HC Deb 29 November 2000 vol 357 cc263-70WH
Mr. Derek Twigg (Halton)

I welcome the opportunity to debate this rather unusual subject. Although it is an important constituency matter for me, it is also a matter of national interest. I believe that the events surrounding the demolition of the twin towers should be told in Parliament and a national disaster thereby exposed.

It is nothing short of scandalous that the demolition of the twin towers should have been proposed. They are known around the world; they are an icon and one of the best-known of English buildings. To those hon. Members who travel to London on the west coast railway, they are a landmark—I apologise to those who have different landmarks. They are an important part of our national sporting heritage and their demolition will be a major loss. I shall describe the events that led to that disastrous decision being made and make clear what a serious blow it is to my constituency. Given some of the press reports, it is important that the true facts are known.

I thought it strange when I first heard that Halton borough council wanted to put in a bid for the towers for the national rugby league museum. However, when the members of the council told me about the plans, I realised what a great innovation it would be as an anchor for a national rugby league museum and the development that would accompany it. Many people thought that the bid was not serious. Some, especially the metropolitan elite, found the idea of a small northern town—Widnes, of all places—bidding for Wembley towers amusing, but we in the north-west did not think so. It was a great pleasure to see the plans, which are here today. Eventually, people began to realise that it was not a joke, but a serious proposition.

Halton borough council's interest in the twin towers arose when the Rugby Football League proposed a national museum for rugby league. I was born and bred in Widnes, the greatest rugby league town in the country, and I have been many times to Wembley. Given the size of Widnes, its record outstrips even those of Wigan, St. Helens and Leeds—

Helen Jones (Warrington, North)

And Warrington? Mr. Twigg: And Warrington.

The national rugby league consortium, which consists of Halton borough council and the Rugby Football League, proposed to locate a major new visitor attraction on a site to the south of Widnes town centre known as Venture fields. The national museum was designed to appeal to enthusiasts and the general population. Incorporating the Wembley towers into the building would give it a unique design and provide a major landmark on the banks of the Mersey. They would be visible for some distance, especially from the Runcorn-Widnes bridge, which is one o? the busiest thoroughfares in the country.

Discussions with Wembley commenced in February 2000. From the outset, Wembley insisted on a confidentiality agreement, and Halton borough council entered into such an agreement despite the problems that it would cause, particularly in promoting wider support for the project. The council sought a partner for the project and, after talking to a number of companies, settled on St. Mowden plc. With that partnership in place, a development and consulting team was put together. It was a serious proposition, with serious players.

Studies put the cost of removing the twin towers at —2 million and the cost of erecting them in Widnes at —1 million. St. Mowden agreed to finance the relocation, expecting to recover the costs from the final development, and the council agreed to underwrite the risk. Provided the overall scheme was successful—there was every reason to believe that it would be—there would be no call on the public purse.

A detailed method statement was prepared, showing how the towers would be removed. The contract for the work of removing the towers was won by Birse plc, a well-respected civil engineering company. Most important, the method statement was accompanied by a commitment to dovetail the removal of the towers with the Wembley demolition programme, to ensure that it had no adverse impact on the national stadium project. It is important to highlight that, given some recent press reports on the subject. Work on the site was expected to start in early November and to be completed within 16 weeks. The towers were to be relocated to a secure storage area and, subsequently, transported by road to Widnes. Even the route had been resolved and cleared with the necessary authorities—the plans had got down to that sort of fine detail.

The project team and the finance were in place, the method and plan were sorted, and the timetable was within Wembley's parameters—as they stood before the sudden change was made. All the important ingredients were therefore in place, to such an extent that when I spoke to Halton council—I was not especially closely involved in the detail—I was told that its members were confident, that I need not do much and that they expected to hear shortly. That is how signed, sealed and delivered the project appeared to be. Contracts were drawn up with fine tuning well in advance. St. Mowden acceded to Wembley's demand for —100,000 to be deposited in escrow. I am not sure whether the money has been returned yet, but it was deposited.

Even when Wembley belatedly stated that the council could not refer to the twin towers as "the twin towers" talks continued to resolve the issue. The contracts were close to completion by mid-October. Out of the blue, to use a rugby league metaphor, a late tackle—

Mr. Mike Hall (Weaver Vale)

On the blind side.

Mr. Twigg

Indeed—all negotiations were broken off. A letter was received out of the blue that said that Wembley was unilaterally withdrawing from the negotiations. No reason was given.

