HC Deb 01 December 1999 vol 340 cc305-13 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 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.

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 apparent lack of strategic thinking in the approach to this project by the English Sports Council and the Government. 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 75,000 to 80,000 to be considered adequate"? 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 sum of today's announcement reflects dither, delay and incompetence, and those have become the Secretary of State's defining characteristics. I offer him three words of advice: get a grip.

Mr. Smith

The hon. Gentleman said that Conservative Members wish the project well, but it was difficult to discern that in his questions. He asked a number of specific questions to which I shall respond. He said that the BOA had written at the start of January and on a number of subsequent occasions to Sport England and to my Department about its concerns. That is the case, and my Department responded similarly on a number of occasions. On 28 May, 2 July and 21 July 1998, and 12 January 1999, my Department had meetings or correspondence with the Sports Council and others, specifically identifying the concerns that the BOA had raised. What the BOA was questioning was the suitability of the stadium for the hosting of a potential Olympic bid.

Everyone involved in the project at that stage consistently assured us—the BOA and Government—that there would be no difficulty in ensuring that such an athletics event could indeed be hosted in an adapted stadium. That assurance was brought into question only when we saw the detailed designs for the first time, in the middle of July this year. As soon as I had seen them I called a meeting for 21 July, at which I made it clear that I was concerned about the particular proposals that were being adopted for the transforming of the stadium into athletics mode. Subsequently, we have asked for further detail, and analysed it together with the BOA. Because the answers were not fully satisfactory, we did what I believe was absolutely the right thing and appointed a distinguished group of outside non-partisan experts to have a look at the detailed design and advise us. That advice came to us on Monday of this week, and we have placed it in the House today, Wednesday.

I can tell the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) that yes, we want to avoid further delay; yes, we want to ensure that Wembley can be the centrepiece of our bid for the FIFA world cup in 2006; but yes, we also want to get it right for athletics. Getting it right for athletics does not necessarily mean the current design, nor does it necessarily mean insisting that football and athletics share the same national stadium. That is an issue that we will now examine urgently.

Mr. Joe Ashton (Bassetlaw)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Government are not putting a single pound into the project, apart from the £120 million of lottery money that has just paid for the site? All the rest must be raised from the City, or from the football authorities.

Is my right hon. Friend also aware that stadiums in Cardiff, Paris and Berlin, and, for instance, Hampden Park, have cost about £100 million, while a figure of £400-odd million is already being mentioned in connection with the new Wembley stadium? Surely it would be better to keep the existing Wembley stadium, renovate it for the purpose of either athletics or football, and then put a separate stadium for either football or athletics beside the Dome, where there is ample room. That is still a brownfield site.

Yesterday, an all-party group met the International Olympic Committee, and last night we met officials from Wembley. It seemed to us that there was very little chance of both sides agreeing, and that we would end up with a camel designed by a committee that had been trying to design a horse. As has been the case for 70 years, the fans inside the stadium will not have a proper view; they will have to stand up to see across to the far side. It will be a disaster, and we and the public auditor will probably have to become involved because of the involvement of, for instance, Brent council.

It is too late to start again, but it is not too late to keep the existing Wembley stadium for either football or athletics and to build a new one beside the Dome.

Mr. Smith

I fear that the existing Wembley stadium is beginning to show its age. If we are serious about wanting to make a substantial bid to host the world cup in 2006, I do not believe that basing it on the existing stadium would necessarily be the best proposition. My hon. Friend is, however, correct in saying that the £120 million that Sport England intends to put into the new Wembley stadium is money from the national lottery, not from the Exchequer.

We must ensure that when Sport England is making difficult decisions about the deployment of lottery money, it weighs up the interests of the different sports of which they must take account. One consideration that we must bear in mind, in the light of the current proposal to insert a deck in the stadium to host athletics, is the sheer cost involved. That money might be better deployed in another way to secure a proper athletics venue.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

Does the Secretary of State accept that it could be argued that the performance to date in this particular game has not been wonderful, but that it is far more useful to concentrate on winning than wondering why we might have failed so far? Given that, I want to ask him a couple of specific questions.

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that, whatever happens, we will have a replacement for the Wembley stadium? I disagree with the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton)—the existing stadium is clearly not up to a bid for world cup football in 2006. Will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that that will be the first objective and that we achieve it?

