Clangers and opportunism result in chaos

Wembley fiasco: Rejection of revised design calls into question the whole framework of funding public stadia in Britain
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The emphatic rejection of the design for the new £475m Wembley stadium, delivered in Parliament yesterday by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Chris Smith, follows years of difficulties, recent weeks of bitter infighting, and will no doubt now prompt a further round of fury and recriminations.

The emphatic rejection of the design for the new £475m Wembley stadium, delivered in Parliament yesterday by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Chris Smith, follows years of difficulties, recent weeks of bitter infighting, and will no doubt now prompt a further round of fury and recriminations.

Smith, referring to an independent report from the architects Ellerby Beckett that decided the design was "unsuitable" for major athletics events, a requirement of the £120m Lottery grant, also announced a "thorough analysis" of decision-making by Wembley National Stadium Limited, and Sport England, the Lottery grant-giving body, in the design process. This suggests that the Government supports the British Olympic Association's view that the project has effectively been hijacked by football, which owns the development company, chaired by Ken Bates, the chairman of Chelsea.

Insiders at Wembley and Sport England have been suggesting that the objections to the design amounted to a belated, opportunist campaign from the Minister of Sport, Kate Hoey, and Simon Clegg, the BOA's chief executive, but they have now been backed to the hilt by Smith. Wembley is now faced with reworking the design by 15 December to accommodate athletics more effectively, or continuing to build a purely football stadium. Sources close to the project said yesterday that a Lottery grant might still be available but almost certainly not the whole £120m.

The dispute between the BOA and Wembley is a tale of disputed accounts of meetings and interpretations of statements, but the Wembley fiasco has much broader implications, calling into question the whole framework of funding of public facilities in Britain.

Lottery grants given by bodies such as Sport England, at arm's length from the Government, have to be matched by private finance, and provide only capital, meaning building costs, rather than running or revenue costs. Lottery rules also require that grants are not given "primarily for private gain".

The result at Wembley was the formation of a new trust, which had to buy it from its owners, Wembley plc, then run the stadium to make money, but not for private profit.

This has produced the uneasy spectacle of the Wembley National Stadium company becoming wholly owned by the FA, despite it being required to cater for other sports, and chaired by Bates. As football matches, featuring the England team and FA Cup finals, will be the most regular events, football revenues are supporting the stadium, which needs £355m in loans from the City to make it viable. The project envisages a host of commercial facilities, including a hotel, banqueting and conference facilities.

In April 1998, the stadium was bought from its previous owners for £103m, swallowing up most of the Lottery grant. The terms of the grant are not in doubt: the development company was required to build a stadium which could hold 80,000 for football and rugby league, 65,000 for athletics, and be capable of staging major tournaments in all three sports, clearly including the Olympics. The BOA supported the Wembley bid and asked in writing, in January 1998, that it be capable of holding 80,000, for athletics, in the event of it needing to host the Olympics.

What happened next is the subject of bitter argument and will be the starting point for the review announced yesterday by Smith. The architects, led by Lord Foster, wrote to the International Olympic Committee in July 1998. The IOC replied, confirming that it has no strict minimum capacity requirement for an Olympic stadium.

Clegg says he was never specifically told of this correspondence, a fact conceded by Wembley, but Clegg maintains that 80,000 would be regarded by the IOC as an appropriate capacity for an Olympic stadium.

A Wembley spokesman, Chris Palmer, said yesterday that Wembley relied on the correspondence with the IOC, and therefore did not brief Lord Foster to cater specifically for the Olympics. This has led to accusations in some quarters that the design made it difficult to host athletics and was, in effect, a football stadium. Certainly, Clegg felt from an early stage that he was not being adequately consulted.

Palmer refutes that, arguing that the design accommodates athletics. He agrees, however, that football, whose revenue will have to fund the £12m to £15m a year interest payments to the City, was given priority.

"As football was to be the main sport, we received a design for a great football stadium, capable of being converted," Palmer said. "We have been concerned throughout with the needs of the fans."

The resulting design, launched on 29 July this year, was for a 90,000-seat stadium in "football mode". The conversion to athletics, at 68,000, was to be done by building a concrete platform, replacing the lower tier of seats, at a cost of £20m, which would take six months. Wembley, and Sport England, point to Clegg's statement on the day of the launch when he said that he was "extremely comfortable" with the design.

Clegg's account is different. His concern was not about the platform per se, but about his original requirement that the stadium hold 80,000, in "athletics mode", for an Olympics. This was mentioned in principle in a meeting with then minister Tony Banks on 6 July, but then in a detailed presentation from the architects on 26 July, three days before the launch, Clegg says the Olympics was never even mentioned.

