For most of 2017 and for some time before, Millwall Football Club, a group of its supporters and the sports pages of the Guardian have been conducting a campaign against the plans of Lewisham Council to have 30 acres of South Bermondsey redeveloped by the property firm Renewal. Some of that land is right next to the club’s stadium and leased from the council, either by the club itself or by its affiliated Millwall Community Trust for club-related use. Various allegations of dubious conduct have been made, notably about the council, led by its directly-elected Labour Mayor Sir Steve Bullock.
Last week, Lord John Dyson, who until last year was the second most senior judge in the land, published a 140-page report into how council members and officers have acted in relation to the proposed scheme, which goes by the name New Bermondsey. It concluded that all claims of impropriety and failure to demonstrate due diligence or to comply with relevant codes of conduct were unfounded.
This followed, in September, a judge-led Freedom of Information tribunal rejecting every one of a string of “red flag” claims of wrongdoing by Lewisham in connection with New Bermondsey, and, in August, the government’s Charity Commission watchdog dismissing claims that a foundation set up by Renewal with council support has been guilty of questionable activity.
In short, each time allegations relating to the New Bermondsey scheme have been subjected to specialist close scrutiny they have been found to be without substance. How has so much time and public money come to be spent on this affair? When will those who have been publicly prosecuting the case against the council, the developer and the scheme, largely through various media channels, admit to themselves and to their trusting followers, that pretty much the whole thing has been a big bag of hot air?
It’s time to get this story straight. The Guardian has characterised the dispute as a David v Goliath struggle between, on the one side, the “community resistance” of a plucky little football club which insists that its very existence in the capital is threatened by the New Bermondsey scheme, and, on the other, a “Blair-era” borough hierarchy in a chummy relationship with a shifty offshore operator; a struggle from which a loveably ragtag alliance of (metaphorically) tin-hatted South London underdogs emerged triumphant in January when the council drew back from using its compulsory purchase powers (CPO) to take ownership of the contested land and sell it to Renewal so that the scheme could go ahead.
This is fanciful and misleading. It depicts as some kind of modern day Ealing comedy the long and often tortured tale of the attempts of the local authority to have the land in question redeveloped in a way that reconciles conflicting private interests to produce the best possible public benefits – a basic task of all the city’s boroughs. Throughout this century, with the support of all three London Mayors, Lewisham has been seeking to have better use made of the 30 acres concerned. Its resort to CPO was essentially an attempt break a deadlock between two wealthy and determined business men, both of whom wish to make money from building on the land.
One of those men is Mushtaq Malik, the chief executive of Renewal, which already owns much of the new New Bermondsey site. The other is John Berylson, chairman and effective owner of Millwall FC. As Dyson’s report records (see paragraph 7) the club at one stage wanted to develop the land around its stadium in a joint venture with Renewal, but discussions between the parties have continued to founder, despite attempts by the council to revive them. Had an agreement been reached, none of the ensuing farce might have occurred. A consensus about why it did not occur will never be reached. I can, though, convey for your consideration that a senior figure in Lewisham Town Hall has likened Malik and Berylson to “two rutting stags”.
Other prominent features of a more realistic representation of the New Bermondsey affair would include media hubris, financial calculation, football’s conservative romanticism and the power of the Protest Left in today’s Labour Party, the latter a growing influence on London governance with which the Guardian is too often complicit.
The idea that opposition to the council’s CPO is of a piece with some glorious spirit of grassroots revolt against a morally comprised elite and so on – very Nigel Farage in its way – can be seen for what it is through acquaintance with the term “ransom strip”. It is not as emotive as it sounds. Common parlance in planning circles, it simply means that the owner of the last piece of a land jigsaw that someone else has been assembling in order to proceed with a large development is in a limited but strong bargaining position.
Renewal wants the “Millwall Land” (as Dyson collectively calls it) and the council wants Renewal to have it. Millwall says it has its own ambitions for the land, which is primarily used for car parking, indoor football facilities and the offices of the community trust. It clearly places a high value on it: Dyson’s report documents Renewal offering the club £1m for the car park site which valuers GL Hearn, retained by the developer, reckoned to be worth only £325,000. The club is perfectly entitled to make the best of its position and to generally pursue its own interests as it sees them. And why wouldn’t it have concerns about the impacts of a major redevelopment project quite literally on its doorstep? But Lewisham Council is just as entitled to do what it thinks best for that part of the borough, which it, unlike the football club, was elected to run.
The catalyst for the council’s ditching that CPO and commissioning the inquiry Dyson would be invited to lead on the recommendation of the Bar Council chair was a Guardian report published on 19 January this year. It said that Lewisham had been misled into pledging £500,000 to a charity, the Surrey Canal Sports Foundation, due to Renewal’s making a “false claim” that Sport England had already pledged £2m to the same organisation. The Foundation was set up by Renewal to build and run a sports centre called Energize on the development site where, it is proposed, the Millwall Community Trust and replacement indoor football facilities would be re-located under the New Bermondsey plans.