Will the Secretary of State confirm that if it is possible to come up with a stadium that both fulfils the time constraints for the 2006 football bid and could be enlarged to include athletics and other sports, then, and only then, will such a stadium be considered? Does he feel that the experience in Spain with the Barcelona stadium, in Cardiff with the stadium for the rugby world cup, and with many other stadiums, has led the world of professional sport to conclude that it is better for stadiums that can be used for football and other ball games to be separate from stadiums that can be used for all other sports?

If it is better to have a football stadium at Wembley and a stadium for international athletics, Commonwealth and Olympic games somewhere else, let us do both and not waste money delaying the first and achieving neither.

Mr. Smith

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the constructive way in which he has approached the issue. His forward-looking remarks contrast sharply with the backward-looking remarks of the official Opposition spokesman.

My aim is to ensure that, whatever happens, we have a world-class replacement for the existing Wembley stadium that can act as the centrepiece of our 2006 football world cup bid. That is an absolute aim that must be met.

Is it possible to have a stadium that does both? The answer is yes, in theory, but a perfect athletics stadium is far from perfect for football and rugby, and vice versa. What can be achieved, as the Stade de France in Paris showed, is a compromise between the two—a stadium that allows the space that is needed for athletics events, but at the same time can be used extremely happily for football. However, spectators are much more distant from the pitch than they would be in an ideal football configuration. We are talking about two different animals: one that is good for football, the other that is good for athletics. The two do not necessarily match.

The DLA Ellerbe Becket report identifies that the current solution that Wembley National Stadium Ltd. has come up with does not work particularly well. What we need to do now—I have put the work urgently in hand—is to analyse whether a Stade de France-type solution will work at Wembley; whether the timing of any such solution would endanger our 2006 bid, which we do not want; and whether we need to look at something completely different, which keeps Wembley for football and rugby league and provides a stadium somewhere else for athletics.

Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North)

Does my right hon. Friend recall the response by the former Minister of Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks), to my question: what discussions have taken place between representatives of the Sports Council and the British Athletics Federation about the need for an athletics track as part of the new English National Stadium at Wembley"? He replied The British Athletics Federation were fully involved in the selection process for the National Stadium and in defining the requirements for the project. Further discussions with the athletics governing body will take place as the design brief is prepared to discuss proposals for athletics facilities."—[Official Report, 10 July 1998; Vol. 315, c. 661–62W.] In the light of that, will my right hon. Friend pursue with Sport England, which was responsible at that stage for the integration of the facilities, the reason why such involvement and discussions clearly did not take place about the design brief? I understand the Government's dilemma. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) said, they have the project at arm's length and have no financial involvement, so it is difficult for them to have the influence at all stages that they might wish.

I tabled a further written question—

Madam Speaker

Order. Other hon. Members want to ask questions. This is an inordinately long question. We are almost having a debate. Please put the question directly.

Mr. Gardiner

The former Minister for Sport said: In the event of a breach of the conditions of the Lottery award, the ESC has to right to seek repayment".—[Official Report, 3 December 1998; Vol. 321, c. 235W.] Will my right hon. Friend be looking into that to ensure that athletics receives a share of the £120 million, as was planned, and that the Football Association uses that money to contribute to the restructuring of the area under section 146 agreements?

Mr. Smith

I touched on both my hon. Friend's central points in my statement. I have asked my officials to undertake a thorough analysis of the process of decision making that has brought us to this position. The national lottery funding agreement might well need to be modified if what we end up with is not that which was specified in the original agreement. To be fair to Sport England, none of the bodies concerned was able to address the specific difficulties of putting an athletics mode into the stadium until we saw the detailed stadium designs in July this year. Since then, we have put the necessary work in hand to ensure that we get the right answers.

My aim is to ensure that we get a grip on the project, make decisions in the next two to three weeks on how we will take it forward, and then get on and do it.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath)

The Secretary of State will recall that I raised concerns about Wembley at Culture, Media and Sport questions on Monday of last week. My fellow officers of the all-party sports group and I are among the many who have been concerned about the subject for some time. The right hon. Gentleman acknowledged the catalogue of concerns in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth).

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the press is accurate to describe the current position as a fiasco? It is not acceptable for him to say that the BOA was repeatedly writing to his officials, who were repeatedly passing on those concerns. We are left with the impression of his Department as a rudderless ship with nobody at the helm. Is it not inevitable that the buck must stop with him? When he was told by his officials that the BOA was raising concerns, month after month, he should have taken some action.