The chief executive of Halton borough council tried to contact Wembley to speak to its chief executive to ask for an explanation. Eventually the chief executive wrote to say that he could not revive the scheme and that the council would now have to put up —10 million to secure the towers. A nominal fee of —1 has previously been agreed for the towers, subject to the cost being borne by anyone but Wembley stadium. From the letter, I understand that under a new contractor, a company called Multiplex—I am not sure whether that is an Australian company—was now calling the shots, and that and it had decided that it could not find a window to proceed. Arrogantly, the letter refers to Wembley's "unilaterally" deciding

that the risk and costs involved in salvaging the Twin Towers were

becoming too much for … yourselves and ourselves to bear. That told the borough council.

Ms Southworth

Does my hon. Friend agree that the twin towers are part of our national heritage and should be protected?

Mr. Twigg

I am sure that my hon. Friend will not be surprised to learn that I entirely agree. That is one of the reasons that I requested today's debate.

As an aside, I should point out that the letter also states:

The National Stadium Lottery Grant was spent in full many months ago. I do not know how it was spent—on land, perhaps—but I have seen no major development on the Wembley site.

It was clearly impossible for Halton borough council, a small unitary authority, to come up with —10 million—I understand that at least —10 million is required. We do not know how the figure was arrived at; no explanation has been provided. Has it been plucked out of the air? I shall return to that point in a moment. From that moment on, it seems that the towers were effectively condemned to become rubble, and part of our great national heritage would die.

Besides the loss of the towers—a scandal in itself—there are major consequences for others and for our country as a whole. A major blow has been dealt to the development of the national rugby league museum, which would have been one of the most innovative in the country. As I said earlier, the towers were to have been erected on the Venture field site in Widnes, a reclaimed brownfield site that has stood vacant for 15 years. The national rugby league museum would have been built to help anchor site development, using the towers as icons to attract visitors and interest in the location. Major commercial leisure investment would have been targeted to complement the museum, with associated non-food retail and other mixed uses of adjoining land. In total, almost 70 acres of brownfield derelict and contaminated land would have been opened up and developed in what would have been a regionally significant reclamation and regeneration site. Indeed, it would have been similar to the area covered by the dome.

The site without the towers would prove much less interesting. We have not been able to do anything with it for 15 years, and the opportunity to transform an area has been unilaterally closed down by Wembley's action. That is a great shame. Questions need to be asked about the decision. People want to know whether Wembley ever really wanted the towers moved to Widnes. Was there ever any intention of agreeing to the move? As I said, some people felt that ours was not a serious proposition and that it would never come to fruition, but it came close to doing so. I wonder whether the intention was ever there.

Will the towers still be standing in February 2001? The omens are not good, given the Wembley stadium project's track record on meeting deadlines and ensuring that things happen. If they are still standing in 2001, the council would have time to dismantle them and take them up to Widnes. I shall be watching very closely. Why —10 million? We do not know how that figure is arrived at or what it means. It is all to do with contract delays, but we have no real idea. At this late stage asking for an explanation will profit us little.

Given the use of lottery investment in the Wembley project, will my right hon. Friend the Minister say whether there is anything that his Department can do to help? Major lottery investment is involved: —600 million-plus is being invested in Wembley, and Brent council and English Partnerships are, rightly, trying to effect a regeneration project of the back of that. I have no problem with that. By way of comparison, —800 million is being invested in the area around the dome and Greenwich council and the Government are trying to effect a regeneration project on the back of that. Again, I have no problem with that, but it is important to make the comparison. Let us compare those figures to the —3 million of private cash underwritten by council capital. If our project had been on the banks of the Thames and not the Mersey, would it have succeeded? Would we be faced with the same situation today? I wonder whether such people as Ken Bates, chairman of Wembley National Stadium Ltd., would have pulled out all the stops if it had been in London. I am not sure that he was ever in favour of the towers coming up north, but the question remains.

Halton council and the Rugby Football League deserve great praise. The whole project fitted in perfectly with Government policy: there would have been a partnership, an innovative local council, private-sector cash, and the use of a brownfield site—not to mention the saving of some of our heritage, which is just as important. I will return to the issue of heritage before concluding my speech.

I have had the privilege of playing at Wembley on a number of occasions with my hon. the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), as part of the parliamentary football team. I cannot say that it was a total success for me—or the team for that matter—but it was a great privilege to play there. I have watched my teams play at Wembley many times over the years—

Mr. Mike Hall

Not recently.

