We can't even build a new football stadium these days

'Now we are treated to a spectacle as English as flowers at the site of a tragedy: a cabinet task force'
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The Independent Online

First let me declare my prejudices. The refusal of my four-year-old to clean her teeth this morning led to domestic nuclear war. My internet connection (the one at the bottom of this page) is down, and has been down since Monday afternoon, along ­ it transpires, after 10 telephone calls ­ with those of most BT service users. Right now, e-mails are stacking up in some hidden cyber-warehouse, waiting to crush me when the doors are finally opened. The constant rain is preventing me from fulfilling a commission for a book. And we ­ whose empire once coloured the map pink, from St Helena to the Solomons ­ can't even build a sodding football stadium any more.

This last is a real humiliation. For one, we are entitled simply to examine the proposition that we, as a nation, could not find a way of replacing the antique, shabby monument to the world sport that we ourselves invented, with something new. (Scots and Welsh readers are permitted, smug grins on their faces, to exempt themselves from this Jeremiad.) Now the crisis is upon us ­ our national stadium closed and nothing in the offing ­ we are treated to a spectacle that has become as English as flowers at the site of a tragedy: a cabinet task force suddenly convened for the purpose of sorting things out. In this case, Jack marks the spot. We can only hope that the Home Secretary brings to the task the same ruthlessness, attention to detail and no-expenses-spared attitude that characterised the policing of May Day in London.

Readers hardly need the details. Competing competencies, altered designs, prospective Olympic and World Cup bids, huge anticipated overruns, everyone blaming everyone else, and all in the service of a stadium that would be, in any case, too small. How did it come about that we were planning an arena with fewer seats than the one that houses Barcelona's club side? Why can we not manage what the Sydneyites so triumphantly accomplished in time for the 2000 Olympics?

This week's fashionable reasoning blamed the location. Wembley, it transpired, was a bad place to have a stadium. True, the transport links were good, but the cost of the site (bought for £120 million by the Football Association using a lottery grant) was too high, and its flexibility was too small. The claim was made that the ambitious Norman Foster design could be built in Birmingham at a fraction of the cost. But how? Run-down Wembley is not exactly Belgravia or Mayfair. So we are permitted to be suspicious of this assertion till we see the figures, and in the meantime reflect that Birmingham has had sharp-elbowed, silver-tongued civic government for half a generation after London's was abolished by Ken Baker.

No, the issue is not where, but why not. Why not, for instance, do as some other countries do, and have the government just pay for the lot out of taxpayers' money? Chris Smith decrees a new stadium, Gordon gives him the dosh, there's a public competition for other designs, local authorities compete to host said jewel of national culture, the ministry contracts out the management of the project, and four years later we all go to watch England beat Germany 5-0 on the Field of Dreams. That's what the FA says.

Just repeat the words "Jubilee Line Extension'' to yourself. The billions of pounds worth of cost overruns on this beautiful project were all borne by the Treasury. In Cumbria, they have been struggling with reduced veterinary services in part to pay for the line to Canary Wharf. If you know that the government is picking up the tab in the end, it makes you that bit less concerned about coming in on budget.

Or try "Dome''. "Governments,'' concluded Tony Blair, with a rueful grin, "should not really be in the entertainment business.'' Football is part of the entertainment business and not ­ as some like to believe ­ a branch of the armed forces. Surely it made sense for private money to play the lead role in getting the new Wembley built? If the stadium was commercially viable then private concerns would make a return, and if it wasn't, then at least the taxpayer wouldn't end up footing the bill. As for private/public partnerships, well you need to reserve those for priority services that could really benefit. Like the London Tube, for instance.

There's a problem here too. National stadia don't necessarily make much dough. Since we insist on having different ones for most of our sports (Twickenham and Wimbledon, for instance), and since athletics ­ we have discovered ­ sits badly with football, putting the spectators miles away from the action, its difficult to run enough events to make the place profitable. Which was one reason why the Chelsea supremo Ken Bates, the man who headed the project for a while, filled the plan with luxury hotels and commercial hospitality areas, at vast additional initial cost. To turn a bob or two the new Wembley needed to be used week in week out.

Enter Ken the third. Can the winter of our discontent be made glorious summer by this son of Brent? Why, asks Livingstone, cannot football ­ a wealthy and lucrative business in which single players change clubs for £20 million ­ pay for the stadium? Because English football is run by savage, primitive capitalists, who have organised a cartel (the Premiership), which acts to screw as much money out of the system as it can for individual clubs; whose ethics are displayed in the way they treat fans, referees, smaller clubs and managers; whose horizons are limited to the boundaries of their own stadia; who have acted to destroy the main terrestrial broadcasters public-service coverage of our national sport; and who ­ in the shape of the same Ken Bates ­ run teams in which occasionally not one British player is to be found. The FA only organises the Cup and international matches, so FA really does mean FA. The money is with men who don't give a damn whether England wins or loses.

And the fans go along with it as long as their teams prosper. Can you imagine English clubs adopting the enlightened American football system of placing the best new young players with last year's least successful teams? No, they're happy as long as their clubs poach and steal the better youngsters from other teams. And it's partly the fans that have stopped Tottenham or Arsenal or Chelsea from doing the bleeding obvious and moving from their cramped grounds into the new Wembley.

So we've entered a nexus, a gap between public need and private provision, a highly politicised and publicised killing-ground where nothing can survive. And this is not just about structure, but about culture ­ as much of the media as it is of politicians or sports administrators or business persons. We are sometimes, as Roger Daltrey once described us, "The Land of No", one gigantic Circumlocution Office, dedicated to the stopping of things from happening. Nimby is our national psychology, with its combination of anti-modernity, anti-risk, back-covering, whinging, special pleading and no-can-do.

Not always, of course. The Royal Festival Hall is 50 years old this week, and still going strong. Ask yourself why, Jack.

David.Aaronovitch@btinternet.com

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