Previous SectionIndexHome Page

6.7 pm

Mr. Adrian Flook (Taunton): It may be worth reminding the House of some of the beginnings of the sad and sorry fiasco that leaves our country without a national stadium for football, rugby league and, in particular, athletics. I take hon. Members back to the fact that Wembley stadium was owned by a fairly shaky plc called Wembley plc. Advisers to the deal tell me that, originally, one idea was for the lottery to get the stadium free for 50 years while the plc moved from being an owner to being the operator of a vastly improved stadium.

The £120 million grant was to be matched by finance raised in the City and a new stadium built for about £250 million. Although it was always touted as a multi-sport venue, there was always a dominant partner—soccer. With respect to this debate, a better way to put it is that there was a much weaker partner—athletics.

A certain football club in north London, namely Arsenal, has been referred to. I remind the House that, back in 1997, rumours were floating around that the club was interested in buying Wembley, lock, stock and barrel, and was threatening to bid for Wembley plc. The upshot of that would have been the scuppering of the nascent plans to hold the world cup in this country, which appears to have completely spooked the Government, who panicked and exerted pressure on Sport England to abandon the original plan under which it agreed to allocate £120 million of funding.

To bid for the World cup, the Government needed a national stadium, and it appears that they went out and bought the stadium outright for about £100 million. With the benefit of hindsight, perhaps we can say that that is the slippery slope at the bottom of which we now find ourselves. Four years on, with the last game played there over a year ago, the decaying stadium and the surrounding area are worth nowhere near the £100 million paid for them; they are worth closer to £30 million. That is a real shame and a dreadful waste of public money.

How did that sorry state of affairs come about? It appears to have been because the Government could not keep their interfering paws off. The lure of being associated with the so-called venue of legends was just too much for a spin-obsessed Administration—they could not leave it alone. It seems that all the meddling was at the behest of the Prime Minister himself, who had, it was claimed, "thrown his weight behind it".

11 Dec 2001 : Column 755

To bring matters up to date, a Football Association insider quoted in the Financial Times said:

Sadly, the Secretary of State still fails to grasp that salient point. She told the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, on which I have the honour to sit:

Yet we have reached the end of 2001 with no national stadium and no athletics stadium—a litany of meddle, muddle and complete mismanagement. To put it another way: no world athletics championship, so no need for an athletics stadium.

That sorry state of affairs has arisen because the Government overstepped their own brief four years ago and, worryingly, seem intent on doing so again. In May, in their manifesto, the Government promised that they would host the 2005 world athletics championships with first-class facilities. That is no doubt a laudable aim. However, there was no mention in that document of Picketts Lock, Edmonton or even London—despite the fact that London was the city to which the championships had been given.

It appears that the Government never, ever asked themselves why we even need big stadiums in a televisual world when millions can watch events without having to stand on cold terraces. At the end of August when Patrick Carter, the Government's sports troubleshooter, issued his report, which sounded the death knell for Picketts Lock, he noted that he

However, the absence of such a strategy has not stopped the Government meddling.

There are good reasons for having a national stadium that are as true today as ever they were. The first is to secure home advantage for British sportsmen and the second is—as the right hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) pointed out—to act as a facilitator for wider sports policy and to achieve greater grass-roots involvement. The final reason is to enhance the way in which Britain is seen internationally.

None of those factors gives the Government or any Minister a reason to get involved and to abuse public money in the way that has happened. The problem appears to have started with the concept that there should be a national stadium for three sports—football, rugby league and athletics. That was downsized by the football-loving hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks). Suddenly, the "right type" of stadium for a world cup bid, rather than the previously agreed multi-use stadium, was all the rage.

Having undermined the three-sports stadium concept, the DCMS had to turn its attention to finding a home for its displaced athletics idea.

Mr. Tony Banks (West Ham): May I correct the hon. Gentleman? The new Wembley stadium was in no way conditional on our winning the 2006 world cup bid. In fact, there was some surprise that the FA and Sport England, with the support of the Government, were actually going to demolish the old Wembley stadium in order to construct a new national stadium. Unlike

11 Dec 2001 : Column 756

Germany and other countries which were bidding and which planned to build a new national stadium if their bid was successful, we were already going to build one. There was no link of the kind suggested by the hon. Gentleman with the 2006 world cup bid.

