Wembley grant was 'negligent'

A damning report into the funding of the Wembley Stadium project yesterday branded Sport England "slack and negligent" and the Football Association "deplorable" for the way they respectively gave and failed to hand back £120m of Lottery money for the venture.</p>The report, compiled by the cross party Culture, Media and Sport select committee, says that Sport England, which distributes Lottery money, should force the FA to repay the £120m because the deadline agreed for work to start on a national stadium has long since passed.</p>After years of planning, delays and U-turns, the FA has yet to decide even whether to build a national stadium, let alone whether it should be in London. That decision could even be dragged into next year.</p>Of Sport England's decision to give the award in the first place, before planning permission at Wembley had even been granted, the report says: "We regard this premature grant by Sport England as a cavalier and egregious use of public funds."</p>The DCMS committee has recommended that the Controller and Auditor General ⓠWhitehall's main financial watchdog ⓠshould investigate the funding of the national stadium project.</p>"It is quite deplorable that the FA has shown no intention of returning public money to which it has no right," the report states. It adds that the FA has at least "a moral obligation" to pay the £20m it agreed to refund Sport England when athletics was dropped from the Wembley plans.</p>The agreement to repay the £20m contingent on athletics was originally made between Sir Nigel Mobbs, the chairman of the Wembley task force, and Dave Richards, the chairman of the Premier League who was representing the football authorities at the time. It was later discussed in detail ⓠand famously sealed with a handshake but not set out in legally-binding documents ⓠbetween Chris Smith, then the Culture Secretary, and Ken Bates, then in charge of the Wembley project.</p>"The agreement struck between [Smith] and [Bates] for the payment of an arbitrary £20m to Sport England ⓠwhich after two years has yet to result in a single signed legal document, let alone a single penny being paid over ⓠrepresents a scandalously inept treatment of public money," the DCMS committee report says.</p>"Government had no business effectively to rewrite the terms of a Lottery Funding Agreement to which it was not a party. Equally, Sport England had no business allowing this to happen and deserve censure for being so slack and negligent."</p>Sport England insists that if it had forced the FA to refund any money, plans for a new national stadium would have collapsed completely. During much of Wembley's initial planning stage, the venue was being promoted as the potential centrepiece of England's ill-fated, Government-backed bid for the 2006 World Cup. "We totally reject the suggestions that our £120m grant to Wembley was premature and cavalier," Trevor Brooking, speaking in his capacity as chairman of Sport England, said.</p>The FA did not make any official comment of the committee's findings yesterday. A spokesman pointed instead to a letter sent by its chief executive, Adam Crozier, to the DCMS select committee earlier this month as a clarification of its position, including its standing over the repayment of any Lottery funds.</p>"The Government review [in which the troubleshooter Patrick Carter has advised the FA] in relation to the national stadium project is in a very advanced state," Crozier said. "The discussions between all parties are on-going, including issues relating to the grant paid to Wembley National Stadium Ltd." </p>