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Team changes lift Wembley hopes

Comment

As we prepare for a World Cup tournament played in the spectacular venues of Japan and Korea, our own Wembley saga last week produced a new round of revelations that highlight the shambles that redevelopment of England's traditional footballing home has become.

It isn't enough that political bickering between various sporting bodies over whether or not the new stadium should have an athletics track almost brought the project to its knees in 1999. On top of this, wrangles with the project's bankers over how much cash the Football Association (FA) should put in provided another near death experience last year.

Now it seems that the FA's project company Wembley National Stadium Ltd (WNSL) is struggling to regain control, having awarded the construction contract to Multiplex under what can only be described as less than competitive circumstances.

A secret report, written last December for WNSL by corporate trouble-shooter David James and lawyer Berwin Leighton Paisner - made public last week - raises a number of serious concerns about the procurement process. It is now likely that WNSL will be criticised by public spending watchdog the National Audit Office over its handling of the £120M lottery grant awarded to the project by Sport England.

In his covering letter, James says that WNSL should have retendered the project last year, after realising that it had failed to adopt best practice in awarding Multiplex the construction contract. His research, based on interviews with key project figures, shows that the job was not widely advertised and that WNSL ran parallel procurement strategies for the contract, asking different contractors to bid against different critieria.

But the difficulty, also recognised by James, is that WNSL was essentially stuck with Multiplex, as the terms of the site purchase deal dictate that work must start on site by the end of the year, or land vital to the project must be handed back.

Despite this, it may still just be possible for WNSL to emerge with the minimum of egg on its face. The report and a tough stance by Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell have forced WNSL to take a more businesslike approach to the project. Management was restructured in April after Jowell threatened to withdraw government support.

She demanded stronger corporate governance, tighter financial controls and proof that the project was financially viable.

This appears to have galvanised WNSL and the FA into action. WNSL's board has been trimmed from 11 to seven directors with only three of the original line up keeping their jobs.

The extensive shake up brought in two new board members with construction experience - Atkins chairman Mike Jeffries and Sunderland FC chairman Bob Murray. David Ross, a member of the Sport England audit committee also now represents Lottery interests.

Even now the project is not certain to go ahead, as the bank finance has still to be agreed in detail. But Jowell deserves praise for being a Labour cabinet minister prepared to put her neck on the line and force the project forward - despite the continual shortcomings threatening to undermine it.

Andrew Bolton is NCE's news editor

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