Multiplex denies 'Wembley is sinking' claim

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As the beleaguered Wembley contractor, Multiplex, was yesterday forced to deny that the new national stadium is sinking, the Conservative Party called for an official inquiry into the delays at the £757m venue.

Sporadic rumours have been circulating for months that there is a subsidence problem on the site, and that this might have had something to do with crushed sewage pipes and problematic drainage. A Multiplex spokesman was unequivocal in his denial. "There is absolutely no truth to reports that Wembley Stadium is subsiding," he said. "We utterly reject these claims."

Another project source said: "For all the problems we have had, whether that's sewers, falling rafters, labour disputes or steel suppliers, there has been no suggestion of serious subsidence." A third source said: "The sheer weight of any stadium, or any building, even a shed, will make it sink. There's always an element of settlement. You only really encounter difficulties if it sinks in one place more than another, when you risk cracking, which does then get serious."

The Tories have written to Tessa Jowell, the Secretary of State for Culture, saying that continuing speculation about Wembley's delays and cost overruns are damaging confidence in Britain's ability to deliver world-class building projects ahead of the 2012 Olympics in London.

The Tory's culture spokesman, Hugo Swire, said: "Given that hundreds of millions of pounds of public money has gone towards building Wembley and that billions more are about to be spent on the Olympics, it is essential that we learn the lessons for the delays and cost overruns at Wembley. We cannot delay the opening ceremony of the Olympics in the same way we can delay a pop concert."

It was announced last week that Wembley will not open for business until 2007 at least, leading to the relocation of all sporting and music events scheduled for this year.

Industry insiders said yesterday that Multiplex's problems arguably stem from an unrealistic initial tender price, and inexperience in Britain, where Wembley is the firm's first major project. "Why was only Multiplex left standing at the final tender stage? British contractors had done their sums and walked away," one source said.

Comparisons between the 90,000-seat Wembley are Arsenal's new 60,000 Emirates Stadium, which is being built on time and on budget, highlight why one is sinking (metaphorically, at least) and the other heading for success. The Emirates Stadium has not been handicapped, like Wembley, by having a monumental arch - seven metres in diameter, 315 metres long, the longest in the world - helping to hold up the roof. "Buildability" was crucial to the Emirates, said Ian Smith of the AYH consultancy, who are Arsenal's project and cost managers for the venue.

Costings were also realistic. The Arsenal project, in total, will cost around £800m, as envisaged, against around £1bn for Wembley (against its budget of £757m).

Wembley has been hampered because Multiplex did not have long-established supply lines in Britain for a venue of its size. That could be one reason why Multiplex was rejected as the contractor for the Emirates Stadium although Smith will not confirm as much. "We're concentrating on our project being a success," Smith said. "One of the reasons it has been is our contractor, Sir Robert McAlpine, a company that's 150 years old, and hugely experienced in knowing how to manage its supply lines well."

Smith concedes that the Emirates Stadium "has had its own problems and challenges" but also agrees that being a private, commercial project takes away some of the strains that Wembley has endured as a multi-agency venture, with the FA, the government and Sport England all involved.