Lewisham mayor hopeful defends New Bermondsey scheme and criticises Guardian coverage

by Dave Hill

A contender to become the next Mayor of Lewisham has defended the council’s attempt to use compulsory purchase powers (CPO) to push through a controversial major redevelopment project in South Bermondsey and launched a stinging attack on media coverage of the issue.

Paul Maslin, one of five Labour councillors seeking to become the party’s candidate at next year’s mayoral election, has described the 30-acre New Bermondsey scheme planned for land surrounding and close to Millwall Football Club as “clearly in the public interest” and accused the Guardian, which has written extensively about the matter, of months of unjustifiably “insinuating” serious wrong doing by Lewisham council members and officers.

Maslin also accuses the Guardian of “a blatant attempt to rubbish” the inquiry being led by former senior judge Lord Dyson into allegations made about the process leading to up to the decision to use CPO powers to secure council-owned land currently leased to Millwall FC and the associated Millwall Community Trust to enable the redevelopment plan to progress. The councillor was responding to a recent Guardian article, which questioned the scope and powers of Dyson’s investigation and described it as “a private inquiry”.

The inquiry was set up at the council’s initiative after it abandoned the CPO process following a series of Guardian articles about aspects of New Bermondsey, including one reporting the football club’s claim that it might have to relocate to Kent, where many Millwall supporters live, if the CPO went ahead.

The club’s stadium, though also leased from Lewisham, was not subject to the CPO and is not included in the redevelopment project area, though the club’s chairman, US-based business man and philanthropist John Berylson, has reportedly said in recent days that, “You can’t stay some place where your landlord wants you gone,” apparently suggesting that the council would like the club to leave the area, something Lewisham denies.

The inquiry is being funded by the council, though Dyson, a former Master of the Rolls, was appointed to lead it by Bar Council chair Andrew Langdon, after Lewisham asked him to chose an appropriate person for the task.

The football club operates within Millwall Holdings plc, which is 70% owned by US private equity firm Chestnut Hill Ventures, a company Berylson founded and is variously listed as a director of and as chairman and chief executive of. On its website, Millwall Holdings describes one of its subsidiaries, Millwall Properties Limited, as “engaged in the preliminary assessment of the potential redevelopment and regeneration of the area surrounding the group’s football stadium”. It has outlined plans for such projects in the past.

Maslin’s attack on the Guardian’s coverage, which appears on his personal blog, also highlights the outcome of an assessment by the Charity Commission of a number of concerns raised with it by a member of the public about the Surrey Canal Sports Foundation (SCSF), a charity set up by New Bermondsey developer Renewal to manage a planned new sports centre in the area, which would form part of the wider scheme.

The Commission, which is the government’s charities watchdog for England and Wales, dismissed suggestions that SCSF is a vehicle for money-laundering, that its decisions have been affected by conflicts of interest or had made false claims about funding support, and concluded that it had “no ongoing concerns about the funding of the charity”. The Guardian, which accused SCSF of making “false funding claims” shortly before the council pulled the plug on the CPO, has yet to report the Charity Commission’s findings, which were published on 4 August this year.

Lewisham’s current executive mayor, Sir Steve Bullock, who will retire at the next election, has accepted Lord Dyson’s invitation to assist the inquiry and given verbal evidence, as has his deputy, Alan Smith. However, another Labour councillor, Alan Hall, who, like Maslin, is seeking selection as Labour’s mayoral candidate and, as chair of the council’s overview and scrutiny committee, raised concerns about the CPO, has yet to decide whether to help the inquiry. That is because he is unsure whether to do so without legal support, according to the Guardian. On London understands that Bullock and Smith did not take legal advisers with them to their meetings with Dyson.

The author of almost all the Guardian’s coverage of the story, its distinguished senior sportswriter Barney Ronay, will definitely not be contributing to the inquiry. A spokesperson for Guardian News and Media said:

Mr Ronay was invited to appear before the inquiry. We subsequently wrote to Lord Dyson explaining that, in order to protect the integrity of our journalism and not compromise our ability to investigate, the Guardian has a policy of not voluntarily sharing unpublished journalistic material. As advocates of open justice, we also have concerns about participating in what is in effect a private inquiry. In light of this, while we are happy to confirm the accuracy of what has been published, we have advised Lord Dyson that Mr Ronay will not be appearing in person at the inquiry.

The Dyson inquiry team intends to produce its findings for the council by the end of this year. Separately, a decision is expected next month on, firstly, a challenge by freelance journalist Katherine Bergen to the Information Commissioner’s decision that Lewisham does not have to disclose the price it had agreed to sell the contested land beside the stadium to Renewal for and, secondly, Lewisham’s challenge to the commissioner’s decision that it must disclose to the journalist a 2013 draft report on Renewal’s financial situation at that time, prepared for it by PwC.

The tribunal panel which will make these decisions has heard from Lewisham’s QC that Bergen is a proxy for Millwall, and that the club has been acting out of “narrow and parochial self interest” and conducting a public relations campaign with the help of various media, the Guardian included. The club did not put forward any witnesses for the tribunal hearing, which Lewisham’s QC argued indicated a reluctance to be subjected to cross-examination, though Bergen’s legal team contended that Millwall’s motivations were irrelevant to the merits of the Information Commissioner’s decisions.

The process for selecting Labour’s 2018 mayoral candidate, who is likely to become the borough’s next mayor, will continue with hustings early next month and the result of an ensuing ballot announced by the end of it. Millwall FC has written to candidates seeking their views on the New Bermondsey scheme.

On London’s beginners’ guide to the disputes surrounding New Bermondsey is here.

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