During the past couple of weeks, Wembley has returned to the public agenda with a vengeance. That is because the House of Commons' select committee for culture, media and sport has been considering the issue of a British bid for the 2012 Olympic Games. Now, if you stage the Olympic Games, you need a stadium where athletics can be accommodated. And, more years ago than I care to count, Sport England agreed to provide £120m of lottery money towards Wembley stadium on condition that it would be dual-use – that is, capable of housing football and athletics, with the specific objective of accommodating a London Olympic Games.
What emerged at this month's committee hearings, much more clearly than had previously been the case, was that even if London was awarded the 2012 Olympic Games, the only Olympic activity that would take place at Wembley stadium would be football.
As a memorandum from the British Olympic Association to the select committee put it: "We hope to see the finest football stadium in the world staging the final of the 2012 London Olympic football tournament." I do not think it would be unfair to interpret that statement as meaning that the BOA did not expect to see any other Olympic events being staged there. So it looks as though there is to be a stadium at Wembley, part-funded by £160m or more of public money on condition that it would be dual-use and able to accommodate the Olympic Games, and which is likely to stage only football.
But that is not the only matter of concern. It has emerged, gradually, that in place of Wembley as the centrepiece venue for the games, the plan has been to build a special 80,000-seat athletics stadium, costing taxpayers up to £300m, in east London.
That stadium's one and only role would be to act as the centrepiece for the games. At the end of the games it would have no function. There are those who believe that one of the big east London football clubs might agree to accept it, converted at public expense of course, as a new home. But there has so far been no indication that any such football club is interested. So the powers that be – the government, the BOA, Sport England and the Mayor of London's department – were perfectly, even tranquilly, ready to accept the situation of having a dual-use stadium at Wembley that will be used for football only, and a single-use athletics stadium in east London that would be surplus to requirements the moment a 2012 Olympic Games ended – unless it was used for football.
Of course, if the Cabinet decides not to launch a bid for the Olympic Games of 2012, that would put paid to a one-off east London stadium. But whatever happens, this whole confusion of stadiums should be a permanent and salutary lesson for the government: a lesson in what not to do. I have said, over and over again, in conversations with the prime minister, in debates in parliament and not least in my column in Building, that British governments are not elected to be building contractors.
Despite the lessons of the British Library, the Millennium Dome, the Millennium Bridge, Wembley Stadium and now this melange of Olympic stadiums, nobody has paid the slightest attention to me.
Governments are elected to deliver a health service, education, law and order, social security, and countless other indispensable services. They should not get distracted with construction projects, which rarely bring them anything but bad publicity. The Egyptian pharaohs built, at public expense, pyramids in which they planned to be buried. Thousands of years later, British governments have preoccupied themselves with ever-increasing, sometimes totally unnecessary publicly funded building projects that will, in the end, perform the same service for them.
Gerald Kaufman is MP for Manchester Gorton and chairman of the culture, media and sport select committee.