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Wembley Stadium

3.31 pm

Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey) (by private notice): To ask the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport if he will make a statement about the Wembley national stadium project.

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Chris Smith): The Football Association's announcement yesterday that it could not deliver its plans for Wembley was very disappointing news, all the more so given the repeated assurances given to Sport England and the Government over the whole of last year, by the Wembley project team, that everything was on track. The Government have consistently supported the concept of a national stadium, and have done so on the basis of continued assurances from football that its project would be delivered.

In 1996, the then Great Britain Sports Council decided that Wembley should be the location for a national stadium. From 1998 onwards, the project has been led by the Football Association via a wholly owned subsidiary, Wembley National Stadium Ltd. From that point, the Football Association and its subsidiary drove the project forward in negotiation with Wembley plc over the acquisition of the land and in agreement with Sport England over the terms of lottery funding for the acquisition, the design issues and, most importantly, securing the necessary financing to make the project viable.

Wembley National Stadium Ltd., under its chairman Ken Bates, consistently assured everyone that all was well with the project. That has proved not to be the case. The first occasion on which that was demonstrated was in the autumn of 1999, when it became clear that the needs of athletics could not sensibly be met by the WNSL scheme. That was a result of the costs of creating and dismantling the concrete platform for athletics, the costs of acquiring the necessary land for the required warm-up track and the fact that there would be no lasting legacy for athletics at the national stadium.

I therefore decided that athletics should be removed from Wembley, and subsequently Lee Valley athletics stadium was chosen by UK Athletics as the national centre for athletics and the venue for the 2005 world athletics championships. That decision has been entirely vindicated by subsequent events, and work is now well advanced on the designs for the Enfield stadium.

The second occasion on which WNSL's assurances that all was well with the project proved to be misplaced was in November last year when the loan syndication to finance the whole project failed. The principal reason for the banks' reluctance to provide finance was their doubts about the WNSL business case and, in particular, the ambitious projections of hospitality and premium-seat income. Let us not forget that the project had escalated in estimated cost from a little over £300 million to a total of £650 million. The banks were also concerned that the FA stood to gain from the project but carried little or no risk.

At that point, some much-needed realism was injected into WNSL and the Football Association's thinking on the project. Following the failure of the loan syndication, the FA replaced Ken Bates with Sir Rodney Walker as chairman of WNSL and took a much closer interest in the

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project. The FA made clear its intention to address the banks' concerns that the FA itself was not taking its share of the risk in the project. Regrettably, the Government learned last week that the Football Association did not feel that it could do that without a further significant injection of funds. The FA initially requested up to £300 million from the Government. I am afraid that that is simply not on, especially when the scale of the current costly design of the new Wembley is due to the needs of the commercial interests in the project.

In the light of the FA's announcement yesterday, the Government will review all the options for a national stadium. To assist in that process, we have asked the existing ministerial group looking at cross-governmental issues surrounding the Commonwealth games to look at alternative solutions. I should stress at this stage that no options are ruled out. Therefore, a solution might be found to develop a new-build or a refurbishment solution at Wembley. Other alternatives may be considered. We want to play our part as the Government in securing a good, affordable and sustainable national stadium for England. That is what we will now do.

Mr. Ainsworth: I thank the Secretary of State for his reply. Does he accept that the failure of the national stadium project is a failure of public policy? Does he accept that the collapse of the project has brought humiliation to Britain and that people here and all over the world are shaking their heads in disbelief and asking why, under this Government, nothing seems to work any more? Does he accept that he carries heavy responsibility for the failure of Wembley? Does he acknowledge that his attempts to shuffle the blame on to Ken Bates and the Football Association are widely regarded as futile and cowardly? Did he not give his blessing to the appointment of Sir Rodney Walker, and did not Sir Rodney give his approval to the Bates plan earlier this year?

Does the Secretary of State accept that his claim that the project is not a Government one looks ridiculous, when it was his decision--and his alone--in autumn 1999 to abandon the original design after it had been approved by the British Olympic Association, the Football Association, the Rugby Football Union, Sport England and his own architectural advisers? If it was not a Government project, what right had he to intervene in that fatal way? Does he now accept that he was wrong to ignore the advice of the Select Committee, and that it was inexcusable, arrogant and contemptuous to dismiss that advice within minutes of it being offered?

Does the Secretary of State accept that his intervention plunged the project into controversy when none had previously existed, provoking 18 months of appalling publicity, when the project--of which we all wanted to be proud--became a fiasco and a byword for Government incompetence? Did not that do more than anything to undermine investor confidence in the project? Does he think it was helpful or responsible to describe the design as "stunning" and "magnificent" on 29 July 1999, when he later said in the House that

Does he understand that the present appalling situation stems directly from his actions and the train of confusion that they set in motion? Does he agree that he is responsible for 18 months of dither, delay and millions of wasted pounds?

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What does the Secretary of State think his shambolic handling of this national project will tell the world about Britain's ability to host a future Olympic games? Is there not now, as a direct result of his actions, a real possibility that we will face the further humiliation of having to tell the International Amateur Athletics Federation that we cannot, after all, host the 2005 world championships?

The whole House wants to see the Wembley project back on track, but, if it cannot be revived, what will happen to the £120 million of lottery money that has already gone into it? Will the Secretary of State confirm that Wembley remains the Government's preferred venue for the national stadium?

It will be a relief to all who care about our national game that the Secretary of State has been shunted to the sidelines by the Prime Minister, but it is too late: the damage has been done. The Secretary of State has lost the confidence of the sporting world and of the public. He has lost the confidence of many of his right hon. and hon. Friends, including, by implication, the Prime Minister. If he had done the right thing and resigned when the first disastrous consequences of his actions became apparent, I honestly believe that we would now be looking forward to the opening of a great new national stadium. Instead, we are faced with a humiliating fiasco.

The Secretary of State is widely regarded as a decent man, but he has repeatedly proved himself to be an incompetent Minister. Will he resign today?

Mr. Smith: On my calculation, this is the 39th time that the hon. Gentleman has called for my resignation. I refer him to my first 38 answers.

The hon. Gentleman began by describing today's announcement as a "failure of public policy." I remind him that it was public policy put in place by the previous Government. It is their project that the Football Association has been valiantly trying to take forward.

The hon. Gentleman asked one or two questions. One related to the decision taken in December 1999 to take athletics out of the then scheme. I outlined in my initial answer why we took that decision, and thank goodness we did. If we had not taken that decision, we would now, as advocated by the hon. Gentleman, have no venue for the 2005 world athletics championships. We do have such a venue. Work is proceeding apace on that. The design work is well advanced and the Lee Valley stadium will be an excellent athletics-specific venue for those championships, with a long-term sustainable legacy for athletics as well.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the £120 million of lottery funds. Under the terms of the lottery agreement, if a national stadium does not proceed at Wembley, the money is returnable to Sport England for further use under the usual terms of the lottery.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether Wembley is the Government's preferred location. The answer is yes, because the Wembley site has been purchased with lottery funds. It is owned by the FA. It is the sensible place to start looking for alternative schemes, but we are not at this stage ruling out other options. We need to look first at Wembley, but other alternatives may emerge, at which we will want to look carefully and closely.

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The hon. Gentleman says rather breezily that under the Government nothing seems to work any more. I refer him to the Cardiff Millennium stadium, the Eden project, Tate Modern, the British museum great court, the Magna project in Rotherham, the Science museum extension, the Lowry centre, the Walsall art gallery, the Manchester stadium and swimming pool and countless other projects--indeed, more projects than the number of times that the hon. Gentleman has demanded my resignation.

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