"It was clear to me then that our requirements for the Olympics had not been put into the design brief," he says.

Government sources said yesterday that they too were concerned, that they had sought and been given assurances before the launch that the stadium could host athletics with a capacity of 70,000 to 80,000.

Clegg says he received assurances from the Government at the launch that the upgrade design would be produced, and only then did he say he was "comfortable". This produced plans presented on 6 October that did not satisfy Clegg. There followed a meeting with Hoey on 19 October, after which the Ellerby Beckett report was commissioned. That report has now buried the design - not only the upgrade, but the platform method itself, at least if Wembley still wants a Lottery grant.

The débâcle is a major embarrassment for Wembley, the FA, Bates and Sport England, chaired by the former England player and TV pundit Trevor Brooking, although the Government, which has acted surprisingly boldly, will also face questions about why the process was allowed to go so far. This should provoke a wider inquiry than into the precise machinations of the Wembley project, involving the Lottery itself, which forces the funding of public facilities into an accident-prone hybrid of quasi-charitable status and aggressive commercialism - hence Wembley's domination by football and the formidable, financially driven figure of Bates. Smith's review will examine whether this chaos was the result of cock-up or conspiracy, but he should look also to the Lottery, which has been the mother of it all.

STRUCTURAL FAULTS Problems with the stadium's new design as outlined by the Culture Secretary Chris Smith: * Temporary platform for athletics track would need to be in place for one year before Olympic Games and would take time to dismantle - closing stadium for football for about two years. * Sight lines for many spectators would fail to meet Olympic requirements. * Seating space would be far from ideal, especially if 13,000 extra seats were crammed into the bottom tier to increase capacity for athletics. * The roof would cover some athletics lanes but not others. * The east-west alignment of the finishing straight would be detrimental to athletics.


KEN BATES The Chelsea chairman and the chairman of Wembley National Stadium Limited (the company planning the new stadium). His single-mindedness and wily business acumen make him the perfect man to head the project, but he has made no secret that he wants Wembley to be for football first and foremost.

KATE HOEY Since becoming Tony Banks' successor as sports minister, she has become the self-appointed heroine of the non-footballing world (where Wembley is concerned, at least). She ordered the independent report that has shown the stadium's flaws and is unlikely to back down now from the fight for a truly national stadium.

TREVOR BROOKING The mild-mannered, self-effacing former England international, now the chairman of Sport England. His main concern has been to get the stadium's designs to the planning stage and has, perhaps unwittingly, been led to believe that stadium will do what it says on the tin. Now caught in the middle of the furore.

CHRIS SMITH The Culture Secretary is in a delicate position for three reasons. He must not do anything to endanger England's 2006 World Cup bid, a project the Labour Government has backed heavily. He must not be seen to be ignoring Wembley's very real problems either. And he also has to explain how the situation has descended into farce without his intervention.

SIMON CLEGG The chief executive of the British Olympic Association, which would arrange a future Olympic Games in this country. "I very much hope the designers can come away with a better design than they have to date," he said yesterday. "Our only interest is not to compromise the integrity of a future Olympics." Has a fight on his hands.

LORD FOSTER The world-renowned architect who designed the new Wembley, and as such, has been working for Wembley National Stadium Limited. Would certainly not have done anything to deliberately damage the chances of a Wembley Olympics, but has been working to a brief handed out by a company primarily interested in football. THE ROAD TO WEMBLEY REVIEW

17 December 1996 Wembley selected over Manchester as preferred site for English National Stadium. Lottery grant announced: £120m. Manchester complains of bias, but is awarded £90m towards a Commonwealth Games stadium.

2 April 1998 Wembley plc agrees to sell stadium for £103m.

19 May 1998 Consortium led by Lord Foster commissioned to design project.

19 March 1999 Project taken over by Wembley National Stadium Limited, wholly owned by the FA, with Ken Bates as chairman. Stadium finally bought from Wembley plc.

29 July 1999 Official launch of project design. Simon Clegg, the British Olympic Association chairman, says he is "extremely comfortable", having received Government assurances that the stadium is capable of upgrade to Olympic capacity.

6 October 1999 Architects present plans on upgrade. Clegg still concerned.

19 October 1999 Meeting with Department of Culture, Media and Sport. Clegg still concerned. Kate Hoey, Minister for Sport, commissions independent report from the American architects Ellerby Beckett.

2 December 1999 Chris Smith, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, announces report findings. Platform design considered "unsuitable" for athletics. Wembley to review design by 15 December. "Thorough analysis" to be launched by officials of Department of Culture, Media and Sport into project's decision making.