The team building England's new National Stadium has been bamboozled by political U-turns, impeded by contract wrangles and shaken by bad publicity. Can Wembley stage a comeback?
"If Chris Smith had not blurted out that he did not want athletics at Wembley, then we would have saved a lot of time and energy. This is politics getting in the way." The exasperation expressed by one member of the Wembley design team is understandable. When the culture secretary insisted last week that the £660m National Stadium must accommodate athletics, he was contradicting his own decree, pronounced just over a year ago, that the stadium would be used exclusively for football.

The result is a mess. A year after the designers scrapped their work on a dual-use stadium in favour of football-only, they will have to reverse the process. And they will have to seek an amendment to planning permission for a dual-use design two years after it was passed in principle by a parliamentary select committee. Meanwhile, the old Wembley, which was due to be dynamited in December, is still standing; the £95m 43 000-seat athletics stadium at north London's Picketts Lock, championed by sports minister Kate Hoey, looks likely to be abandoned; and the client, Wembley National Stadium Limited, is having to justify the scheme's very existence.

Among the questions begged by all this uncertainty is what will happen to Australian contractor Multiplex's £326.5m guaranteed maximum price bid for the stadium, which was accepted in September. Rival bidders always said it was hugely ambitious. Now, with construction costs inflating every day the project does not start, and possible design changes leading to unforeseen costs, the viability of the contract must be in doubt. Industry experts reckon that Multiplex has already spent £18m on a project that might have to be retendered.

Leicester City chairman Sir Rodney Walker, who has replaced Ken Bates as WNSL chairman, will announce the final configuration of the stadium complex next week. He is expected to make the following recommendations:

  • Putting an athletics track into the stadium for the 2005 World Championships (and digging it out afterwards)
  • Building a 15 000-seat warm-up stadium for athletics on an adjacent site
  • Staggering or scrapping the offices and hotel that were to be part of the development.

    He will also provide more detail on proposals to halve the £410m loan WNSL originally sought from the City. The financial documentation, negotiations and amendments to the planning application are likely to delay the project for another few months. Some reports suggest that this means that the stadium will not be ready to host the 2005 World Championships.

    The newspapers have gleefully branded the National Stadium a fiasco on a par with the Millennium Dome, quoting a price tag that oscillates between £326m and £660m. "Back to the drawing board for Wembley" and "New Wembley a blight on our national pride" were the doleful headlines in December. It was a far cry from the heady days of November 1999 when the final scheme was unveiled and an exultant Rod Sheard, principal of HOK Sport, declared: "We are ready to launch … the greatest stadium the world has ever built." Yet behind the screaming headlines, spats between politicians and sporting factions, the World Stadium Team – a joint venture between Foster and Partners and HOK Sport – says it is totally focused on completing detailed designs for the scheme unveiled a year ago.

    If Chris Smith had not blurted out that he did not want athletics, we would have saved a lot of time and energy

    Design Team Source

    "There has never been a problem with the design. There is no question of going back to the drawing board. It is a question of presentation, of re-presenting it to the City, and of getting a political decision to construct the deck," says the design team source. "It is not a technical thing, it is a political thing." "We are working flat out on all the drawings. We cannot afford to stop. The delay that would cause would be far more disruptive than having to change the design later," says Ken Shuttleworth, partner at Foster and Partners.

    Sounding a little weary, Shuttleworth argues that you do not expect to build megaprojects like Wembley without any aggravation. "All the high-profile jobs we do, like Chek Lap Kok airport in Hong Kong and the Reichstag in Berlin, have incredible politics that go with them. It is part of the design process." HOK Sport's Sheard says the funding impasse is not unusual on a project of this size and points out that £40m was spent on legal fees before the £300m Stadium Australia got the green light. "A lot of decisions have been made over the last three years. It is normal, when the financiers get their cheque-books out, that there should be a flood of questions before they sign anything."

    Wembley's 200-strong team
    About 200 people are working flat-out on the project. Foster and Partners and HOK Sport have 30 architects doing detailed design. The Mott consortium (a joint venture with Connell Wagner, Weidlinger Associates and Modus) has 100 engineers scattered in London, Croydon, Manchester, Sydney, Melbourne and Denver issuing construction drawings and has issued tender documentation for the demolition, groundworks and structural concrete. Multiplex has 30 staff analysing of the constructional sequence for the complex roof structure. And Westbury has been signed up as the steelwork subcontractor.

