City council chiefs spent more money on the final stage to renovate the Bristol Beacon last year than on school buildings, flood defences and parks combined, it has been revealed. The authority’s annual accounts show it ploughed another £22million into the concert hall revamp in 2023/24, with all of it written off.

It means that, adding to the previous running total of £93million, the total amount now written off on the venue’s refurbishment is a staggering £115million. A Tory councillor has branded the project a “financial disaster that cannot be underestimated”.

The council says the venue, which reopened in November, is an “essential cultural asset to Bristol that has the potential to generate £13million to Bristol’s economy each year”. As previously reported, the cost of the work almost tripled from an original £48million to £132million – of which £84million has fallen on the city council, vastly more than the initial expectation of £10million – after the state of the Victorian building was deemed a “worst-case scenario”.

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Structural engineers found hollow pillars holding up roofs, unknown Elizabethan well shafts and weak arches that were simply covered up, hidden and left unrecorded. Former mayor Marvin Rees’s administration decided to continue with the refurbishment after analysis showed the alternatives were financially even more calamitous.

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Pausing the project, mothballing the hall and restarting after a year would have cost £165million while abandoning it altogether and making the premises safe – requiring contracts to be ripped up and millions in grants potentially repaid – needed more than £200million. But in 2022, auditors Grant Thornton blamedBristol City Council for having “underestimated the complexity and difficulty” of the redevelopment and that its “failure” to have effective management arrangements in place from the start caused the bill to spiral.

Now, the authority’s draft accounts, which cover April 1, 2023, to March 31 this year, show the project was the third biggest spend of its £232million capital programme, which is long-term investment to improve big things like buildings, roads and infrastructure. The largest chunk, £100.7million, was on the council’s housing, including £42million to build new homes.

Another £43million paid for transport schemes such as the Clean Air Zone, some flood defences, Bedminster Green regeneration, buses, New Cut Bridge upgrades, street lighting and road maintenance. But next came £21.9million on the Bristol Beacon – almost double the next largest area of investment, £12.2million on school buildings, including additional pupil spaces to meet increasing demand.

The main part of this was on Year 7 “bulge” classes and the expansion programme for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). The Bristol Beacon spending was also nearly twice that of the £11.5million on housing enabling work to provide affordable homes, including Hengrove Park, Filwood, Lockleaze, Glencoyne Square and Southmead regeneration programmes.

Next came £6.7million on flood defences and ecological infrastructure in Avonmouth and Severnside enterprise area, in partnership with South Gloucestershire Council and the Environment Agency, followed by £6million on the Temple Quarter regeneration. A total of £4.3million went on energy efficiency schemes in homes, £4.2million on improving IT, £4.1million for housing adaptations and £3.6million on “new housing opportunities as part of the refugee resettlement programme”.

Refurbished atrium inside concert venue
Inside the Bristol Beacon after the revamp (Image: PAUL BLAKEMORE)

About £2.7million was invested on the South Bristol Light Industrial Workplace project, £2.2million to maintain buildings and waste depots, £1.8million towards parks and green spaces, and rounding off the top 15 was £1.1million in capital grants to community organisations “to support asset improvements”. The accounts said the capital programme was financed by a combination of £42million through borrowing and £190million from grants, contributions and reserves.

Referring to the Bristol Beacon’s former name, Cllr Hucker (Conservative, Stockwood) said: “The Colston Hall refurbishment project is a financial disaster for the council and taxpayers of the city of Bristol. The scale of this disaster cannot be underestimated, and it is largely unmitigated.

“The council borrowed £50million in the last financial year. Without the overspend on the Colston Hall it would not have been necessary to borrow this money.

“This is in addition to the significant funds that the council have already consumed to finance this project.” He said that last year the council announced Bristol Music Trust, the charity that operates the venue, would hand over some profits back to the local authority in a bid to recoup some of the cash.

“However, the fact that the cost of the Colston Hall refurbishment is still being written off indicates that the venue is still deemed by the auditors to be of little or no economic value to the council,” Cllr Hucker said. “It therefore seems likely that this arrangement will not make a material difference to the council’s finances.”

As previously reported, a “lessons learned” report, ordered by Grant Thornton to prevent other major projects suffering a similar fate, has been delayed by months but will finally be presented to the audit committee next month. A Bristol City Council spokesperson said: “Bristol Beacon is a world-class venue that stands alongside the very best concert halls and music venues in Europe.

Large stone arches during rebuilding work
During the refurbishment, several arches and pillars were found to be structurally weak (Image: Robin Murray)

“It is a product of significant financial investment contributed by many organisations, including the council, trusts, foundations, and the generous donations of 9,000 citizens from across the city. It is an essential cultural asset to Bristol that has the potential to generate £13million to Bristol’s economy each year.

“The refurbished Bristol Beacon has already been enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of people and delivers an inclusive centre for community learning and education. This response from residents and visitors to the first six months of the Beacon being reopened delivers a value to the city that goes beyond the price put on bricks and mortar alone.

“In addition to the net benefit to the city from the boost to our cultural and entertainment sectors, we are also seeing thousands of children and young people already benefiting from the venue’s music education spaces and hundreds of jobs being created directly linked to the Beacon.” A Bristol Music Trust spokesperson said: “As the independent music charity responsible for operating Bristol Beacon on behalf of Bristol City Council, our mission is to create unity and joy through live music for the whole of the city.

“Since it reopened six months ago, over 130,000 people have heard world-class music in our transformed venue, over 2,300 children and young people have been making the most of the new spaces to practise and perform and we have presented over 200 concerts, including community festivals Be Kind Bristol and We Care Week, that wouldn’t have otherwise had a home in the city.”

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