What I am beginning to wonder is this: is there any need for ministers to get involved in these projects? What business is it of ministers that a football or athletics stadium should be built, or where it should be located? Especially since, if things go wrong – as they already have at Wembley and could do at Picketts Lock – those same ministers will be at the head of the queue to be blamed, when their power to influence location, design and construction may be minimal. And, in my own mind at least, I am starting to raise a further question: should ministers be involved in any building projects at all? I have been looking at the construction of the original Wembley stadium more than three-quarters of a century ago, and I find that government involvement was minimal. The stadium was the centrepiece of a planned British Empire Exhibition, to be held in 1924. This was, in the words of a memorandum published in 1920 at the price of one penny, "privately organised but … receiving official recognition and support", although in fact the exchequer guaranteed against losses of £600,000 and the public and local authorities donated some money. Although certain circumstances connected with the exhibition led to an inquiry by the Secretary for Overseas Trade, there seems to have been no controversy attached to the building itself.
The stadium was built in almost exactly one year - April to April – to be ready in time for the cup final of 1923, far shorter than the time that has been spent simply thinking about whether there should be a new Wembley stadium for the 21st century. Ministerial involvement has certainly not quickened the process.
Far from speeding public building projects along, again and again ministerial involvement seems to actually delay them and make them more costly.
Ministers, whatever their other virtues, do not go into parliament as builders but as policy-makers
Take the British Library at St Pancras. This was announced in March 1978, with construction to begin the following year and the first stage "likely to be occupied towards the end of the 1980s" at a cost of £74m. The Conservatives finally decided to go ahead with the project and construction began in 1982. In 1988, the government estimated that the first stage would be completed by 1993 at a cost of £300m. In the end, it was opened by the Queen in June 1998, when the cost had risen to £511m and the accountants were still counting. As a construction project, it was many years behind schedule and vast sums above estimate. That was what ministers achieved.
Other public projects here and abroad demonstrate again and again that government involvement is no guarantee of success. In France, the government-sponsored Bastille Opera House has caused controversy and hysteria remarkable even by operatic standards.
The Right Honourable Gerald Kaufman is MP for Manchester Gorton and chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee.