Arena Cabinet Speech

This was my speech to Cabinet on Tuesday, September 4th, ahead of the decision on the Arena.

The Arena has been a point of interest for many years in the city, not just in the last two years. The council first looked at a plan for an arena back in the early 1990s and a number of administrations – including the Lib Dems and my predecessor – failed to get it done. They failed because none of them got to grips with the financial challenges that an arena posed.

An arena is not an easy development to make money from if you’re the owner. That’s exactly why the private sector has traditionally stayed away from them and many are built with public funding. The model for the Temple Island Arena has been exactly that. And as is often the reality with politicians, nobody has looked too closely at the spend of council tax-payers’ money, and costs and risks have always been more than politicians were ready to admit.

It’s interesting that the most noise and the most outspoken critics are those that have failed and of course, my political opponents who just see an opportunity.

The Lib Dems made no progress whatsoever during their administration, but now claim an arena has a crucial impact for the city. Well, then why didn’t you build it – are you better at opposition noise than you were at delivering for Bristol?

The Green Group care so little about public money they carried a motion to build the arena regardless of the cost and with no understanding of the risks attached to spending council tax-payers’ money. These are the last people to be trusted with public money and even today, they continue to ask the wrong question and see a binary choice around the location of an arena, still not understanding the primary questions around affordability and impact on the city’s jobs and economic output.

And the Green group is so out of step with Green Party ambitions, we can only conclude they are letting down their own supporters. So determined are they to use the arena to score political points and boost their own Mayoral campaign, they have not confronted the enormous carbon output of an arena, far in excess of any other type of comparable build. They have abandoned the ‘small is beautiful’ model that so many of their supporters champion, in the name of political gain. They have just demanded and stamped their feet for the £150 million to be spent, when we would have expected them to re-direct the investment to opportunities to drive sustainability, especially when we have introduced the leap prospectus – a once in a lifetime opportunity to reinvent the city’s relationship with energy through £1bn investment. We haven’t seen or heard anything from them on that. And they have ignored the impact on air pollution instead holding onto an incredible optimism in people’s willingness to leave their cars and use public transport. I have no idea what’s going on with the Green group.

The Lib Dems and the Greens just lack understanding, and have demonstrated their inability to lead or to be trusted with big decisions or with council tax-payers’ money.

The Conservatives on the other hand know better, and they have simply jumped on the bandwagon of political opportunism – and they know they have. Privately, I suspect a number of the Conservative group agree with me. But they love a public argument and they won’t miss the chance to create noise that may help their own political futures. Where they have lost sight of their own core values though, is simply backing a public sector spend project. I have never heard a Tory advocate public intervention over the free market, particularly where the market is offering a solution.

This Conservative group too, in the name of opportunism, are letting their supporters down. If this isn’t simple political opportunism, then they too have proved themselves unfit to represent the taxpayers of Bristol. This fits with the fact that the black hole of finance we were left with was as a result of the mess overseen by a Conservative Cabinet Lead for Finance.

And then there’s my predecessor, George Ferguson, who is ‘fighting to the death’ (his words) to save his greatest ever vanity project. His claim that he ‘wishes he had signed the agreement’ would be laughable if it wasn’t so sad. I don’t know if George didn’t know what was actually going on or if he has just caught the fake-news bug, but there was no agreement to sign. The pre-construction phase was up and running and by the time I took office, the cost of building an arena was £75 million more than his agreed budget. Even today, when I have forced the price down, we remain £30 million over the budget.

And we have huge risk. We share the risk of building costs going up and we share that risk with Buckingham Group, an organisation who have been good partners and who continue to work with us and handle themselves with dignity and professionalism. These are the qualities mayors all over the world are looking for in partners.

What we have to confront is there are very difficult financial consequences and risks for each option. We have to ask ourselves: what is our attitude to risk? Going forward with Temple Island arena means we have all the risk of a circular relationship between the loan to build the arena and the risk of maintaining an operator and rents.

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We take out £150 million of debt to build an arena, which we hand over to an operator to hopefully make a profit. From that profit, they pay us rent. We depend on that rent to make our debt repayments. If at any point that rent payment disappears, the only thing solid in that relationship is the physical arena and the ongoing debt repayments we would have to make. There’s a lot of risk in music venues: they are not great at making money. And as we are entering into a period of unprecedented uncertainty – a no-deal Brexit, ongoing austerity, and a retail crisis challenge to jobs. Would you bet your pension fund on that circular relationship remaining in place for the next 25 to 35 years? It’s not just about the location of the arena, it’s about what financial relationship we are taking the city into for the next few decades.

Of course we have looked at how we could get an arena built with private money, on Temple island or elsewhere. Of course, a private sector arena, transferring all the risk to the private sector and away from the tax payer in the name of protecting public services, is the best course of action.

And so much for the smears and insults; they simply don’t stack up. They say more about those calling the smears, than they do about me or anyone at Bristol City Council. Allegations that we are doing anyone a favour is ridiculous. Any private sector organisation who wants to invest £100million of their own money and take all the risk on an at-best marginal proposition is welcome but rather than insult them, we should applaud anyone ready to give it a go. And we will fully test the market, if we don’t proceed with the arena today.

And so to the alternative uses.

Those who choose to rubbish the KPMG report do so for political gain or to make weak argument. KPMG used all the respected industry standards to come to a conclusion and they did so independently. Anyone who has actually read the report will see the stark and powerful conclusions that are the only take-away’s from that report. I commissioned that report because it was obvious that to build the arena was going to be far more expensive and risky than was ever made clear.

So I needed to understand, for the good of the city, how much impact the arena would have on jobs and the economy. Having an additional cultural offer is of course welcome but it has to make sense for the city. Jobs and affordable housing are the key challenges for the city so I was keen to have a clear explanation of how the arena impacted on these aims. As for cultural impact, employment is cultural impact, homes is cultural impact, not just events.

The report clearly told me that an alternative use was far better. The arena brought fewer jobs, and most jobs in arenas around the country are temporary and minimum wage. A mixed-use site, including a conference centre, would blow away the arena for jobs and create a stronger tax base and economic output for the city.

Jobs and affordable homes are the key values for the delivery of my administration. I will prioritise them.

Looking at the facts, the greater impact on jobs and the city economy – more than 3x as many in a mixed use development and £500 million more economic output, it is obvious where the facts lead us. The only questions that matter are the best use of council tax payers money and the best use of Temple Island land, jobs and the long term stability of the city’s economy and the council’s finances.

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