Mr. Twigg

Yes, but I prefer not to go down that road. Widnes Rugby League club and Runcorn football club have both played at Wembley over the years—Widnes, of course, being one of the clubs most regularly in attendance. It would have been most fitting for the twin towers to have come to Merseyside and north Cheshire in the north-west, given that football and rugby teams from that region more than any other have played in so many Wembley finals over the years. Dare I say that it has been a second home for some north-west clubs? There is a sentimental and a good case for having the twin towers in the north-west, given our domination of that stadium for so many years.

The project's failure is a blow to the game of rugby league. It was a state-of-the-art innovation and would have resulted in the best sports museum in the country. I wonder whether rugby league receives the support that it deserves compared to other sports. The concept was very exciting and the museum would have been second to none.

It is outrageous that the twin towers will be lost. I understand that the stadium or the towers are listed, although I am unsure of the details. How can the demolition of listed buildings be allowed? Perhaps my right hon. Friend the Minister will be able to shed some light on that matter. Simply to bulldoze Wembley and reduce it to rubble, lost to the nation forever, is an act of vandalism on an unprecedented scale. I know that some people will argue that it would be difficult to take the towers down because they are concrete, but we have had experts look at the project and we believe that it is feasible. It is one of the lines put out by Wembley, but from what we know and what our experts say, it could have been done. To bulldoze the towers is to commit an act of vandalism.

There has been much criticism of the project to rebuild Wembley and its escalating costs. I do not want to discuss that criticism at length, because time is short. However, problems have arisen at every stage, and it is not unconnected that a problem has arisen with the future of the twin towers. We are suffering because of someone else's difficulty in managing the project properly. I find it amazing that a simple solution to the problem cannot be found in this day and age.

At a late stage, after many months of negotiation, Wembley suddenly found that the contract did not allow a window of opportunity. I do not know enough about the details of the matter, but that does not seem to add up. I refer back to the question of whether the towers will still be standing in February 2001. I wonder what it will say about the project if, because of such a late discovery, we lose the towers. Will my right hon. Friend the Minister explore the matter further and investigate what can be done? He might ask Wembley to rethink its decision because if it continues on its present course, it will score the biggest own goal in the stadium's history.

I have written to the chief executive of Wembley National Stadium Ltd. to ask him to reconsider the decision in the interests of the nation, rugby league and my constituency. Ours would be a tremendous project, which would carry the spirit of Wembley forward and provide a major visitor attraction for my constituency.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

In keeping with the sporting spirit of the occasion, I ask the Minister to kick off the second half of the debate.

1.16 pm
The Minister for the Arts (Mr. Alan Howarth)

I congratulate and thank my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Mr. Twigg) on obtaining the debate and raising an issue that is of great concern to him and my hon. Friends the Members for Warrington, South (Ms Southworth) and for Weaver Vale (Mr. Hall), who have given him steady support in his campaign. The matter is of intense concern to many people throughout the country because the twin towers are iconic. I welcome the opportunity to respond on such an important subject.

Wembley stadium is world famous, having witnessed many great moments in sporting history, notably the "white horse" cup final at the stadium's opening in 1923, the Olympic games in 1948 and the World Cup final in 1966, which you and I, Mr. Deputy Speaker, remember vividly. It has also witnessed great moments in the history of Widnes and Runcorn's rugby league prowess, as well as some other matches that England football fans may prefer to forget.

Mr. Bob Russell (Colchester)

Why, then, is it being demolished?

Mr. Howarth

That is the very point that my hon. Friend has raised, and which I shall address.

Sports men and women from around the world have aspired to perform at Wembley, but it has also hosted other memorable, world-famous events such as the Live Aid concert for Ethiopia in 1985. The twin towers have come to symbolise the stadium's importance and have a unique place in the hearts of sports fans everywhere. It is unsurprising that the redevelopment plans for the stadium have given rise to much concern about the fate of the towers.

The proposals for a new national stadium will involve the demolition of the existing stadium and its replacement by a new one, planned to seat 90,000 people, with vastly improved space standards, accessibility and visibility. The redevelopment will mean an increase in the overall width of the stadium on the north-south axis. There is little, if any, room to expand southwards because of the railway, so the proposed new stadium must extend 40 m to the north of the line of the front of the existing stadium, thus necessitating the demolition of the twin towers. In any case, the height of the new stadium would dwarf the twin towers if they were incorporated in the new development.

The stadium's architectural and historic importance was recognised by its being granted grade II listed status in 1976. My hon. Friend raised the question of how a listed building or structure can be demolished. Listing means that, in addition to having to obtain planning permission from the local planning authority—in this case the London borough of Brent—the developers are also required to obtain listed building consent. In view of the stadium's listed status, the application for listed building consent was accompanied by a full heritage study. It considered the question of whether the stadium was capable of adaptation and the feasibility of retaining the twin towers, as the new stadium will have to be extended to the north of the existing stadium, and concluded that there was no scope for including the twin towers in the new development.

