Tuesday, 20 November, 2001, 15:05 GMT
MPs attack Picketts Lock fiasco
The government's handling of the UK bid to host the 2005 World Athletics Championships has been branded as "sorry and convoluted" by a stinging report published on Tuesday.
The Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport report was particularly critical of the role played by the Culture Secretary at the time, Chris Smith.
The Football Association also comes in for heavy criticism for its stop-start approach to the redevelopment of Wembley Stadium.
The UK bid to host the 2005 event ended in embarrassing disarray when the government, after considerable delay, refused in October to bankroll the building of a proposed athletics stadium at Picketts Lock, in north-east London.
The government and UK athletics chiefs were then forced to beg the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) to transfer the games to Sheffield - a request that was immediately turned down.
The select committee supported the government's decision to back out of the project but said there was no justification for its sudden shift from "confidence to alarm".
In fact, the choice of Picketts Lock as the centrepiece of the bid, as much as the subsequent U-turn, was heavily criticised by the cross-party body.
"The grounds for the...decision to abandon the project were all identified as serious challenges from the very start," the MPs said.
The report describes Mr Smith's decision to remove athletics from the plans for a redeveloped national stadium at Wembley as "beyond his proper responsibilities".
It concludes that this decision had been "taken in a hurry, on flimsy and subjective grounds".
Mr Smith was sacked at the last cabinet re-shuffle, and replaced by Tessa Jowell, who ordered this review.
Britain's inability to build a modern national arena dates back to a decision not to redevelop Wembley to host sports other than football.
A decision on what to do with the Wembley site has yet to be taken, as rival plans for a national football stadium in the Midlands remain on the table.
Earlier this month, the FA warned that the project could be shelved entirely due to spiralling costs.
Wembley remains the favourite option, largely because £120m of lottery money has already been spent on buying the site.
Sport England, the body that allocates lottery money for sport, has said it may take legal action against the FA to recover that grant if Wembley is dropped.
The MPs' report said the FA should have paid back £20m to Sport England when plans for athletics at Wembley were scrapped.
"It is deplorable that the FA has shown no intention of returning the public money to which it has no right," it said.
"The agreement struck between the former Secretary of State and the Football Association for the payment of an arbitrary £20m to Sport England, which after nearly two years has yet to result in a signed legal document, represents a scandalously inept treatment of public money."
It also slams Sport England for handing out money before there was a firm commitment to redevelop Wembley.
"We regard this premature grant...as a cavalier and egregious use of public funds," it said.
The report concludes by saying "the government should consider seriously whether there is a last opportunity to return to a national stadium at Wembley for football, rugby and major athletics events".
Without this, it warns, "there will be no venue for athletics in London capable of staging the World Championships or the Olympics, and therefore little prospect of attracting these events in the foreseeable future".
'Bad idea from the start'
Commenting on the report, Gerald Kaufman, chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport select committee, said: "Picketts Lock is a very good example of what happens when you make things up as you go along."
He said the government should appoint a minister to take charge of co-ordinating national events, "so that these circumstances can never happen again."
"Picketts Lock was a bad idea from the start.
"But it is not fair to say that Chris Smith is responsible for everything. There are many players in this melodrama or farce," he told BBC Radio 4's World at One.
Tory spokesman on sport Tim Yeo said: "This report really exposes a catalogue of blunders, incompetence and really a lack of any commitment or interest in sport in this country from the Government"
"The prospects of Britain hosting a major sporting event in the foreseeable future are now very remote indeed and I'm afraid the blame for that has to lie directly with the Government."
He told the World at One there should be a full public debate or even a public inquiry into what went wrong.
Lord Coe, the Tory peer and one-time Olympic champion, said the damage to Britain's credibility in international sport had been "profound."
In a statement, Tessa Jowell said she welcomed the Committee's "thoughtful" report and was "pleased" that the decision to cancel Picketts Lock was seen as the right one.
But Ms Jowell's predecessor as Minister of Culture and Sport, Chris Smith, who has borne the brunt of the Committee's criticisms, rejected the inquiry's findings.
"I cannot agree with the select committee's analysis of events.
"I think it's particularly sad that this intemperate report ignores the very real advantages for British athletics which could have been secured by the Picketts Lock stadium and a successful World Championships in 2005.
"Some genuine ambition for the future of athletics rather than carping criticisms of the difficult process of putting together a major project of this kind might have been better."
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