The previous Minister for Sport, who is very concerned about football and is the Government's representative in the 2006 bid, surprisingly is not in the Chamber this afternoon. He should have insisted on going to the meetings and checking that athletics was being incorporated in the designs. Why did he not do so? Would it not be better for the Secretary of State to apologise for the huge delay and the huge waste? He and the new Minister for Sport—who, to her credit, has at least taken the issue seriously since she was appointed—should play a far more active role in future.

Mr. Smith

I am afraid that I do not recognise the hon. Gentleman's characterisation. However, I recognise all too well the lack of any constructive approach in his comments. The first concrete detailed analysis from an independent source that has been available to enable us to take firm decisions is the Ellerbe Becket report, which we received on Monday of this week.

Mr. Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey)

In view of the Manchester Commonwealth games configuration of our major stadium—which, of course, is laid out for athletics—is it now too late to bid for the 2003 world athletics championships for Manchester? Is it too late, in the reordering of that bid, to give it to Manchester city and so stop our athletics track being taken out? It would provide a solution for the games.

Whereas very few world cup games would be held at Wembley—they are held throughout the whole of England—the world athletics championships are committed only to Wembley. However, there is no space for a proper warm-up track. In Atlanta, that track was three miles from the main ground—people warmed up, warmed down and got cold on a bus, which then got lost going to the ground. There is not the infrastructure at Wembley to support the world athletics championships, so surely it is timely to look at this matter again

Mr. Smith

Through Sport England, we are putting £90 million into the construction of the new stadium for the Commonwealth games at Manchester, which will be an excellent stadium for those games. It is up to UK Athletics to decide whether it wishes to bid to host the world athletics championships, and where. Its favoured proposition, in everything that it has revealed to us, is that London is the city with the best chance of getting agreement from the International Amateur Athletic Federation. However, that decision is up to that organisation.

My hon. Friend is right about the warm-up track. In order to have either an Olympic stadium or a stadium capable of hosting the world athletics championships, there must be a warm-up track—if possible, immediately adjacent to the stadium or not far from it—of exactly the same size as the main track. That is possible at Wembley, although it would require the acquisition of land which is not in Wembley National Stadium Ltd.'s ownership. However, that is possible to achieve, given the right circumstances.

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)

What does the Secretary of State think will be achieved by 15 December—which, if I heard him correctly, is the date on which he wants a report back from the further inquiries? What does he expect to happen between now and then—just two weeks time? Is not the reality of what he has told the House today, both in his statement and in the answers that he has given, that he has conceded that the Wembley stadium proposal will not work as both a football stadium and an athletics track?

In that case, the sooner a decision is made, the better, because clearly part of the reason for the huge £475 million cost of developing Wembley—which, from what the right hon. Gentleman has said, will be just a football and rugby stadium—is the attempt to incorporate an athletics track. How much time is there left to Wembley and those trying to redevelop it to decide to have only a football and rugby stadium at a lower cost, while not affecting the world cup 2006 bid?

Mr. Smith

The hon. Gentleman says that the sooner a decision is made, the better. I entirely agree. That is why I have given a strict time scale of 15 days for Wembley National Stadium Ltd., in particular, to come back with any answers it might have to the concerns raised in the Ellerbe Becket report. It may be that it has a magic solution in its back pocket that answers Ellerbe Becket's criticisms—but as I said in my statement, I doubt it. If it does—and it must be given that opportunity, as that is only fair and proper—we may be back on track for Wembley to do both. If not, at that point we need to make a firm decision on whether Wembley goes ahead just for football and rugby and we look for somewhere else for athletics.

Mr. Ivor Caplin (Hove)

I very much welcome the fact that we are coming to the point of decision. I believe firmly that Wembley is the right place for football. I do not share others' qualms about investing £120 million of lottery money in sport at Wembley—we have just invested £250 million in the Royal Opera house. I do not object to that, either, but sport is entitled to its share of the lottery provision.

As someone who has had the privilege of playing at Wembley, I know that the conditions there for players, spectators and visitors are appalling. The sooner we get it upgraded, the sooner we will rightly win the bid for 2006.

Mr. Smith

The one thing on which I would disagree is that although the total global cost of the Royal Opera house is £240 million, the investment from the lottery is about £80 million. However, my hon. Friend's point about the importance of upgrading the existing facilities at Wembley and ensuring that we have a truly world-class modern stadium is extremely important.