New Wembley stadium 'could be the next Dome'

Click to follow

The £475m complex that will replace the old Wembley Stadium could become the next Dome-style fiasco, experts are warning the Government.

The £475m complex that will replace the old Wembley Stadium could become the next Dome-style fiasco, experts are warning the Government.

Yesterday's World Cup qualifier with Germany, the last match to be played at the legendary stadium, petered out with a 1-0 defeat for England, a disappointing end to 77 years of football at Wembley.

Now concerns are growing over the cost and viability of its replacement, the English National Stadium. Over three years, a state-of-the-art, 90,000-seat stadium will take shape, and Wembley's famous twin towers will vanish, replaced by a 133-metre arch.

But disagreements continue over the profitability of the project. Last year, the Government fell out with the English National Stadium Trust over plans not to include a permanent athletics stadium.

Stadium chiefs confidently predict more than one million visitors a year for smaller events alone - a figure some critics say resembles wildly over-optimistic predictions for the Dome at Greenwich. Now, experts are warning that the Government may have to bail out the stadium if it cannot service interest payments on the £400m loan package.

"It would be awful if Wembley became another Dome," said advertising director and former Wembley plc board member Peter Mead. "I have concerns over the cost of the new stadium." Mr Mead said he was surprised that the revenue forecasts for the new stadium had not been published.

Another former Wembley board member and promoter, Jarvis Astaire, has also expressed grave doubts that it can bring in the kind of revenue necessary to meet interest payments. "It is going to be a great stadium, but it could well finish up being something of a Dome," said Mr Astaire, "not from the point of view of people not coming but it may require the Government to pour in more and more money. The Government seems to regard the lottery money as money they can give to anything."

Wembley's flamboyant chief executive, Bob Stubbs, has gone on record saying that it will make £60m a year - a figure that Astaire said was unrealistic. He added that predictions for bringing in huge amounts of money through corporate boxes were unlikely to be realised.

"I think that they are a bit optimistic on the selling of executive boxes. You only sell executive boxes at grounds where the people who take the boxes support the teams, and where 30 games are played a year - whereas at an international stadium you get relatively few events, and you also have events such as pop concerts where the type of people who hire boxes are just not interested."

Stadium press officer Chris Palmer yesterday strongly dismissed warnings of a Dome-like fiasco. "We are building the best stadium in the world, with substantially less public money than either the Stadium Australia or Stade de France, and I think we should all be proud of that. This is a private sector project with some Government support."

But the real test for the new stadium will come in the next two weeks. Some £400m of the £475m package is to be raised by key financier Chase Manhattan Bank. According to the stadium's press office, around 12 leading banks are expected to join the bank's syndicate.

But the stadium will have to make around £32m a year just to service the debt. The English National Stadium Trust believes it can create £229m of total visitor expenditure a year - nearly twice the amount earned by the present stadium.

Mr Astaire is puzzled by the turnover and profit predictions. "We really marketed that place. Two FA Cup semi-finals don't make a summer. The most we ever made from the stadium was £15m a year."

Mr Palmer said money would come in from developing three "income streams". "The new stadium will contain the biggest banqueting facility in London and a range of conferencing facilities."

The trust predicts 2.7 million visitors a year - 1.7 million from major events and a further million from day visitors.

"This project has suffered from cynics all the way along," said Mr Palmer. "They said we would not get planning permission, that we would not get a contractor and then we would not get a lead financier. At each turn they have been proved wrong."