Mr. Flook: Obviously, I did not have the benefit of being at the discussions. I could only read recent reports.

Of the original £120 million, it has been agreed that £20 million is to be repaid if the athletics track is never built at Wembley. Judging by the last few years, who knows whether that will ever happen? In short, the Government appear to have given £100 million to the richest sport in the kingdom for a ground that it could easily have afforded itself.

Mr. Bryant: The Government have not given a penny to anybody—Sport England gave the money.

Mr. Flook: I stand corrected. None the less, although it is not taxpayers' money, public money has been given to the richest sport in the kingdom.

In December 1999, athletics was eventually pulled from the venue of legends following a report written by some consultants who spent all of three weeks looking into the proposed design that kiboshed the suggested set-up. However, I remind the House that the Select Committee report, published on 30 March last year, disagreed and found the proposed solution of a three-sport stadium "commendable and innovative" and concluded that

Indeed, since then—to contradict the right hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury—major stadiums throughout the world have proposed the use of the same sort of construction for athletics. We noted in our report that New York is planning to adopt such a system. Yet, as the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) pointed out, the then Secretary of State rubbished the report within half an hour of its publication—hardly a considered opinion.

The report highlighted a number of challenges for Picketts Lock. There was no underwriter for the event. The stadium was not of the highest quality. There were transport and infrastructure issues. Time was short—that was in March 2000. What would happen to the stadium in the long term? There was a capital shortfall.

There was always a funding shortfall with the Picketts Lock proposal. The outline cost in March 2000 was for a stadium that was going to cost up to £120 million, when only £60 million had been earmarked as available from the lottery and £20 million of that was unlikely ever to be released. So, there were shortfalls for funding for the building as well for long-term revenue. In short, what does one do with an expensive building stuck in north-east London that has little use other than as an athletics stadium?

To quote another report from the Select Committee, the Government were following a "perverse and bizarre" course of action in promoting an economically unsustainable athletics stadium—having rejected their own earlier proposals, after taking into account a hastily written report that took all of three weeks to put together. After their meddling, the Government have lost this country the right to stage the world athletics championships in 2005. They have probably cost us much

11 Dec 2001 : Column 757

more embarrassment than that, in that we are unlikely to be in a position to bid for any major sporting event for many years.

The Government's alternative proposal of Sheffield, charming city though it probably is, was not even discussed by the International Amateur Athletics Federation. That shows what the federation thought of the proposal.

The Government continue to meddle. They seem desperate to be munificent in this season of good will, and now appear to be offering £40 million of Sport England's money—public money, albeit not taxpayers' money—all over the place. When will they learn that the £40 million is lottery money, and not Government money to throw around?

The Select Committee's report may well have "castigated" the right hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury, but several issues remain pertinent for the current crop of Ministers. We need assurances from the Government that they will heed the insider at the FA and leave the association to get on with it and build Wembley. What about the £20 million that seems to have gone missing? We are constantly given assurances, but where is the second annual instalment?

According to the Evening Standard, the FA is

That seems to be rather a kick in the face for all those earlier but perhaps rather unhelpful efforts.

As the Secretary of State suggested when she appeared before the Committee, with a little luck, if a review of major events policy is undertaken and the subject is kicked into the long grass of the performance and innovation unit of No. 10, there is perhaps an outside chance that something might be able to happen at Wembley without Government interference.

There is no denying, however, that Britain's reputation abroad has been damaged. It is also likely that we will not have a mega-event for quite some time. More importantly, there is still no lasting legacy of athletics to help us do better in track and field events. Bearing in mind the fact that the original £120 million has been turned into an investment that now consists of a dilapidated building in north-west London that is worth about £30 million, and that the Government are scrabbling round to spend £48 million of public money, it worth asking once again what will become of the £20 million.

Last week, in an attempt to break the power and control of the so-called blazer brigade—although his statement more pertinently exposes the Government's handling of the national stadium—the Minister for Sport told The Guardian that

That is absolutely correct. I could not have put it better myself.

Next Section

IndexHome Page