    "The majority of us are carrying on as if nothing was happening, so we don't get diverted too much from the flow of our work," says the source on the World Stadium Team. "Two or three of us are looking at other options for Wembley National Stadium to show to Sir Rodney Walker and the Football Association." This has required little additional work, says the source, as the design team had explored most of the options during the design development. "Most of it involved just getting out what we had done earlier and demonstrating the implications of each option." If, as looks likely, Sir Rodney chooses the option of building an athletics track into the stadium for the 2005 World Championships and then taking it out afterwards, Shuttleworth says the disruption to the design would be minimal. However, it will require an amendment to the planning application that could delay the project for a couple of months.

    "It would affect the structure at the base. The lower tier would need re-engineering, as you would lose 5-6 m of lower tier, and would have to put in retaining walls, but it should not affect the overall shape of the bowl," Shuttleworth says. Football could still be played in the middle of the athletics track while the stadium was in this mode, but the seats would be reduced from 90 000 to 75 000. The track would be built on a 2.5 m deck, as opposed to the 6 m deck that would have been built above the soccer pitch in the original solution. "But going back after the World Championships to dig out the athletics track, lay the pitch and put the lower tier of seating back in will be a substantial job," he adds.

    We cannot afford to stop. The delay that would cause would be more disruptive than changing the design

    Ken Shuttleworth, Foster

    Delaying the fit-out of the offices and hotel to shave £25m off the initial capital cost is quite feasible, says Shuttleworth. "We could leave the office as a shell, and the fit-out would relate to a tenant. It is not unheard of. The top of the ITN building we designed was not fitted out for quite a few years until Reuters took it." The tenant for the 10 000 m2 offices was to have been the FA, but the football body moved into new offices in Soho Square, in London's West End, last November. Wembley National Stadium is in advanced negotiations with a tenant for the offices, but is unlikely to announce a deal by the end of the month, when it goes back to the City for funding. The offices may still be scrapped.

    Similarly, WNSL was concerned about Hilton group, which had negotiated exclusive rights to operate a 210-bed hotel on the Wembley site. Hilton was understood to be reluctant to build a rival to its existing hotel near the stadium, and if WNSL could not persuade them, it may be scrapped. However, Hilton has just renamed that hotel the Wembley Plaza, so there is room for a major branded Hilton Hotel on the stadium site.

    Warming up to athletics
    The final possible change to the scheme, the introduction of an eight-lane warm-up track for athletics near the stadium, looks practicable. The World Stadium Team provided Sir Rodney with feasibility studies for three sites adjacent to the proposed stadium where an eight-lane warm-up track could be built, including one that could accommodate a permanent £30m 15 000-seat stadium around the track. This site is on the south-east corner of Wembley, and is currently occupied by light industrial units which would require a compulsory purchase order.

    It remains to be seen whether Sir Rodney's decision on the final configuration of the scheme, expected in early February, will invalidate Multiplex's £326.5m construction bid. A WNSL spokesman said: "There will be some renegotation with Multiplex. We have got our QSs going through things now." Paul Gandy, managing director of Multiplex in the UK, points out that they are used to managing disjointed projects with complex financing arrangements. "The requirements of different stadia are very complex. We have done a lot of work after the Olympics to convert Stadium Australia in Sydney for rugby and Australian rules football, including demolishing the end stands and moving their lower part closer in. We know how long funding a project of this size can take. There is an awful lot of documentation involved." The design team is looking forward to getting the project off the ground. The main challenge is erecting the roof structure: the 135 m tall arch it will be hung from is the same height as the London Eye. A spokesperson for WNSL says: "The whole stadium structure is suspended from a network of cables attached at node points from that arch, which acts much more like a bridge than a girder, but holds weight from across a much wider area than a bridge. It has never been done before for a stadium.

    "There is lots of geometry to resolve on the roof, to do with rotating the roof to erect it on a tight site. We will erect by rotating it over the top of the stadium from the south side and dropping it down from 140 m to 135 m." Multiplex has been conducting an exhaustive analysis of the constructional sequence for the roof. The firm has also brought in its specialist construction engineer Mark Hetmanski, who worked on the roof of Stadium Australia.

