“Three things are to be looked to in a building: that it stand[s] on the right spot; that it be securely founded; that it be successfully executed.”
These are the words of the German writer Johann Wolfgang Goethe, written in the early nineteenth century though they remain relevant today.
Development is taking place all over our city with cranes across the horizon signalling the investment being made in Bristol. Homes are being built in communities desperately in need of housing; office and retail space is emerging to bring jobs to our local economy, and roads, bridges, and paths are all receiving investment.
So too are we investing in our cultural heritage with the Bristol Beacon now on course to open later this year as one of Europe’s finest music and concert halls. It’s been a long journey, one that started with the new wing back in 2009 along with the missed opportunities that came with it. Years of stagnation followed until finally we put the long-term vision of redeveloping this Victorian hall back on the table and took the difficult decisions needed to revitalise a decaying city asset of huge cultural importance.
Standing on the right spot
Bristol Beacon sits as part of a cultural ecosystem that has fuelled our city’s creativity and imagination for generations. As a cultural asset, its value is immeasurable and it’s influence on those who visit, work, or perform there is lasting.
As an economic asset, the venue is uniquely placed to deliver maximum impact for our city’s economy. At the start of this project, we commissioned a study to assess that value. It showed that a refurbished venue would bring an additional £12 million to our city’s economy each year and sustain over 270 jobs in Bristol alone. These benefits increase as you expand to consider our wider regional and national economies. Standing at the centre of our city’s vibrant night time economy, which in itself employs almost a third of Bristol’s workforce, the finished venue will only add to our reputation as a venue of choice for millions of visitors per year and the centre of a regional tourism economy valued at over £2 billion a year.
Is the venue standing on the right spot? I’d say so.
When the first layers of decoration, plaster, and timber were stripped back from the hall in 2018 to reveal the Victorian structure, surprise after unforeseen surprise leapt forward as the venue gave up its secrets.
Walls were crumbling and in need of immediate stabilising, some columns were hollow or filled with rubble, and other walls had to demolished and rebuilt to keep the structure secure. In hidden corners there were rotting timbers, cracks, and defects in the masonry and asbestos in multiple areas. Then there were the three unknown wells as well as the chimney flues that appeared to lead nowhere but meant there were gaps under walls.
To say the building was not as we expected to find it is an understatement and the things we found as we peeled back the layers of history continued to add inevitable time and cost with each new discovery. Ignoring these issues was never an option and, to deliver on our ambition of restoring a world class venue for our city, they were things that had to put right.
Further investigation and painstaking analysis of every inch of the building led to a new set of works being drawn up. This new project included a significantly larger steel structure to support the ageing building and extensive masonry work to repair defects found along the way. Bristol’s Cabinet backed the works with further investment in March 2021 and we are now seeing the benefit of that decision as Bristol Beacon emerges as an iconic 21st century venue built to protect and honour the Victorian building that lay beneath.
From a less than stable position, this building is now well on its way to a new lease of life and a secure foundation for generations to come.
This hasn’t been a project free from issues. That we’ve just published a report that recommends further investment to finalise the project is recognition that things have moved on considerably since we began in August 2018.
The surprises sprung on the contractors by the building aside, the project has faced unforeseeable and unprecedented challenges over the past four and a half years.
First came COVID-19. The global pandemic shut down the construction industry and restricted efforts across the industry for many months as workplace restrictions limited activity. At the height of restrictions, work at the Beacon slowed to 65% of its pre-pandemic pace, only reaching up to 80% later on as restrictions eased, before returning to full capacity.
Whilst things on site were challenging, these issues were compounded by the knock-on effect of the pandemic as supply chains slowed, and in many cases, struggled to deliver the materials needed to progress the work.
Then came the national cost of living crisis and the unprecedented increases in inflation and interest rates. The impact this crisis has had on the project can be seen in the details of the report issued ahead of next week’s Cabinet meeting. Historic inflation has added millions of pounds to the cost of materials and services. Extra supply chain costs add hundreds of thousands just to get in the materials needed to finish the job. The extra time added by these issues also adds a cost as the project carries over previously expected completion dates.
This additional investment has transformed the project from one where Bristol City Council was a part funder of developing its cultural heritage, to one where the local authority’s funding share is 63%. That evolution necessitates a shift in our city’s fiscal relationship with the venue and requires us to think hard about how the venue’s role in Bristol must evolve too. This is why we have to explore the options of generating an income from the Bristol Beacon and building on the venue’s commercial potential to make money for our city.
The position this leaves us in is a challenging one but provides three clear options ahead:
- To progress with the project at an additional cost of £24.9 million and complete the project this year;
- To pause and start again in 12 months at an additional cost of £58 million and a possible opening date towards the end of 2025;
- Or to stop and aim to restart at a later date with an estimated additional cost upwards of £90 million and a start date unlikely to be before 2027.
These are the options ahead of Cabinet next week, with clear recommendations being made by contractors, officers, and consultants alike. Only after this decision and the completion of the project will we see this building successfully executed.