The news that the client and contractor are at loggerheads over the price of the new Wembley Stadium will come as no surprise to anyone who has followed the ill-fated project’s progress (7 July). But why has it been so beset by obstacles? The answer is to be found in the proverb that a fish starts going bad at its head. The stadium is the project of a group of extroverts who combine a hard-headed business approach with a flair for publicity. Mix this with a considerable sum of public money and you have a recipe for what some contractors have dubbed “the client from hell”.
Realising that complex works lead to complex claims, the client has drawn up a watertight contract that will deliver the stadium for a guaranteed maximum price. As a young builder working for the family firm, I had an experience with watertight contracts on a project where problem after problem arose. As usually happens in such circumstances, we gritted our teeth, suffered our losses and finished the job as speedily as possible. Our subsequent claim was a masterpiece of detail, and a particular statistic from it sticks in my mind: there was one variation every hour of the working day, a terrifying indictment of the way that the client had run the project.
I took the claim to the family firm’s chief engineer, a wise old bird who had seen a lot of construction in his time. After a week, he returned his verdict. This is a brilliant claim, he began, but you made one mistake – signing the contract in the first place. It seems that the majority of contractors who wasted their time tendering for the stadium came to the same conclusion.
The scene is set for a long-running and bitter saga, which no doubt will be smoothed over at great cost
So, no one in the industry should be surprised that contractor Bovis Lend Lease/Multiplex has come up with a price in excess of the client’s expectations. Luckily, there does not seem to be any chance that England will be allowed to host a great sporting event for some time, not while our “fans” smash up other peoples’ countries.
Meanwhile, the government, which has put up real cash to fund the project, is facing an apparent waste of public money. The scene is set for a long-running and bitter saga, which no doubt will be smoothed over at great cost. One ray of light in the whole deal, however, is Multiplex; for while Bovis under new ownership is an uncertain quantity, Multiplex has a track record of building stadia quite apart from a general reputation for delivering the goods. One thing is sure, Multiplex has no intention whatsoever of subsidising English football.
I suppose it is too much to hope, given the failure of England’s bid to host the 2006 World Cup and the increased costs of the stadium, that the government might address the fundamental problem of the scheme: the fact that Wembley Stadium is in the wrong place. When Wembley was built as the centrepiece of the Wembley exhibition, the surrounding areas were sparsely populated and transport links were good. Today, links are bad and the area is heavily populated.
Lord McAlpine is a writer and former treasurer of the Conservative Party.