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Wembley Stadium

3.31 pm

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Chris Smith): With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the future of Wembley stadium.

Wembley stadium is synonymous with the best of British sport, and has been the stage for some of this country's greatest sporting achievements. Our aims for the new national stadium that we all want to see at Wembley are to ensure that we have a world-class sporting venue that is ready to seize the opportunities of the new century, and to provide a fitting centrepiece to England's hosting of the FIFA world cup in 2006.

It has hitherto been the desire of this Administration--and, indeed, of the previous Government--that England should have a stadium able to stage a wide range of the world's major sporting events. As the House knows from previous debates and questions, the consistent aim has been to design a new national stadium that can stage the premier events of football, rugby and athletics. Sport England has provided £120 million of national lottery funds to secure that aim.

The design proposals for the new stadium were launched by Wembley National Stadium Ltd. on 29 July this year. The design was for the construction of a stadium laid out for football and rugby, which was, we were assured, capable of conversion into athletics mode for staging both the world athletics championships and a future Olympic games. The designers had come up with a novel solution for meeting the conflicting demands of athletics on the one hand, and football and rugby on the other, by proposing the construction of a concrete deck on which the athletics track could be laid for the holding of an athletics event.

I have to tell the House that, at the time, I was concerned about the viability of the proposed solution, not least because of the length of time--six months or more--that would be involved in the construction and subsequent removal of the deck on any occasion on which it was required. Following the 29 July launch, I therefore asked Wembley National Stadium Ltd. to work up its proposals in more detail and to present them to the British Olympic Association for comment. Following that presentation, which took place on 6 October, the BOA voiced a number of continuing concerns.

As a result of that, my hon. Friend the Minister for Sport called a meeting of all interested parties on 19 October to discuss the project. Those discussions did not satisfactorily resolve the outstanding issues, so my hon. Friend asked UK Sport to commission an independent report on the technical merits of the Wembley National Stadium Ltd. proposals. That report has been prepared by sports architecture expert consultants DLA Ellerbe Becket, and we received it on Monday of this week. I am placing a copy in the Library of the House this afternoon.

I have to tell the House that the report raises serious doubts about the viability of the stadium design for international athletics events. In any likely configuration, the sightlines for large numbers of spectators would be poor, and in some cases could fail Olympic requirements; the seating space for individual spectators would be far

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from ideal; the roof would cover some lanes of the track and not others; there would be no portal for people and equipment to gain access to the deck; the east-west alignment of the track would be detrimental to athletes; and, for any Olympic games, the deck would have to be constructed and in place for at least a year in advance, which could render the stadium unusable for international standard football for more than two years.

My reluctant conclusion from the Ellerbe Becket report is that the stadium as designed--or in any similar configuration--cannot readily provide the central venue for an Olympic games bid for London. Furthermore, it seems unlikely that it could provide an appropriate venue for the world athletics championships, for which we hope to bid in 2005. It will, however, be able to provide the best venue in the world for the 2006 football world cup.

I am, of course, anxious to give Wembley National Stadium Ltd. and Sport England the opportunity to address the concerns raised by Ellerbe Becket. We should bear in mind that it was a policy requirement of the lottery grant from Sport England that the national stadium should be capable of hosting--or of being adapted to host--both the world athletics championships and the Olympic games, as well as football and rugby league events. Therefore, I have asked both Wembley National Stadium Ltd. and Sport England to report to me by 15 December with any solutions they are able to propose in response to the report. I have also, separately, asked my officials to undertake a thorough analysis of the process of decision making by all parties up to this point.

I am keen not to lose valuable time. Therefore, my hon Friend the Minister and I will begin immediately to discuss with Sport England, UK Sport, UK Athletics and the BOA, other non-Wembley alternatives for staging international athletics events. It may well be that such a cost-effective solution can be found. My officials will also take forward parallel discussions with Sport England, Wembley National Stadium Ltd. and the Football Association on whether and how the current lottery funding agreement might need to be modified if the new Wembley stadium concentrates simply on its primary role as a venue for football and rugby.

I should like to make it absolutely clear to the House and, indeed, to the world in general, that the concerns raised by Ellerbe Becket relate solely to the suitability of the current design for athletics. There is no question of the new Wembley stadium not being at the heart of England's staging of the 2006 FIFA world cup. I continue to believe that the world cup bid is strong, and we will do everything we can to help it to succeed.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey): I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for his courtesy in giving me notice of its sad and disappointing content. The House is united in its support for the development of a world-class national stadium at Wembley, which is recognised around the world as a symbol of sporting excellence and the home of football.

The redevelopment of Wembley has the capacity to act as a focal point for efforts to host major international events. It can also benefit the local environment and regeneration in that part of the capital. However, there is widespread and understandable dismay at the way in which that important national project has been mishandled. Nothing that the Secretary of State has said today will dispel that dismay.

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The process has dragged on for five years. The original hope--endorsed by the Government as recently as April this year--for the 2003 world athletics championships to be the first major event at the stadium has proved wildly optimistic. Most recently, concern has focused on whether the design of the stadium would be up to the job of hosting an Olympic games. These are not new concerns. The Select Committee raised serious doubts in its report in May this year. It also criticised the

Why has it taken the Secretary of State so long to respond? Can he confirm that the British Olympic Association wrote to the chief executive of Sport England as long ago as January 1998, seeking to ascertain what thought had been given to the suitability of the venue for hosting the Olympics, and pointing out that no one had sought its views? Can he also confirm that the BOA contacted officials in his Department in March 1998 to set out its concerns, which were repeated in May, July and November 1998 and May, June, July and October this year? Can he explain why his own statements and departmental press releases have repeatedly referred to the ability to host the Olympics when he must have known that the BOA's view was that the stadium was not up to scratch?

The Secretary of State has told that House that he became concerned on 29 July this year, at the launch of the project--yet at that time he issued a press release describing the design as "stunning". What is stunning is today's announcement of further delay. Will he confirm that, although the International Olympic Committee has no specific requirements as to a minimum capacity for opening and closing ceremonies, it has stated that capacity should be about

Is it surprising that, with all the delay and uncertainty, City investors have begun to feel nervous about supporting the project? He will know that its cost has risen in recent months from £320 million to £475 million, making it the most expensive project of its kind ever contemplated.

Why did the Minister for Sport--who sits there demurely and slightly sheepishly, next to the Secretary of State--wait until the day that the planning application was lodged before letting it be known that she was unhappy with it? She was reported at the time as saying that it was the "wrong kind of stadium". Was not that grossly irresponsible? Does not the Secretary of State face an invidious position that is entirely of his Government's making? Further delay will cost money and confidence and run the risk of undermining our bid to host the 2006 world cup. On the other hand, to proceed to develop a national stadium that is incapable of hosting an Olympic games would be a tragic missed opportunity. How many chances will this country get to build a truly national stadium?

Conservative Members wish the project well and we hope that it will succeed, but can we be assured that there will be no more ministerial incompetence, bickering, interference and failed communications? The sumof today's announcement reflects dither, delay and

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incompetence, and those have become the Secretary of State's defining characteristics. I offer him three words of advice: get a grip.

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