Arena delayed further in hunt for new contractor

Published on: 19 Jan 2017

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THE COUNCIL is looking for another company to build the Bristol arena after negotiations with Bouygues UK broke down.

The French-owned building giant was dropped by the council when it became an open secret that the two sides could not agree on a price to build the arena.

There appears to be only one company left in the frame to pick up the contract – Buckingham Group, a specialist in sports and leisure complexes, which built the £30m London 2012 Olympic handball arena, known as the Copper Box.

Mayor Marvin Rees says the extra talks needed will add another year to the programme, meaning the arena will not open until at least autumn 2020 – four years later than planned.

Neither Bouygues nor Buckingham Group wanted to talk to the Voice. The Voice understands that three other firms – BAM Construction, Laing O’Rourke and Sir Robert McAlpine – walked away from the 2015 talks because they thought the council wanted them to take too much risk.

Bouygues UK was named preferred bidder to build the arena in February last year, with Buckingham Group the only other contender remaining. 

It was expected that a budget and timetable would be agreed by the summer of 2016, but that date kept being postponed.

By last autumn it became clear that the talks were in trouble, but Mr Rees and Cllr Helen Holland, cabinet member for place, insisted a deal would come in the winter.

With no signs of progress after almost a year of talks, the Voice and others asked for an update. 

Finally, on January 10, Lib Dem leader and Knowle councillor Gary Hopkins tabled a question to Mr Rees: “When will the mayor admit publicly that the negotiations with the current contractors on the present plan to deliver the arena have failed?”

The next day, January 11, the council said it had halted talks with Bouygues. Sources indicate the council would not pay the price Bouygues demanded, and consultants advised that another contractor should be able to complete the project for less.

Mr Rees said: “I firmly believe that we can and will build the arena Bristol deserves but this has to be for the right price.” 

If the council cannot agree a deal with Buckingham, tenders will be sought from other firms. But Mr Rees still expects construction to begin by spring 2018.

Cllr Hopkins said the delay will only add to the cost – officially £95m but now thought to be many millions higher.

Every week of delay to the project was said by the council to add £80,000 to the bill. An extra year would add more than £4m.

“There’s heavy inflation in construction costs, especially in this part of the world,” said Cllr Hopkins. It leaves the one remaining contractor in a strong position to negotiate, he added. 

Cllr Jon Wellington, who represents Windmill Hill ward, said he though it was better that the arena was brought in on budget, rather than on time.

Former mayor George Ferguson said he was “extremely disappointed” by the news, but he believed other contractors would re-enter the fray.

However, Mr Ferguson predicted that the higher costs will mean that it will take more than the 10 years he had projected before the capital is paid back and the arena goes into profit. “I expect that to be extended to 15 years,” he said. 

“It remains excellent value to the city and has already encouraged further investment into what is the most successful enterprise zone in the country, and is a factor in the decision by the University of Bristol to create a second campus adjacent to the station, on the Post Office site that I acquired for the city. 

“There is no sensible option but to proceed and it is important that the city unites behind what is such an important project for our future,” he said.

However, Peter Abraham, the Tory councillor who chaired the committee that gave the arena planning permission in April, said it was in the wrong place.

He accused Mr Ferguson of rushing the project through and told the Bristol Post: “This could be a financial burden on Bristol for years to come. Maybe we should be stopping it now.”

A better site would be the old Brabazon hangar at Filton, he said.

The last arena plan at Temple Meads fell apart 10 years ago after a similar impasse over costs.

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