Why do major building projects go wrong so often in this country? Not all do, of course, but plans for some of the most iconic structures can run into serious difficulties.
The British Library is one example. It opened for business – to some acclaim, it is fair to say – years later than scheduled and costing oodles more than intended. At least there was no essential date by which it had to be completed – no mad rush for it to be ready for some International Reading Contest.
Wembley Stadium is different. The British Library might have been out of date and located in too many places, but somehow or other it worked. Wembley Stadium, now approaching its 80th birthday, has been described by Ken Bates, chairman of the English National Stadium Development Company, as "a nice old lady, but she needs knocking down".
In fact, she needs not just knocking down but replacing – and quickly. We have to demonstrate that we have a modern national stadium in which the 2006 World Cup can be staged with dignity and comfort if England is to have any chance of playing host to that hugely important international event.
The problem now confronting all who want a new Wembley Stadium is that the project has become too ambitious. Just having a new state-of-the-art international football stadium, ideal for the 2006 World Cup, was too simple. The English Sports Council, now smartly renamed Sport England, wanted much more for its money. It provided a generous grant for Wembley – but accompanied by conditions. The new stadium had not only to house football but also be capable of giving shelter to the World Athletics Championship, scheduled for the year 2005, and the 2012 Olympic Games.
Look elsewhere for the athletics stadium. But where, exactly? Manchester, of course
Nice work if you can get it. But it turns out that you cannot, not even if you try. An athletics stadium has different specifications than a football stadium. Requirements for both participants and spectators are complicated, even irreconcilable. That, at any rate, is what Chris Smith, secretary of state for culture, media and sport, discovered earlier this month. It is a problem of which I and others had been aware ever since the spring.
Quite apart from the problems stemming from converting a football stadium to an athletics stadium – and back again – and the fear that, even if such a conversion were feasible, the stadium in both its guises would be below optimum standards, there are worries about the provision of a warm-up track, seen as essential for an athletics venue.
Brent council has been putting forward stipulations to suit its own development plans. Those plans may not necessarily make the best sense for the stadium promoters. In any case, who would pay? The Stadium Development Company says that it is not its responsibility.
Even if these problems could be solved speedily, tidily and inexpensively, and if the provenance of funding could be sorted out, Smith has ascertained that converting a completed Wembley stadium from football (and rugger) to athletics would take months. During this period, the stadium would not be available for athletics or football. It would be a non-stadium. This realisation took hold right in the middle of England's crucial bidding process for the 2006 World Cup – which had been going rather well.
So what is to be done? Smith has provided an extremely brief period for an urgent reassessment. He is right to be in a hurry. So, I offer my personal advice. Hang on to the bird in the hand – the soccer-cum-rugger stadium. As long as as Brent council does not overcomplicate the planning application process, a football venue can be built simply and on time. Confirm the grant, even though it will not fulfil the stadium-in-the-air that Sports England wanted to fund. Lastly, look elsewhere for the athletics stadium. But where, exactly? Manchester, of course. This is where an athletics stadium is not only possible, but necessary and achievable. This is where the 2002 Commonwealth Games have a firm booking.
The Right Honourable Gerald Kaufman is MP for Mancehster Gorton and chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee.