We’re used to drama at Wembley but last week’s events are right up there with white horses and Russian linesmen.
Although the industry has been speculating right from the kick off that the contract would be impossible to build on time and to budget – speculation which intensified after Cleveland bridge walked off the pitch – the announcement still managed to shock. One had almost come to believe the Multiplex bravado.
In February, it said it wasn’t going to make a £25m profit after all, but at least would break even. And it was only in March that global chief executive Noel Henderson said emphatically that the project was on track and would be finished a month early. Now its position has changed to a phased handover between January and March and a whopping £45m loss. The fact that both Henderson and his boss, John Roberts, the company’s founder – who has personally underwritten £20m of the loss – have stepped down from the board suggests they, too, think a serious error of judgment was made.
This was always going to be a difficult project due to its size and technical complexity. Intense public scrutiny of costs and the difficulty of making the whole thing stack up ensured that the contract “offered value for money” at a guaranteed fixed price – but neither was the final price of £435m massively underbid. But it’s a familiar story of trophy projects – the risk often outstrips the reward. UK contractors could see that; Multiplex, looking for a dramatic entrance into the UK market, rushed in where they feared to tread. And who knows if it hadn’t, would the stadium ever have got built?
But it only takes a few false moves and the contingency is quickly eaten up. And there have been a few of those. Culture clashes – some would say arrogance – have meant that Multiplex has not handled industrial relations as well as it could, nor helped its dealings with subcontractors. But it’s been the dispute with Cleveland Bridge that has cost it most dear. Hollandia has been brought in
at a premium to make up time, but not on a fixed-price contract. The question now is whether the stadium can be opened for the FA cup final and whether Multiplex can come out without sinking further into the red? Can, in essence, Multiplex do a Liverpool?
The project team remain gung-ho and say they are working to the end of January – and one certainly can’t fault their spirit. But the odds don’t look great on timing or costs. The technically challenging feat of completing the roof and removing the temporary supports is still to be done – and both are at the mercy of the weather. If the cup final is to be played on 13 May, it will require seamless teamwork with Wembley National Stadium Ltd to get what amounts to a five-star hotel with 3500 rooms up and running in time. And if it’s anything like other jobs of this nature, there’s bound to be tough negotiations with the client over preliminaries and variations. The £45m losses do not take into consideration either the costs associated with claims from Cleveland Bridge nor other subcontractors. The battle with Cleveland Bridge is set for the High Court, but since the Darlington firm has won all of its adjudications so far, the signs for Multiplex don’t look promising.
There’s no doubt that when Multiplex does hand over the stadium it will be of outstanding quality and a landmark building. It’s a shame, and one of the inequities of contracting, that instead of making Multiplex’s reputation in the UK, it has left it fighting hard to recover it.
Denise Chevin, editor