    "The hardest thing about the project is that it fills the site. It's the same problem they had with Cardiff. How do you stand the arch up on a confined site? Plus, it is on a hill in a built-up area," says Multiplex's Gandy.

    Why is it costing so much?

    The current row over Wembley started when the cost of the stadium was found out to be £660m. The proximity of this price to that of the Millennium Dome, then in its death throes, provoked unfortunate comparisons. The design team insist that the construction cost of the stadium has not gone up at all. “The construction cost has been £326.5m since last September. The £660m figure came out when Wembley National Stadium Limited went to the City for funding in December, and includes the costs of the land deal, the demolition, construction of the stadium, financing and consultants’ and legal fees,” says a source. Foster and Partners’ Ken Shuttleworth denies that the scheme is grandiose and extravagant. “The scheme has come out of a brief. It was not just Ken Bates’ brief, it was signed off by 70-odd people in the FA. We have challenged every single figure all the way down,” he says. A sticking point with the City appears to have been doubts that WNSL could fill 4000 VIP seats, 6500 premium seats and 2500 executive boxes, as well as a 2000-seat banqueting hall, particularly during non-football events. “We have raised our revenue projections for premium seating from £3m a year to £40m a year, due to the capacity increasing beyond recognition, but this does not completely convince the banks,” says a WNSL spokesperson. To comfort lenders, the FA looks set to underwrite a proportion of the revenue projections from premium seating, upping its stake from £20m to £100m. Rod Sheard, principal of HOK Sport, says that the corporate hospitality is not an extravagant add-on, but key to the stadium’s business plan. “The analogy is with airlines. They can afford to run an airline because of club class, which covers the cost of the economy class seating. It is the same with football. A stadium with no hospitality will not make any money.” He points out that the stakes are high. “The difference in capital cost between a plastic seat and one with a bit of padding is minimal, but the difference in the price people are prepared to pay for it is massive. By building 13 500 premium seats out of 90 000, we can make sure the price of general admission does not go up.” The World Stadium Team points out that this is not your average stadium – there is 200 000 m2 of development around the bowl. “It is huge – it is twice the floorplate of Stadium Australia, the same as Canary Wharf,” says Sheard. Another source on the stadium team says Wembley is better than Sydney’s Olympic landmark: “We are providing better views of the pitch, more generous space per person, escalators to the upper tiers, covered concourses protected from the weather, better amenities, and better value for money than at Stade de France in Paris [£260m], Stadium Australia in Sydney [£300m] and Cardiff Millennium Stadium [£180m]. The cost per seat of the new National Stadium at Wembley is the same,” Sheard says: “In the USA, they are knocking down stadia built in the 1970s. We should not design something that becomes obsolete in 10 years. Every time we build one of these sports facilities we build them bigger, but they still need more space two years later.” And, he adds, Wembley is not even the most expensive venue being built. The redevelopment of Madison Square Garden is costing $1bn.

    Diary of a fiasco

    May 1998
    World Stadium Team selected as joint-venture designers of stadium. They proclaim “the new National Stadium will be open in time for the 2002 FA Cup final”. March 1999
    Wembley National Stadium Limited buys Wembley Stadium for £106m. May 1999
    Department for Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee on staging international sporting events backs the World Stadium Team’s design for a football stadium, convertible to athletics when necessary. November 1999
    World Stadium Team unveils new design featuring triumphal arch. 17 December 1999
    UK Athletics backs proposal for World Championship Athletics 2005 to be staged at the new Wembley. 22 December 1999
    Chris Smith announces that the stadium will be used exclusively for football and commends it as centrepiece for World Cup 2006 bid. He proposes to divert £20m of £120m lottery grant from National Stadium Wembley to alternative athletics venue. June 2000
    Brent council grants planning permission to National Stadium. July 2000
    UK loses World Cup 2006 bid. September 2000
    Multiplex wins contract to build Wembley, with £326.5m guaranteed maximum price bid. 1 December 2000
    Chase Manhattan Bank fails to secure £410m in funding from the City. 19 December 2000
    Ken Bates is supplanted as chairman of WNSL by Sir Rodney Walker. 10 January 2001
    Government insists that Wembley must host world-class athletics events. 11 January 2001
    Sir Rodney sketches proposal to reincorporate athletics and to halve the loan Wembley needs from the City to about £200m.