Is there a good business case for an arena?
If you use social media, you may well have seen this twitter thread from Cardiff Council issued on 16th September extolling the virtues of the proposed new arena in Cardiff Bay. The same day, this article appeared on the BBC website. It contained some major inaccuracies including the amount of money that the Council are investing in the arena and its location. Interestingly, the Council did not move to correct these posing a question as to why. It is also interesting that these promotional pieces in the media appeared in advance of the arena proposals being considered for approval by Cabinet on 23rd September, as well as being during the pre-application consultation for planning which closes on 29th September. The arena proposals comprise nearly 900 pages of the nearly 2,000 pages of papers presented to Cabinet members for this week’s meeting. (Much of that information, including the business case, is not available in the set of papers available to the public which run to just under 800 pages).
Is there a good business case for an arena?
Since the concept of an arena for Cardiff was originally put forward nearly a decade ago, things have changed considerably. The original idea was for a venue that was both an international convention centre and entertainment arena. The development of the ICC at Newport means a convention centre is no longer on the cards. In addition, both Swansea and Bristol have progressed with their plans for arenas, Swansea’s being much smaller than the envisaged 15,000 capacity in Cardiff but Bristol’s being a similar size. Is there a robust business case for an entertainment arena of this size in Cardiff? We don’t know because the information is not in the public domain.
Will the arena be a good investment?
I was talking to a work colleague about developments in Cardiff last week – something he said in relation to the arena was very telling. If an arena of that size in that location is an attractive proposition both financially and creatively, then the private sector would be interested in making more of the investment needed and taking more of the risk involved. As it stands, the Council are looking to invest over £200million to enable the arena to be built. To pay the borrowing costs of a significant proportion of this, a lease will be put in place with an arena operator (Live Nation). Is the Council taking an appropriate amount of risk and what contingency plans might be put in place should the arena operator walk away from the arrangement? We don’t know because the information is not in the public domain.
What is in the public domain are statements that show that costs are already rising (in relation to the closure of Schooner Way) and that approval is being sought to ‘further extend the Council’s cost underwrite’. The Council has already agreed to ‘underwrite the Live Nation consortium’s costs in certain circumstances (up to a pre-agreed cap)’. However the detail of what the underwrite and cap actually mean in monetary terms is not available to the public.
Whether spending this amount of money on an arena when there are so many other pressing needs for investment, including tackling increasing inequality across the city, is a big question that needs a robust debate.
Cardiff has stated its intention to be a carbon neutral city by 2030. Yet we are seeing proposal after proposal involving demolition and the construction of new buildings, in some cases demolition of buildings that have been around for less than 40 years. The arena and surrounding development is one of these examples. What are the embedded CO2 emissions from this approach? Are they being adequately accounted for in calculations of carbon neutrality? Is the building properly future proofed when it comes to environmental impact? Just one element of the proposals, the inclusion of a gas boiler in the building, gives a clue as to how seriously environmental impact is being taken.
Local residents have expressed a number of concerns about both the construction phase and the arena once it is up and running. These include bringing large numbers of people into what is currently a quiet residential area. The proposals also involve a loss of part of Silurian Park, a valuable green space for local residents. Transport is a major concern; some existing road links will be closed while the much needed improvements to public transport are not part of the arena project and do not yet have funding.
Another dimension to community impact is children. Cardiff wants to achieve the UN Child Friendly City status. The guiding principles for this include respecting the views of children and ‘having a system in place to facilitate public participation in decision-making to promote local accountability for children’s rights.’ Where is the consultation with children who live in Butetown about the arena and what it might mean for them, including the loss of some of Silurian Park?
There are so many questions to be asked about the arena proposals. But the Council is in a hurry to get things done before the local elections next year. The arena timeline announced by the Council shows construction starting next April. Rushing big decisions is a recipe for poor scrutiny and inadequate public engagement. And poor scrutiny and inadequate public engagement equate to poor governance; the arena is just the latest example of poor governance when it comes to Cardiff Council decision-making.