Wembley still in limbo as ministers play for time

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The Independent Online

Fresh doubt hung over plans to build a national football stadium at Wembley last night after the Government ordered a further four-month delay to the troubled project.

While the Football Association announced that the site in north-west London remained its preferred home for the English national team, ministers demanded fresh guarantees about the scheme.

The decision keeps alive Birmingham's hopes of developing the stadium and leaves renewed uncertainty over whether it will ever be built. Any prospect of Britain attracting any of the largest international sporting events is also disappearing into the distance.

The Government had been preparing to approve the Wembley scheme this week, but at the last moment ordered a further halt after worries were raised over how the contract to build the stadium was awarded. Its extreme caution over the prestige project follows the public relations disaster of the Millennium Dome and the collapse of plans to build a national athletics stadium at Picketts Lock, north London.

After three days of talks with ministers, the Football Association made clear it wanted to push ahead with plans based on the original 90,000-seater stadium designed by Lord Foster of Thames Bank with a huge "triumphant arch" to replace the twin towers. But Tessa Jowell, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, told MPs outside financial experts and the public spending watchdogs would take four months to scrutinise the Wembley scheme, with no guarantee it would be approved. At that point Birmingham could re-enter the bidding to build the ground, or plans to build a national stadium could be scrapped altogether.

The Wembley proposals have already received £120m of lottery funds, with the prospect of another £20m of public money to improve road and rail links to the site.

Gerald Kaufman, chairman of the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, said the scheme had "become a grubby and dodgy project in which the Football Association has shown itself to be greedy in holding on to £120m of public money to which it has no conceivable right".

The shadow Culture Secretary, Tim Yeo, said: "If dithering were a spectator sport, the roar of the crowd would be deafening. No less than five years on from the start of this process, Tessa Jowell admits it is possible that no national stadium will be developed."

The organisers of the Birmingham bid challenged the Wembley team to prove its plans were legally and financially watertight. A spokesman said: "Our project represents best value for money."

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