Dyson writes in his report that he has found “no evidence” to support this “central allegation” by the Guardian (see paragraph 341). He adds: “It is also incorrect to say that there was ‘no application for a funding agreement [with Sport England] in process'”, which the Guardian article also maintained. Dyson hasn’t written this for fun. The reasons for his conclusions are set out over 19 evidence-packed pages in Chapter 5 of his report.
At the time, though, this seemingly false Guardian claim that a false claim had been made by someone else caused a sharp reaction among the council’s senior politicians. Sir Steve Bullock asked the borough’s chief executive for an investigation into the possibility that untruths had been told to the council and Damien Egan, Bullock’s cabinet member for housing who had long backed the scheme, was one of a majority of Labour councillors who said he thought that that would be a good idea. The Guardian’s claims “completely undermine Renewal’s credibility,” Egan declared.
His change of stance took place within a wider context. Mayor Bullock had already said he would be standing down at the next Lewisham mayoral election, which will be held in May next year. Egan had long been favourite to succeed him. But in Lewisham, as across so much of London, the membership of the Labour Party, which was preparing to decide later in the year who its next mayoral candidate would be, had enlarged and changed thanks to a large influx of people enthused by the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn.
It is, of course, an article of Corbynite faith that “offshore” property developers are engaged in the “social cleansing” of London, often with the connivance of “Blairite” Labour councils who despise the lowly and the poor. No mayoral hopeful with a serious chance of becoming Labour’s Lewisham candidate for 2018 – and, as such, effectively mayor-elect – would want to get on the wrong side of We Who Believe In Jeremy.
Early in September, answering a question about New Bermondsey from Millwall FC, Egan announced that he was against using CPO powers to take ownership of the Millwall Land, against any sale of that land’s freehold “to private developers” and in favour of the football club playing “an active part in the future of any development”. His selection campaign slogan was “making real change happen”. He’d really changed his view on New Bermondsey. Later that month he won the selection vote, pushing Councillor Paul Bell, the candidate backed by the Corbyn-supporting pressure group Momentum, into second place.
There were three others in the mayoral selection race, and two of them took much the same line as Egan and Bell. One was Councillor Brenda Dacres and the other was Councillor Alan Hall, chair of the council’s overview and scrutiny committee and a prominent critic of the New Bermondsey scheme whom the Guardian has praised to the skies for his endeavours.
The one exception was Councillor Paul Maslin, Lewisham’s cabinet member for children and young people. He alone among the mayoral pretenders – and practically all the borough’s Labour politicians – has been prepared to speak a few home truths unto fellow Labour Party members, to Millwall fans opposed to the scheme and to Barney Ronay, the journalist who has been producing the Guardian articles, about what has really been going on, the rules and processes that bind local authorities, the predicaments that confront them and the balances they must strike in trying to protect what is good about their boroughs whilst at the same time fostering beneficial change.
The torrents of denigration to which Maslin has been subjected as a consequence – including by Ronay – illuminates the state of the Labour Party in London, where politicians who wrestle with the limits, responsibilities and complexities of power are everywhere besieged by the evangelical zeal of Corbynites. It also provides depressing insights into the coverage of housing and other development issues in the capital by “quality” liberal news outlets.
Ronay is a very fine sports writer and Dyson places on record his belief that he has been trying to uncover matters of importance, a generosity the journalist has not returned. But he dismantles the attacks on the council that the Guardian has so relentlessly launched. And that news organisation, which trumpets its independence and concern for democracy, has yet to report those findings by the Charity Commission or the decision of the FoI tribunal. I’ve yet to find any mention in its coverage that Millwall FC is ultimately owned by a private equity firm based in the United States. Were a Tory tabloid to behave in the same way, the Guardian would be the first to disapprove.
Dyson also records that neither Ronay nor Alan Hall were prepared to assist his inquiry in person, in both cases for reasons he found less than compelling. A similar reticence from the Millwall side of the fence brought a much sharper response from the FoI tribunal, which learned only in the course of the proceedings that the appeal it was considering against Lewisham’s refusal to disclose the price for which it had conditionally agreed to sell the Millwall Land to Renewal was being made on the club’s behalf by someone else. No one from Millwall FC itself gave evidence, thereby avoiding exposure to cross-examination by Lewisham’s QC. It is a feature of this affair that many those who’ve been making accusations most freely go missing when in danger of being held to account for them. In that respect John Berylson, who did assist Dyson in person, has been an exception.
What will happen next? The full council is not scheduled to consider Dyson’s report until January at the earliest and there is very little time for Mayor Bullock and his cabinet to revive the CPO approach before next year’s elections, even if they choose to. The council has once again insisted that it has no desire for Millwall FC to leave for Kent, a possibility that has always seemed remote. Even if the club could afford such a re-location, the enduring reputation of some of its fans would go unhelpfully before it, despite the fact that many of them actually live there. Suspicions remain that Millwall’s claim that New Bermondsey will force it out of town were, in any case, a handy part its PR strategy more than anything else.
Meanwhile, the GLA has been talking to Renewal with a view to bringing the proportion of affordable homes in its plans up to the 35% threshold Sadiq Khan requires from private developments. By contrast, even now, Millwall has yet to produce any detailed plans of its own. Maybe this is the time for them to do so. Maybe co-operation will at last replace conflict. Can such real change be made to happen? What does Damien Egan think?