Millwall & New Bermondsey: Willow Winston gives evidence to FoI tribunal

by Dave Hill

In a cramped meeting room on Bloomsbury’s elegant Alfred Place, artist Willow Winston, characterised elsewhere as the “unlikely hero in the fight to save Millwall Football Club” from “aggressive redevelopment”, painted a broader background canvas. She said she is not against the redevelopment of the part of South Bermondsey in which the football club stands per se, or, indeed, against urban development in general. Rather, it is how these things are being done in London that she objects to.

“The area is ripe for development,” she said of the piece of the capital in which she has a studio and resides. “But this is being forced on us.” A recent parliamentary bid was not, she said, motivated solely by what she sees as the threat to the area she moved into in 2002, but “the central principal of the way we are developing our great city”.

Winston was speaking on the final day of a Freedom of Information (FoI) appeal tribunal hearing, which had failed to complete its business in a slightly more spacious setting two weeks ago. The hearing was happening because of disputes arising from Lewisham Council’s turning down a request to release certain details relating to its desire to see 30 acres of land very adjacent to Millwall FC – though not the club’s stadium, The Den, itself – transformed into a new place called New Bermondsey by property company Renewal.

The veteran artist, a sister of Professor Robert Winston, was an important witness for the appellant, because she contends that local people and businesses, not least the football club, will be damaged by Renewal’s ambitious scheme. Such arguments could potentially lend weight to the case for overturning the Information Commissioner’s ruling that although Lewisham should disclose the conditional agreement it made with Renewal in 2013 to sell it land it owns the freehold of – land currently used as the football club’s car park and by the separate but linked Millwall Community Trust – it did not have to disclose the price agreed. For its part, Lewisham is challenging the Information Commissioner’s decision that it should disclose a 2013 draft report on the Renewal’s financial circumstances, prepared for it by PwC. Where does the public interest lie?

“The community will not benefit,” Winston told the learned, judge-led, three woman tribunal panel under cross-examination by Lewisham’s QC. Again, she insisted that she was not against redevelopment in the area as such, but would like it to be “a little bit more inclusive”. She expressed a fear that New Bermondsey might end up being even worse than the Battersea Power Station development, whose shrinking affordable housing component has lately been in the news. She also described feeling personally besieged by Lewisham’s attempts to move the process on by resolving to use compulsory purchase powers against her property: “A CPO is like having a knife held to your throat.”

The CPO was later withdrawn and decisions leading up to its deployment are now the subject of an inquiry by a distinguished former judge. At the FoI hearing, some of Winston’s claims were, of course, inquired into too. There has been considerable media mention of an offer made to her in 2011 by Renewal of £58,000 to buy her live-in studio – a sum she was unhappy with – but rather less of her acceptance of Renewal’s subsequent offer to pay for her to have an independent valuation made of the property. Winston has never publicly disclosed the resulting figure and did not do so in the cramped room in Alfred Place.

She accepted that one building she described Renewal as having “made a lunge” for a while back lies outside the New Bermondsey redevelopment area and that “very few people” would lose their homes in what is primarily an industrial area. In fact, she confirmed, it would only be her and one other. And although she told the tribunal that there is “great support for my point of view” in the neighbourhood, she also remarked, somewhat pre-emptively, that “people give in” because “justice is very hard to attain and we know we’re not going to get it”.  She added that “the main support is from the football club and its supporters, who are desperately worried” because “the place is likely to get shut down”.

Much of Winston’s view of New Bermondsey and its effects was contested. It was put to her on Lewisham’s behalf that in the period leading up to 2014, the year in which the FoI request was made, that there had, in fact, been very little opposition from local people and businesses. As for Millwall FC and its supporters, it was contended right at the start of the hearing that the club has been conducting a public relations campaign helped by receptive sections of the media, notably the Guardian, and that it is actually in no danger of having to relocate because of the scheme, as it has claimed. Another point made during proceedings is that aspersions cast against Renewal for being registered offshore lose some of their force when weighed against the location of Millwall FC’s principal owners, Chestnut Hill Ventures, a private equity firm based in Boston, USA.

The outcome of the hearing is scheduled to be known in early autumn. The parts of it I have attended have provided food for thought for the time being. Whatever the tribunal makes of her evidence about New Bermondsey and the extent of local feeling against it, Willow Winston’s observations on the nature of some regeneration schemes in London as a whole will strike a chord with many. Are they transparent enough? Will they deliver what they promise? Are local concerns properly respected?

That’s one thing. The other is what might be called the Lion in the Room, or rather, the Absent Lion – the Lion of Millwall FC itself. The FoI appeal was not brought by the club, but by freelance journalist Katherine Bergen, on its behalf. Why did it or its owners not do so themselves? It does seem odd. Steve Bradshaw, chief executive of the community trust is among those who gave evidence, but no one from or on behalf of Millwall itself did. This was much remarked upon by Lewisham’s QC, who has described Bergen as being “secretively used as a proxy” by Millwall in an arrangement illustrating that the club and its owners aren’t eager for public scrutiny. More on all this come.

3 Comments

  1. This “reportage” seems to be very pro-Lewisham council and Renewal. Is that Renewal who are based in overseas tax havens, whose associated “charity” lies about funding (even when told to cease and desist this), and whose experience as developers is, as confessed by Lewisham Council, nil.

    • Hello Alex. Were you at that day of the tribunal hearing? If so, perhaps we could compare notes on what was said.

      • Hello Dave. I wasn’t at the tribunal hearing, but have read widely about the case in general, including the pieces in “On London” – which have seemed to my mind, to be a bit more pro-Lewisham Council/Renewal (as taken by the fact they have been re-tweeted by a number of the pro-renewal Councillors at Lewisham). I appreciate this is all just a feeling and an interpretation of the pieces, but that is my feeling.
        I think the fact that Lewisham is paying for a QC to defend them using valuable funds in a time of austerity is pretty dubious – unless Renewal is paying for their QC again, like previously…

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