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QCs: Arup Sport's green belt stadium is viable

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National Stadium task force chief Patrick Carter asked for two separate reports from eminent planning QCs to convince him of the viability of Birmingham's £324 million bid to bring the project to the Midlands, the AJ has learnt.

Birmingham and Solihull councils last week unveiled new venture Arup Sport's designs to build the new 85,000 seater national stadium near Birmingham's NEC, as Britain's second city squared up to the leading contender, the 90,000 seater, £600 million Wembley, and outsider Coventry.

But Birmingham planner Peter Wright told the AJ that Carter had requested the bidders to come up with firm legal opinions that the project was viable, since the 77ha site chosen is green belt land. Wright said Midlands specialist QC Harry Wolton produced a report on whether it can get over the planning obstacle, before Carter requested a second opinion, given by London-based Christopher Lockhart-Mummery.

Carter wanted assurances that there is a fighting chance that the stadium will not fall at the final planning hurdle, since a planning inquiry will result if Birmingham's bid is successful - the project backers have already built a two month inquiry into their timetable.

Wright said that building on green belt land has local precedents but the stadium may prove more acceptable if they can convince that it is 'nationally important'and results in enough jobs - 4,300, it claims - for locals.

Birmingham City Council deputy leader Andy Howell said the scheme would not depend on 'government handouts' - besides funding the planning inquiry. It was about 'football, football, football' with 'no compromises'- there is no provision for athletics. And Arup Sport project director David Storer said it would be a 'landmark building in a park-like setting'.

The planning issues surrounding the Solihull site are crucial for its chances with culture secretary Tessa Jowell, who will pronounce on which bidder has won in October.

That is when Solihull and Birmingham aim to submit an outline planning application for the project, although they will not go ahead with the scheme if it does not win.

The bidders are quite open about the planning problems and have pledged that, to compensate, the stadium will be 'environmentally friendly', with a range of lowenergy features built in, and grass banking and a sunken pitch to ameliorate its scale.

It has been designed by Jay Parrish, who, while he was at Lobb, also worked on the rival Wembley bid as part of the Foster and Partners HOK Lobb team.

Parrish said the 'dramatic and exciting, worldclass'stadium's saddle-shaped roof was the key feature: 'It will be striking and has been designed to create good conditions for the pitch.' The 85,000-seater stadium also features three tiers and would be easy to alter in terms of capacity, while the roof has been 'futureproofed'so that a retractable roof might be added if required later.

The bidders are stressing Birmingham's 'sustainable' transport provision at the heart of England, while taking advantage of stadium manager Birmingham NEC's 20,000-plus car spaces and 7,000 new ones on site.

And they also stress that Birmingham has a track record in building schemes such as the £113 million Millennium Point on time and to budget - it opens at the end of this month.

Ministers are understandably nervous about costly overruns following the last major national building project, the Dome.

Birmingham aims to christen the new stadium - which it pledged will not have a sponsors name - with the FA Cup final in 2006.

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