Millwall & New Bermondsey: allegations against sports centre charity dismissed

by Dave Hill

A government regulator has found no grounds for concern over a charity set up to build and run a sports centre in Lewisham close to Millwall Football Club as part of the proposed redevelopment of South Bermondsey following allegations that it is a vehicle for money laundering which made “false claims” about funding support.

The Charity Commission for England and Wales investigated the Surrey Canal Sports Foundation after a member of the public made a number of complaints about the Foundation’s affairs and  media reports questioned its part in the wider, 30 acre New Bermondsey scheme.

The Commission’s decision, published on Friday, found that:

  • “Following an in-depth analysis of accounts and records we found no evidence of money laundering or tax avoidance” and that the Foundation’s accounts are compliant with the Commission’s standards
  • Statements made by the Foundation about receiving financial support from the public funding body Sport England “were made in good faith and did not have the intention to mislead”. The decision records that the commitment of Sport England had been referred to by the Foundation as a “pledge” but that the Foundation had confirmed that it had “not made representations that there was a funding agreement with Sport England in place”. The decision also says “it was fully acknowledged that the support of Sport England was subject to the satisfaction of numerous conditions before it would become a binding funding agreement”.

The member of the public had also raised concerns about whether the Foundation’s decision-making had been affected by conflicts of interest arising from links between the Foundation, Lewisham Council and New Bermondsey developer Renewal, and whether the Foundation was achieving its stated aims as a charity. The Commission’s decision says:

  • “We did not identify any concerns with the way the charity was managing conflicts of interest.” It notes that one of the Foundation’s trustees is employed by Renewal but that “none of the other trustees had any connection to the developer” and that, whilst the successful delivery of the sports centre, to be called Energize, will depend on support from Renewal, it would be operated by the Foundation once completed.
  • Although the Foundation currently has no income and is funded through interest-free loans from Renewal, it has been “encouraging growing sports participation in the Borough of Lewisham, including supporting London Thunder Basketball Club and Fusion Table Tennis Club” and is confident that its plans for Energize will be realised as part of the New Bermondsey scheme.

The decision concludes:

  • We considered that the charity [the Foundation] had addressed our regulatory concerns and demonstrated that it was acting independently, we had no ongoing concerns about the funding of the charity.

The Charity Commission said that the Foundation’s trustees had co-operated with it fully and that it had examined media coverage about the matters raised, much of which has been by the Guardian. The Foundation has been one focus of a wider campaign against the New Bermondsey scheme, which Millwall FC has claimed could force it to relocate to Kent – something both Renewal and Lewisham Council dispute.

Realisation of the New Bermondsey scheme depends on Renewal securing two pieces of land next to the football club’s stadium, but the council’s attempt to achieve this by means of compulsory purchase (CPO) was abandoned early this year following negative media coverage, including of matters relating to the Surrey Canal Sports Foundation which the Charity Commission decision addresses.

Lewisham Council instigated an independent inquiry into allegations made about the New Bermondsey scheme, the developer and council. Led by former senior judge Lord Dyson, it is looking into key council decisions relating to the scheme made since March 2012, including an undertaking to itself support the Foundation financially. The inquiry aims to present its report to the council by the end of this year.

The controversy over New Bermondsey, which also envisages building 2,400 new homes in the area, will be a factor in the contest to select Labour’s candidate for Lewisham’s mayoral election next May. Four of the five contenders to succeed the current Labour mayor, Sir Steve Bullock, have expressed misgivings about aspects of the scheme, including the CPO. Sir Steve, who is retiring having been mayor since 2002, stepped down as a trustee of the Foundation in the wake of media claims made about it and the council.

Separately, a decision by a Freedom of Information tribunal about whether Lewisham should disclose the price Renewal might be asked to pay for the contested land adjacent to Millwall FC and the draft of a report into Renewal’s financial circumstances it commissioned is expected next month, following a hearing held during June and July.

Read the Charity Commission’s decision in full here.

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