Dual-purpose design to stay despite culture secretary’s decision to make national stadium football-only.
The £475m National Stadium at Wembley is to be built as a dual-purpose athletics/football venue, even though the government has decided that no athletics will be staged there.

The decision will mean that design compromises over sight lines and leg room will remain despite the fact that the rationale for them has disappeared.

Client for the project, Wembley National Stadium Limited, has said that culture secretary Chris Smith’s announcement on 22 December that the stadium would be used exclusively for football came too late to permit design changes.

A spokesperson for WNSL said: “We would change the bowl to bring people in closer to the pitch, but at this point in the development planning process, we cannot. Ironically, we will have the capacity to host world-class athletics.”

Smith’s decision means that a new venue is needed to support a bid for the World Athletics Championship in 2005, and last month he asked Sport England to look at possible candidates. It is understood that two options under consideration are the Twickenham rugby ground in west London and Crystal Palace in south London, both of which would have to be converted to accommodate athletics.

Sport England will announce its findings on 28 January at a meeting of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport parliamentary select committee. Sports minister Kate Hoey and Wembley National Stadium will give evidence.

Gerald Kaufman MP, chairman of the select committee, said it would look at the history of what took place and seek answers to a number of questions. He said: “Are we going to get on now and build this football stadium? Is it going to be finished in time for the World Cup 2006? Where should a national athletics stadium be? Should Manchester get it?”

We would change the bowl to bring people in closer to the pitch, but at this point, we cannot

Wembley Spokesman

A second area of controversy is whether WNSL should repay part of its £120m lottery grant. Smith said in his 22 December announcement that the lottery funding agreement, which was for a stadium capable of hosting world-class football, rugby and athletics events, must be reconsidered.

The spokesperson said WNSL would not return any of its lottery grant. He said: “We still feel we have met all the lottery criteria, so we are not giving anything back out of our development budget.”

The spokesperson denied that WNSL would not have to pay the estimated £40m cost of including an athletics track in the stadium. “That £40m would have been met by the admission charged to world-class athletics events. There is no saving in it now to us,” he said.

WNSL also confirmed this week that the Football Association had proposed to pay £20m towards the cost of developing alternative facilities for athletics in the event of a successful bid for a world class event. If the British Olympic Association wanted to make Wembley the focus of an Olympic bid in the future, the FA would want that £20m returned, the spokesman said.

WNSL hopes to win planning permission for the National Stadium in April 2000 and to start on site in early 2001.