English Heritage is a statutory consultee for such applications. Having considered the conclusions of the heritage study and taken into account the merits of a proposed replacement stadium and the wider community benefits, English Heritage did not raise any objections to the application for listed building consent, which was accordingly granted. However, one condition of listed building consent is the provision of a complete photographic record of the stadium. That means that if anyone wants—this may be of interest to my hon. Friend the Member for Halton—replicas of the towers could be constructed elsewhere on the basis of the photographs taken together with the original engineers' drawings of 1923. That work has been completed.

In addition to ensuring that the stadium is fully recorded, English Heritage is monitoring the removal and preservation of all artefacts of historic interest in the stadium for resiting or display in the new stadium. Some of them will be deposited temporarily in the new football museum at Preston, which opens next month. They will include plaques and other features commemorating the opening of the stadium in 1923, the 1948 Olympic games and the 1996 World Cup in 1966. Other architectural features will be preserved in the Brooking Collection Trust in Surrey.

I should make it clear that English Heritage fully acknowledges the historic and cultural importance of Wembley stadium and the symbolic role of the twin towers. However, it also recognises that the stadium has shortcomings as a major sports venue: sightlines and space standards are poor, because the stadium was originally built with open terraces for standing spectators, which were later converted for seating. The fans who attend events are acutely aware of those shortcomings.

English Heritage has not sought the reconstruction of the twin towers nearby as part of the proposed new development. Here I come to some important and practical considerations, in which I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Halton will take an interest. The twin towers are constructed of reinforced concrete, poured and cast on site, rather than in demountable materials capable of being taken down and rebuilt block by block. I am advised that the thinness of the reinforced concrete and the skeletal nature of the towers' internal structure would pose major problems in structural engineering if an attempt were made to move them to a new site. The towers have no backs, and were never intended to be seen as isolated structures. My hon. Friend clearly takes a different view as to the feasibility of moving the towers. It would seem that there is room for genuine differences of professional opinion on that point.

Following the unveiling of the design for the new Wembley stadium last summer, a number of interested parties approached Wembley National Stadium Ltd. with proposals to move the twin towers. Most were put off by the scale of the challenge and by the current state of the towers, including large cracks in some of the walls that are visible from the inside.

Mr. Derek Twigg

Will my right hon. Friend tell us whether it is the view of Wembley National Stadium Ltd. that the nature of the towers' construction means that they cannot be moved? It certainly did not seem to be a barrier in agreeing the deal with the national rugby league museum and Halton borough council, which has since fallen through. As far as I am aware, that was never an issue that would have prevented the deal from going ahead.

Mr. Howarth

I understand that the advice reached my Department from English Heritage, but I am happy to try to find out its source and to make that information available, as far as I am able, to my hon. Friend. That will give him a better basis for understanding the practical realities of the project that he has presented so eloquently and which would be of great pleasure to large numbers of people if it were carried out.

With St. Modwen Properties, Halton borough council put forward the only serious proposals for the twin towers to form part of the fa"ade for a new rugby league museum in Halton. As my hon. Friend explained, discussions took place but were terminated by Wembley National Stadium Ltd. I fully understand my hon. Friend's frustration and it is indeed regrettable that the proposals made by Halton borough council and the Rugby Football League to relocate the twin towers were unacceptable to Wembley National Stadium Ltd. However, it remains a matter for the company to decide within the terms of the listed building consent that was granted. My hon. Friend invited me to intervene with the heritage lottery fund, but it is an important principle that Ministers do not try to dictate to lottery distributors. In fact, legislation rightly debars us from doing so.

Many sports stadiums around the country dating from roughly the same period as Wembley stadium have undergone huge transformations over the past decade. Some football clubs have relocated to new state-of-the-art stadiums in response to ground safety requirements and the need to bring sports facilities into the modern age. Such changes are not exclusive to the United Kingdom: in the United States, for example, many famous baseball fields have been replaced or are about to be replaced by new state-of-the-art facilities.

A new stadium at Wembley will provide Britain with a world-class stadium fit for the new century and give the country renewed hope of hosting major international sporting events. More importantly, with its spectacular 400-ft arch, the new stadium will pass on the Wembley magic to new generations of sporting stars to create the sporting memories of the future. The twin towers will never be forgotten and many people would be happy if it proved possible to recreate them at a fitting site elsewhere.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Nicholas Winterton)

We can now move on a little early to the final debate in Westminster Hall today.