Additional £22.5m for Bristol Beacon ‘a massive drain on finances’, says city councillor
Bristol City Council says the true value of the investment to the city’s economy will “ultimately dwarf” the financial costs
The city council poured another £22.5million into Bristol Beacon last year – more than it spent on building new homes, expanding schools or low-carbon energy projects.
An opposition councillor has criticised the decision as a “massive drain” on the authority’s finances, with every penny instantly written off and the concert venue continuing to be valued at zero in City Hall’s accounts because more is being spent than the building is worth.
Bristol City Council says the true value of the investment to the city’s economy will “ultimately dwarf” the financial costs of the works.
As previously reported, the cost of the renovation has almost tripled from an original £48million to £132million after the state of the Victorian hall was found to be a “worst-case scenario”, with discoveries including hollow pillars holding up roofs, unknown Elizabethan well shafts and structurally unsound hidden arches that were just covered up.
The refurbishment costs had already soared to £107million before mayor Marvin Rees’s cabinet approved an additional £25million in January, just as it was announcing widespread cuts to services to balance the authority’s annual budget.
That took the council’s contribution to the revamp from an initial £10million to £84million.
The decision also included withdrawing all ongoing financial support to Bristol Music Trust (BMT) – the charity responsible for the venue’s day-to-day running – when it reopens on November 30, as well as renegotiating the trust’s 30-year lease, which is currently on a peppercorn rent from the local authority with no break clause.
This review sparked alarm from Arts Council England (ACE) that it could impact BMT’s charitable objectives and also because BMT was founded by the city council in 2011 as a condition of the capital funding from ACE for the £20million foyer redevelopment, and any changes to the break clause may impact the Arts Council’s funding.
According to the local authority’s recently published draft accounts, the £22.5million spent on Bristol Beacon by the city council in 2022/23 means that the total amount ploughed into the project and written-off now stands at a whopping £93million, with a further £4million committed to building contractors Willmott Dixon.
The financial papers show the authority’s biggest area of capital investment was £61.5million in its housing stock, of which £20million was on new-build developments.
Next came £41.6million on transport schemes including the Clean Air Zone, flood defences, Portway park & ride railway platform, the Bus Deal programme, traffic infrastructure, street lighting and road maintenance.
Bristol Beacon is third on the list, followed by £15.3million for school buildings to provide more spaces for pupils amid increased demand, such as Year 7 “bulge” classes and the SEND expansion programme.
Cllr Jonathan Hucker (Conservative, Stockwood), a qualified accountant, said: “At a spend of £22.5million in the year, Bristol Beacon continues to be a massive drain on the council’s financial resources.
“All of this cash is getting written off in the accounts because the venue is leased at a peppercorn rent and therefore has no economic value to the council.
“I asked the mayor Marvin Rees if there is a break clause in the lease, or if it is possible that the agreement could be renegotiated in order to provide a better deal for the council and taxpayers.
“Frankly, the mayor’s response lacked clarity.
“However, it seems that any attempt to exit or renegotiate the lease would be opposed by Arts Council England, who are a stakeholder.
“It is therefore very unlikely that the council will ever see a return on its colossal expenditure on this project.”
The reply from Labour’s Mr Rees that Cllr Hucker referred to, at a council meeting two weeks before January’s cabinet, was that a future lease would provide more money to the council than the current arrangements but did not explain how the authority could get out of the existing lease agreement.
The other items listed under “capital investment” in the council’s accounts that were dwarfed by the amount spent on Bristol Beacon in 2022/23 are: £12.7million on energy renewables and the Temple and Bedminster heat networks; £9.6million on Avonmouth & Severnside enterprise area flood defences; £7.8million for “housing enabling work to accelerate the affordable provision” including Hengrove, Lockleaze and Glencoyne Square regeneration programmes; £4.3million on Temple Quarter; £3.7million on South Bristol Light Industrial Workspace; £3.5million on housing adaptations; £3.5million on the Hawkfield Business Park development and Bottleyard Studios; £2.7million for the rough sleeping accommodation programme; £2.2million maintaining buildings and waste depots; £2million replacing vehicles; £1.4million on parks and green spaces; and £1.3million on IT.
A council spokesperson said: “Our commitment to the modernisation and refurbishment of Bristol Beacon is an investment in the city’s economy that will deliver a world-class venue for generations to come.
“It goes well beyond the value of the bricks and mortar that make up the site and relates directly to our duty to stimulate economic growth that benefits the city.
“These benefits will be felt by the local night-time economy and the retail sector as footfall increases, jobs are created, and tourism rises.
“Beyond these direct benefits to the city economy, there will be indirect economic benefits felt from the education, employment, and training opportunities the Bristol Beacon will deliver and support.
“Estimates prior to the works began put the total economic impact of the new venue and its delivery at over £410million over a 20-year period, supporting nearly 400 jobs a year during that time.
“This return will ultimately dwarf the initial investment made in the physical building itself.
“To say the site has no value to the council or the city is incorrect.
“Even as the building work has progressed, the Bristol Beacon continues to benefit the local economy through music education programmes and events.
“The city council will make no subsidy or payments to the venue that will be self-sustaining, and a future commercial return to the council is expected.
“Our building partners, Willmott Dixon, are also supporting the local economy with over half of their spending on companies within 20 miles of the Beacon and just under half of the new jobs created have been filled by people coming from the Bristol region.
“The team are also delivering multiple training opportunities throughout their time on site which is providing important upskilling for local people.”