Sports authorities are scraping around for money to build an athletics stadium for the World Championships. Tough. The government would be crazy to fill the gap
The moment of truth for Picketts Lock is at hand. With the staging of the World Athletics Championships due in our capital in 2005, the question of whether north London's grand new athletics stadium can be built in time will be answered by Sport England on 3 September.

Its decision will come after a review of the project by troubleshooter Patrick Carter, who is already looking into Wembley stadium. Carter has been assigned "to assess whether the Lee Valley National Athletics Centre project can be funded and managed in its current format, and if not, what alternatives might be feasible". He is due to report by 21 August.

The likely result can be inferred from these ominous terms of reference. And, unless Carter comes up with a previously undiscovered crock of gold, I think it would be best to scrap Picketts Lock at that point, even if such a decision means sacrificing the staging of the 2005 championships.

What, proud England admitting it is not capable of providing a stadium for this prestigious sporting event? What, proud New Labour renouncing an election pledge? Labour's manifesto stated clearly: "We will maintain the elite funding we put in place for individual athletics with a first-class stadium for the World Athletics Championships in 2005."

That commitment was made when Chris Smith was still secretary of state for culture, media and sport. His successor, Tessa Jowell, has shown a far more hard-headed approach. When questioned in the House of Commons earlier this month, she said: "Sport England has concluded that it is not yet able to commit lottery funding to the Lee Valley National Athletics Centre project."

She went on: "There is a clear funding gap, and Sport England was not prepared to commit more money to the project until it was sure of its financial viability. I support that judgment."

Speaking that same day about Picketts Lock and Wembley stadium, she declared: "Any sports project on the scale of Wembley or Picketts Lock can proceed only with government support but not, in every case, with the government as the principal or even substantial funder." Discussing Wembley, but using words relevant to Picketts Lock as well, she insisted:

"We must remember that any cost overruns that require public funding, often running into millions, represent money not spent on refurbishing inner-city sports facilities for our children." She continued: "The big sporting projects — whether Wembley, Picketts Lock or any other — must be part of that strategy, not a distraction from it."

And in words that she might have lifted from a column I wrote not long ago in Building, she insisted: "The government, in this context, is not a walking cheque book or a stadium developer." But a well-filled cheque book is needed from someone if Picketts Lock is to go ahead. The project is costed at £97m. Sport England has pledged £7m, but deferred a decision on a £60m lottery application.

Lee Valley had promised £5m. The Treasury has earmarked £8m. But even if all this money is forthcoming, there would still be a substantial gap.

And even if all this other money is there, I think the government would be crazy to fill the gap.

Project costs, with the best will in the world, have a way of escalating — and escalating again — above estimates; the British Library ended up costing six times as much as originally budgeted. If the government agreed to provide funds beyond the earmarked £8m, it could be visited repeatedly with begging-bowl held out. I do not believe that Gordon Brown would be willing to part with more of his prudently husbanded cash.

So, even if the project is given the go-ahead on 3 September, it might find itself in difficulties later on. It might turn into the Millennium Dome of the second Blair administration. Worse, the nation might find itself landed with a part-completed stadium — and no World Athletics Championships in England.

Far better to swallow our pride and call it quits.