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Thursday, 23 May, 2002, 13:59 GMT 14:59 UK
Wembley given 'last chance'
An illustration of the new Wembley stadium design
The FA says it has found the 715m needed
The troubled Wembley stadium project can still go ahead - although building a stadium in Birmingham is a more likely second choice than just reopening the old stadium, Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell has said.

In a House of Commons statement, Ms Jowell insisted that more progress had been made in the last five months on the national stadium than in the previous five years.

How many more drinks will Wembley enjoy in the last chance saloon

Anne McIntosh
The Football Association now had one last chance to fulfil that dream, she said, and if it failed talks should start with backers of the Birmingham option.

Ms Jowell confirmed too that she was aware last year about an agreement signed by the Football Association to reopen Wembley until 2019 if the current plans fell through.

Defending ministers' role

But she stressed that this option was unlikely as it would cost about 40m and the reopened Twin Towers site would be "increasingly sub-standard".

Earlier, the culture secretary defended her role in the long running fiasco amid strong criticism from MPs.

Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell
Tessa Jowell faced attacks from MPs
Members of the Commons culture select committee told Ms Jowell of their concerns that 120m of National Lottery money had been given to the project.

The minister said lessons had to learned but the government had not been directly responsible for those funds.

The FA expected to sign a "heads of agreement" with the lead bank, WestLB, in the next week, with all the contracts completed in about 10 weeks.

But she added: "This is not yet a done deal."

'Scandalously slack'

The MPs criticised the decision by Sport England, the government's sports funding body, to hand over the 120m when it did not have full control of the project.

That money was used to buy the site but the land has since been valued at half the cost, the committee heard.

One of Wembley's twin towers
Revamping the Twin Towers is unlikely, says Jowell

Committee chairman Gerald Kaufman said the way the scheme had been handled was "slack to the point of scandal".

Mr Kaufman attacked what he said was "a serious level of culpability and negligence by Sport England in this entire episode".

Two reports have pointed to flaws in the bidding process for the Wembley contract, which this week was claimed to be "unfair".

Ms Jowell agreed the claims made "disturbing reading" but argued that they did not reveal any new concerns.

Better management

No criminal impropriety had been found, she stressed, and experts did not believe the bidding process should be re-run.

If the conditions for better management of the project were met, the government would stump up 20m for the non-stadium infrastructure, she added.

Conservative frontbencher Anne McIntosh said the project remained in a "mess".

"How many more drinks will Wembley enjoy in the last chance saloon," asked Ms McIntosh.

On Wednesday the FA's chief executive, Adam Crozier, rejected suggestions that the existing ground could re-open next season, insisting plans for a new development were still on course.

Bank deal

A government deadline of 30 April came and went without the FA's Wembley finances secured.

The FA now says it is set to sign an outline loan deal with the German bank West LB.

That would secure the financing of the 715m, 90,000-seater stadium.

A spokesman for the rival Birmingham stadium consortium said it was not acceptable that more than three weeks since the original deadline had passed with no firm signs of progress.

The consortium is calling for 620,000 compensation amid claims they were "misled" about their chances by the FA.

Backers of the Birmingham and Coventry schemes thought they stood a chance of success if plans for the new stadium in London fell through.

The BBC's Reeta Chakrabarti reports
"It can't have been a day the culture secretary was looking forward to"
Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell
"This project is led by the FA, they are paying for it, and they have chosen to have it at Wembley"

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22 May 02 | England
21 May 02 | Search for a New Wembley
07 May 02 | England
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