without a full understanding of the current situation.

We have commissioned three pieces of work. First, a value for money exercise around the current arena.  We inherited a project which we know has gone substantially over the originally  proposed budget or the available funding. That is our primary focus, identifying if we can and how we can build an affordable arena in that location. In addition, we have to review existing agreements to ensure they work for the city. Nottingham has only just broken even with its arena development because they built an ice rink alongside it – and we have a responsibility to ensure this project is sustainable and supports Bristol for 50 years.

Alongside this work, we are reviewing the economic assessment of this project – Leeds arena in the city centre brought fewer than 20 full-time jobs. All arenas bring temporary, casual and short term work. What’s more, in Leeds and other city centre locations, around 80% of all visitors arrive by car.

Second, it’s public knowledge that we have received an offer from the private sector to build an arena.  We would be foolish to ignore that offer, given what we already know about the rising costs of the existing project, the level of risk in running an arena and the risk in a construction of this scale. As part of that offer, we have to assess the infrastructure already planned in that area, what we would need to deliver to enable it to be built, and to obtain planning permission. We also need an economic assessment for that option.

Finally, we have to look at what options could be available on Temple Island if we couldn’t proceed with the arena, along with jobs and economic assessments. The land wouldn’t sit there empty. It is possible that if Filton was progressed, we could deliver a better economic impact for the city and particularly the south of the city through an alternative project on Temple Island. It’s also true the economic picture in Temple Meads and the Temple Quarter is very different today than in 2012, with the University project and our bid to the Housing Infrastructure Fund for housing development in the area changing the catalytic situation there.

On top of these pieces of work that will inform the decision, we will have valuable and intelligent assessments that will mean we can make the right decision for the city.

We will bring together the evidence and you will have time to assess it before our decision – but it will be based on facts and evidence. We don’t have a limitless pot of money – if the arena was simple and affordable, it would have been built by now.

Keep in mind:

If we overspend as a result of a rush and make an ill informed decision, the council will end up having to choose what housing projects, what infrastructure and even, what services we don’t want to fund.

If we save the ring-fenced money through private development, we would open up tens of millions for alternative projects for the economic development of the city.

The decision hasn’t been made, but we have a responsibility to the city to consider these points.

In the 1990’s, I worked in the US with a veteran of the Civil Rights movement by the name of Jim Wallis. He used to talk about what he referred to as “wet finger politicians”. He described them as politicians who wet their fingers, stick them in the air, see which way the wind is blowing and followed it. That is not us. We will make a decision on the basis of the evidence. We will work with the city, but we also have to make a call on the basis of the evidence.

I say wait for the evidence – we will make sure councillors get the opportunity through the scrutiny process to look at it closely – and we can all ensure this major decision will be evidence based, managed well and deliver a long term solution for Bristol.

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