The independent inquiry into Lewisham council’s plans to seize Millwall’s land at The Den is set to begin in the next few days. The inquiry, which was announced last month, will be led by Lord Dyson, a hugely distinguished retired judge and former Master of the Rolls. It is expected to be completed by the end of the year and to cost up to half a million pounds of public money.
The inquiry was called after a series of questions emerged over the process and due diligence behind the council’s plans to compulsorily purchase land in Bermondsey and sell it on to an offshore‑registered developer called Renewal. The scheme has been the subject of fan protests, a mass petition and in the past few months a campaign of public and media pressure.
Matters to be covered in the inquiry will include the dealings of the Surrey Canal Sports Foundation, a charitable company set up to run the sporting complex that is vital to the scheme’s planning permission, and which is the subject of an open case at the Charity Commission.
As first revealed in the Guardian the Surrey Canal Sports Foundation filed successive company accounts that contain confusing claims regarding funding agreements and relationships with other charities. The accounts were signed off by the former Tory minister Steve Norris, who currently also works for Renewal’s PR company London Communications.
In recent weeks the mayor of Lewisham Sir Steve Bullock, the leader of Southwark council, Peter John, and Dame Tanni Grey‑Thompson have resigned from the charity’s board. Before his resignation Bullock was dubbed “Mayor Bananaman” by locals baffled by the revelation the charity’s website listed its address as a bodged version of the cartoon home of the banana-chomping superhero. This was still the case when the charity was awarded half a million pounds of public money by Bullock’s Labour cabinet.
The New Bermondsey scheme dates back to 2011 when Renewal obtained planning permission for a housing development and “sporting village” close to The Den. Renewal was set up by Mushtaq Malik, a former Lewisham council officer, and Dave Sullivan, the previous Labour mayor of Lewisham. Its current ownership is unknown because of offshore privacy rules. Malik has stated the company is owned by a family trust based in the British Virgin Islands.
Renewal maintains that it fully intends to complete the development and that the housing scheme will be of benefit to the local community and to Millwall. The club also supports the regeneration, but maintains it was offered no realistic opportunity to tender its own plans for the development, something Lewisham council contests. In January Millwall also indicated that for financial reasons it may have to consider moving out of the borough to Kent if it is excluded from playing a part in the development around its historic home.
For the club’s supporters, caught between mystery developers and the commercial reality of the Millwall owner John Berylson looking to balance the books and seek a return on money sunk into the club, the five-year saga has provided yet another period of instability. Indeed the entire development has entered a period of uncertainty with Lewisham facing mayoral elections five months after the inquiry is due to finish.
Millwall AMS supporters’ group has been a powerful campaigning force during the struggle against the CPO. The group is hopeful a change of executive might lead to a compromise where the club is included in a future redevelopment. AMS spokesman Paul Turner said: “We hope and trust that Lewisham council and Surrey Canal Sports Foundation, in particular its chairman Steve Norris, will cooperate fully and openly at every stage. We are hopeful that a reformulated regeneration to the area can be put forward in time that fully involves Bermondsey’s most obvious existing community asset, Millwall FC.”
Renewal remains bullish about its own chances of being involved in such a development and has launched an energetic local PR campaign to spread this message. However, likely mayoral candidates seem more divided. Councillor Alan Hall, at times a lone dissenting voice during the CPO process, maintains that a new scheme with Millwall at its heart is the best way forward. Hall said: “As a council, as a borough and as a community we all know that Millwall should remain at The Den and feature at the heart of any regeneration plans for the future. Lewisham is fortunate to have them and should cherish and support the club’s work.”
Councillor Damian Egan, another with potential interest in the race, has said: “We should completely revisit the planning application that was made by Renewal in 2011 and go back to the drawing board.
“I don’t think it is acceptable that the public still have questions as to who the financial beneficiaries of the Renewal scheme are, I think this is information we should now be asking of all developers.”
Councillor Brenda Dacres, another mayoral form horse, said: “It is very important that the independent inquiry is able to explore all aspects regarding the CPO, and events that have led to the need for this inquiry. Any regeneration of the area must ensure Millwall FC and the Millwall community scheme have a secure and sustainable future in the borough, and as a Labour-led council this is something we must do. This is also something any future developer must have due consideration of.”
In a separate development it has emerged that even before the Millwall CPO process was stopped and the inquiry called the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, wrote to Lewisham in January this year voicing concerns about the amount of affordable housing being delivered in the Renewal scheme. Khan described the proposed 10% affordable housing in that scheme as “unacceptably low” and suggested this should be increased to around 35%. Renewal had previously stated a willingness to try to improve the notably low amount of affordable housing in its scheme as it progressed.