The infrastructure giant is one of the largest in southeast Asia.
Mayor Marvin Rees announced on Tuesday his decision not to back a city centre arena in the Temple Island site near Temple Meads, following a protracted process including a ‘value for money’ council assessment which has been criticised by political rivals.
It is widely anticipated that the Brabazon hangar in Filton will be the arena’s new location. It will be financed privately, absolving the council of financial risk – but who’s behind the private alternative? The proposed developers of the arena are Malaysian investment and infrastructure giant, YTL.
Earlier this summer, former mayor, George Ferguson, went so far as to state in a public letter that Mayor Rees may have breached the local government code of conduct in accepting hospitality from YTL, and therefore should not make the final call on the arena’s location.
Meanwhile, as reported by the Bristol Post, members of Bristol’s Green Party had expressed concern that there was a lack of council transparency and an issue of ‘revolving doors’ between council and YTL.
Green Party members also claimed that the council’s use of accountancy firm KPMG to conduct a ‘value for money’ review of the arena project may pose a conflict of interest as they also worked as auditors for YTL.
Mayor Rees rejected claims that he favours the proposed out-of-town site for a new arena after accepting hospitality from YTL. Rees has defended the assessment as evidence-driven, financially prudent and in the best interests of the city.
Here are some nuggets of information about YTL, the Malaysian company which stands to gain from an arena in the Brabazon Hangar.
A construction giant with an eccentric managing director
The Malaysian infrastructure conglomerate was founded in 1955 by Yeoh Tiong Lay, a Malaysian billionaire who died in 2017. Starting off as a small construction firm, it grew into a global company which has shaped the Kuala Lumpur skyline, dominated Malaysian markets, and increased its footing internationally. With a hand in utilities, high speed rail, construction, property development, luxury hotels and more, YTL announced profits in 2017 of $327million.
Back in 2002, YTL bought Wessex Water in a £544.5m takeover. The regional water and sewerage provider covers Bristol and large parts of south west and southern England.
Francis Yeoh, the billionaire’s eldest son, is the managing director of the corporation. Yeoh, a philanthropist and devout Christian, has often attributed his business success to Jesus, telling the Guardian in a 2003 interview, “I am the pencil, God writes the script.”
Under his watch, the Malaysian tycoon has berated the extent of crony capitalism in Malaysia. Francis Yeoh has expanded his business overseas to countries such as the UK, Australia and Singapore, which he says, do not tolerate corruption, practise meritocracy and stand for the rule of law.
Yeoh’s claim that YTL has succeeded without government patronage has raised some eyebrows, not least how a company in Malaysia could have prospered without currying favour with political leaders and civil servants.
In a shock election result in May 2018, the Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak was ousted – he had been embroiled in a huge corruption scandal. The new prime minister Mahathir Mohamad pledged to review large-scale infrastructure projects sponsored by the Najib administration.
Following the announcement, there was a drop in share prices for YTL and large-scale infrastructure companies with close links to the previous administration, particularly those that were seen to expand China’s economic interests in Malaysia.
The leaked Paradise Papers show that beyond countries like the UK and Australia, Yeoh is seemingly connected to a company in the British island territory of Bermuda. He is a listed shareholder of the Eastern and Oriental express limited – a company registered to the secretive tax haven.
Revolving doors in Bristol
Back in Bristol, the revolving door between public and private sectors has come under scrutiny in the wake of the Bristol arena debacle.
Two former council bosses with intimate knowledge of the Bristol Arena project left the local authority in recent years to join YTL with a direct hand in the Bristol Arena proposals.
Barra Mac Ruairi, formerly Bristol council’s strategic director of place, was the second highest paid person in the local authority, with a salary of £135,000. In May 2017 he left to become Chief Operating officer at YTL Developments (UK) Limited.
Once at YTL he was one of two former Bristol Council bosses who proposed the Brabazon Hangar as an alternative location. But before leaving council, Ruairi had been a key player in planning for Bristol Arena to be located at ‘Arena Island’, near Temple Meads. Ruairi now works as director of estates at the University of Bristol.
The other former council officer to have moved from council to YTL was Robert Orrett. He had been the council’s service director of property, then property director for YTL Developments (UK) Limited. He, like Ruairi, worked only a short stint at YTL, until spring 2018.
Before leaving council to YTL, both Orrett and Ruairi had worked closely with former Mayor, George Ferguson, on planning the Bristol Arena project.
Meanwhile, Colin Skellet, the UK chairman of YTL, has also served as the chair of the West of England Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP). The LEP originally agreed to grant then-Mayor Ferguson £53m towards the cost of the arena and developments to the Temple Quarter.
In 2003 Skellet was cleared of bribery. He had been arrested on suspicion of accepting a £1m bribe during a £544.5m takeover of Wessex Water by the then little-known YTL corporation. He strongly protested his innocence and criticised police handling of the case.