Brent v Bates is big Wembley fight

Council say they will not be pushed around as conflict over new national stadium deepens
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The Independent Football

Ken Bates thinks it's all over. He has kicked the Minister for Sport into touch and told athletics to take a running jump over Wembley's putative arch of triumph. But the game of two halves may well be heading for extra-time, and penalties.

Ken Bates thinks it's all over. He has kicked the Minister for Sport into touch and told athletics to take a running jump over Wembley's putative arch of triumph. But the game of two halves may well be heading for extra-time, and penalties.

His sniffy dismissal of Kate Hoey's objections to the design of the £475m project ("she's on a learning curve") and his arrogant throwaway line that the boxes of paperwork submitted for planning permission "should keep Brent Council staff quiet for a few months" could rebound on the bearded baron of Stamford Bridge.

Hoey knows that her intervention has come too late to force the New Wembley planners to go back to the drawing board and incorporate a permanent athletics track, which she would like, but the acrimony has done neither the Football Association nor the principal boys in the Wembley pantomime, Bates and the Sport England chairman, Trevor Brooking, any favours as far as the sports minister is concerned.

While admitting that Bates "has probably won" in his desire to make Wembley a national football stadium rather than the originally envisaged all-purpose sports arena permanently available for athletics and a future Olympic bid, Hoey has yet to consider the independent report which she ordered from a team of US consultants into the feasibility of reconfiguring the lower tiers of the stadium to provide the necessary 80,000 capacity should London win the right to stage the Olympics for the first time since 1948. This was due on her desk last week but it is understood there has been a further delay and that only an interim report will be seen by Hoey next week. It is likely to be a fortnight before the full findings are officially known.

Even if the plan is considered workable, it will take up to 10 months to construct and remove a temporary raised track whenever required, with Sport England, who have already committed £120m of public money towards the cost of rebuilding Wembley, having to fork out a further £20m each time. "If they are picking up the tab for that, they might just as well have picked up the tab for a proper running track from the beginning," the former junior international high-jumper Hoey told me.

Her comments about believing the design should be scrapped may not have pleased her departmental boss, Chris Smith, who, with her predecessor, Tony Banks, went along with the Bates blueprint from the beginning. But Hoey will not backtrack. "It is very difficult for me to go around saying that I think it is all wonderful when I don't," she says.

But the real challenge to Bates, who is on record as saying he does not think London should bid for the Olympics anyway, will come from Brent Council, who made it clear last week that they will not be steamrollered into giving planning permission for something which does not meet with their unconditional approval, which includes Wembley being suitably equipped as a prospective Olympics venue. Brent have always wanted a permanent running track and purpose-built warm-up area as a central requirement and the council leader, Paul Daisley, says: "We are representing the nation against Kan Bates' football pitch."

Bates, as chairman of the stadium project, may find stiff resistance from an equally forceful personality in the long-serving Labour councillor John Duffy, who will chair the subcommittee of 10 expected to take up to six months to deliver their decision on the planning application by next April. But whether, as Bates remarked during Monday's announcement of the re-design, it will keep them quiet, remains to be seen. "Councillor Duffy is not a man to be pushed around," said one council source. "He won't stand for any of Bates' nonsense."

Brent have now called for a national debate on the issue. "This is not Ken Bates' stadium but a national stadium and it is only right that the people should have a say," a Brent spokesman commented. "We have a responsibility to the public and will be extremely mindful of that." Brent say that Wembley should be "a decent window to the world", that there should be a beneficial impact on the local community and that it should be a national stadium "in every sense of the word". The council will require Bates' Wembley National Stadium Ltd to pay for improved rail and road links to the stadium, which could cost up to £45m, but Bates insists Wembley has no intention of doing so and insists they will press ahead with their plans even if the independent report is negative ("We have a binding contract with Sport England").

But the one obstacle he cannot huff, puff and blow down is planning permission. And the illuminated 153m-tall arch which will rise like a halo over Wembley may yet crash down around his ears. The British Olympic Association say if they are not satisfied with Wembley they will pursue plans to build an alternative stadium elsewhere in London.

Something like the Stade de France or Berlin's new Olympic Stadium could be built for half the current cost of Wembley. In this case the BOA believe that the £120m given to Wembley by Sport England should be refunded and re-allocated towards the new stadium, leaving football to foot the entire Wembley bill, which many believe should have happened from the beginning.