Empty arms

Andrew Turton explains why Cardiff's new stadium is not popular locally 

The Cardiff Millennium Stadium. Can words describe this towering edifice? It’s enormous, magnificent, a technological wonder. It’s also a white elephant and a stark reminder, if one were needed, of the power of rugby in this city.

There’s no doubt that when it’s finished, the Cardiff Millennium Stadium will be one of the world’s greatest sports arenas. Conceived on a huge scale, it towers over the surrounding streets. Its retracting roof will be unique in Europe, and its removable and interchangeable play­ing surfaces will allow almost any sport to be played there. A series of computer-controlled drop-down dividing walls will mean the stadium can be sectioned of into separate and self-sufficient parts, enabling multiple use. Rugby, football, boxing, athletics, tennis, cycling and even ice hockey will be possible inside this incredible building. So how come most sensible people think it’s a total waste of money?

The saga of the Stadium goes back many years to when the idea of millennium projects, funded by the Lottery, was first mooted. Within a very short space of time, Cardiff’s project was narrowed down to a choice of two – a beautiful and much-needed (honestly) opera house, or a total rebuild of an existing rugby stadium. Sadly, a bitter campaign led mainly (and shamefully) by the local press meant that the opera house never got a look in, being derid­ed and ridiculed in a long series of articles that occ­as­ionally bor­d­­­ered on racist (the competition-winning architect was an Iraqi woman).

But the rugby ground eventually got the go-ahead, as we all knew it would, and the work started to demolish one huge con­crete stadium and build another one. Prob­lems with noise and dirt in the city cen­tre were just one obstacle.

The ground is bordered by the River Taff on one side and Westgate Street on the other, and at either end of the ground by Cardiff RFC (in the original Arms Park) and the Wales Empire Pool. When the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) announced that the rugby stadium needed a grand entrance, the local council fell over itself to make sure they got one, and so Wales’ only Olympic-size swimming pool was demolished to make space. A year later, the WRU decided they didn’t need the space, so it was sold off for shops and a multi-screen cinema, as if we don’t have enough of those already. Plans for a replacement pool, ironically, look to rely on even more Lottery money, if it ever does get built.

Then the disputes with Cardiff RFC started up. The developers continually broke agreements concerning access, until eventually the rugby club gave up and refused to allow them on to their land. They also refused to hand over a strip of land next to the river, earmarked as an major spectator exit route, and demand­ed £3 million for it. If it couldn’t utilise this strip of land, the new stadium would be limited to just 65,000 seats instead of the proposed 80,000.

The WRU claimed they didn’t have the money, but never mind, in stepped the Welsh Office who used £3 million of our money to buy the land for them. How nice.

By this time, it began to look as though the stadium might not be ready in time for this year’s rugby World Cup final. In order to hit this target, the constructors brought in the greatest con­centration of cranes in Britain, and drafted in hundreds of extra workers. Needless to say, costs spiralled out of control. But the WRU didn’t have to worry about that. In perhaps the only clever move of the whole project, they had agreed a fixed price with the constructors, Laing, and knew that under the terms of the contract, their share of the costs could not exceed £100 million. Laing, however, saw their projected profit quickly turn into a £30 million loss, and to date four top executives have lost their jobs.

There is no doubt the building will be open in time for the World Cup – it has to be – but it won’t be finished properly until perhaps October or November. Then Car­diff, or rather the WRU, will boast a magnificent 80,000-seater stadium that might get used as little as half a dozen times a season. Meanwhile, just a mile or so away, Car­-diff City’s Ninian Park is in desperate need of refurbishment, but cannot get a penny from the council to help, a proposed Sports Village in Cardiff Bay is floundering due to a lack of investment and, with no large stadium to hire, Wales are playing their “home” European Cham­pionship qualifiers in England. With £100 million to play with, we could have done so much. Instead we have just tarted up something we already had. What a waste of money.

From WSC 146 April 1999. What was happening this month