What’s the dispute between Millwall FC and Lewisham Council all about?

Later this month, a former senior judge will become the latest major participant in the long saga of disagreement between Millwall Football Club and Lewisham Council over the future of the part of South London where the club has its home.

It is a story with its own particular character but which also contains classic ingredients of “regeneration” disputes. The neighbourhood in question, the club’s history there and its relationship with the council are distinctive. Yet the arguments about what local people and others really want, the conflicts between the desire for continuity and the appetite for change, the rows over the council’s approach to the issue and the struggle for control over valuable pieces of London land are all typical and pretty timeless – albeit given extra edge by the speed and intensity of change in the capital of late.

Simply put, the argument boils down to who decides what use is made of two pieces of land adjoining Millwall’s stadium.

One of these is currently the club’s car park: like the land the stadium stands on, its freehold belongs to the council, which leases it to the club.

The council is the freeholder of the second piece of land too, but in this case it is leased to the Millwall Community Trust, an organisation closely linked to the football club but separate from it, which runs a number of sporting, educational and community programmes. This second piece of land is where the Lion’s Centre stands. The trust’s headquarters are there, as is an astroturf football pitch where the football club’s youth academy trains.

Lewisham Council and the property developer Renewal want the two pieces of land included in a wider redevelopment project called New Bermondsey. Covering 30-acres in all, this scheme, which Renewal has planning permission to deliver, promises to transform a largely industrial neighbourhood which also contains some housing into one containing 2,400 new residential properties, a hotel, offices, a new Overground station a “creative quarter” and community sports facilities. They say that car parking space and the Lions Centre amenities would all be replaced. Lewisham’s aims for the area have the support of the Greater London Authority, which has designated New Bermondsey a housing zone, with the aim of speeding up house building there.

However, the football club and the trust are against the redevelopment of the car park and the Lions Centre being included in Renewal’s plans. The club wants to pursue its own interests in relation to all the land it leases. It has ambitions for enlarging the stadium and getting housing built itself, which would generate income.

The club has recently claimed that the Renewal scheme could have such ill effects on it that it could be forced to move, possibly to Kent. The council and Renewal deny this, saying that Millwall should be at the heart of the New Bermondsey scheme and would benefit from it. Matters came to a head in January, when the council drew back from using a compulsory purchase order (CPO) to take full control of the car park and Lion’s Centre land. This would have enabled the Renewal scheme to move ahead, but aspects of the CPO were challenged and the council thought better of going ahead.

As is often the case with regeneration rows, some counterintuitive alliances have formed on both sides. Millwall FC and its associated properties operate within a company called Millwall Holdings Plc, which is 70% owned by an American private equity firm called Chestnut Hill Ventures (CHV). The founder of CHV, Boston-based sports fan John Berylson, is also the football club’s chairman. Millwall’s stance is backed by a supporters campaign and has received helpful coverage from the Guardian.

On the other side of the argument, Lewisham is a Labour-run council and Renewal, like many property firms, is registered offshore. Critics depict as fishy the fact that Renewal’s chief executive, Mushtaq Malik, was once a Lewisham Council officer, but others regard Malik’s knowledge of the borough as one of Renewal’s strengths.

The council’s decision to abandon its CPO followed adverse press coverage and the airing of concerns by some Labour politicians in Lewisham. Part of the context for the latter is Labour’s need to select its candidate to run as the borough’s directly elected mayor in next May’s election. The current mayor, Sir Steve Bullock, is to retire from the job, to which he was first elected in 2002.

The council has now instigated the inquiry into the CPO, which will be led by Lord John Dyson, a former supreme court judge and master of the rolls. He hopes to produce a report by the end of the year.

The following is an explanatory timeline of the Millwall saga, which seeks to serve as a point of reference as the story, so illuminating about London’s regeneration tensions, continues to unfold.

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Millwall Football Club’s stadium, The Den, has been at its current location since 1993. Initially called the New Den, it replaced the previous Millwall ground (also called The Den), which had stood just a few hundred yards away. Housing, a church and a playground were demolished to make space for the New Den.

Lewisham Council regards itself as a long-standing benefactor of the football club, and considers the terms of its lease to be generous. It has also long regarded the wider South Bermondsey area as being in urgent need of improvement through redevelopment. The football club has been in the area for 24 years and its future is clearly bound up with any changes that take place there.

Renewal says it has been “in dialogue” with successive Millwall owners about what should be done since 2004, when it bought its first piece of land in the area. In 2006, Renewal approached the council with an idea for a large scale redevelopment in South Bermondsey. The following year, 2007, CHV bought into the club and Berylson became its chairman that October. Renewal says it has never been able to reach agreement with the club over “the form and vision” for regenerating the area – an agreement that Renewal thinks would need to take the form of a joint venture with CHV.

Instead, the club and Renewal have proceeded separately. In 2009 the club presented the council with a scheme for surrounding The Den with eight tower blocks of up to 40 storeys in height. Meanwhile, Renewal devised its plans for the redevelopment of the wider area.

These were submitted as a formal planning application in February 2011 and Renewal asked the council if it would sell it the freeholds of all the land it owned within the proposed development area, excluding the part – the “footprint” – on which The Den stands. In other words, Renewal wanted to buy the car park and the land the Lions Centre occupies.

In June 2011 Lewisham adopted its local development Core Strategy – its statutory planning document for the borough. This named New Bermondsey (also previously known as the Surrey Canal Triangle) as “one of five strategic sites” in the northern half of the borough suitable for substantial redevelopment with a view to creating more and housing, amenities and employment.

Then, on 7 March 2012, Lewisham resolved in principle to support Renewal in assembling the various pieces of land it needed to in order to make New Bermondsey happen. It had the option of using compulsory purchase orders to help the company if it was unable to do the deal it says it needs with Millwall’s owners. On 30 March 2012, Lewisham granted Renewal outline consent for its scheme. This included a Section 106 agreement committing Renewal to paying for improvements to The Den.

The club then made its own approach to Lewisham to develop the car park and the Millwall Community Trust’s Lions Centre land. In August 2013 it presented Lewisham with some drawings and outline plans for delivering housing, including student accommodation. However, the council felt the presentation lacked substance and was not persuaded that the plans were consistent with its policy of bringing about the wider redevelopment of the area.

On 20 December 2013 Lewisham signed a conditional land sale agreement with Renewal for the transfer of the freeholds of the car park and Lion’s Centre land. This was dependent on Renewal privately negotiating the purchase of the relevant leases from the football club (for the car park land) and from the community trust (for the Lions Centre land) and, if it was unable to do so, purchasing them from the council after it had taken ownership of the leases using its CPO powers.

On 25 April 2014 Renewal made what it regards as a generous “seven figure” offer for the car park lease. However, the football club rejected it as “derisory”.

In February 2015, New Bermondsey was designated a housing zone by the Greater London Authority, then under the mayoralty of Boris Johnson. Also in 2015, the council gave permission for the building of an indoor sports centre called Energize on the site. This is billed as set to be the largest in London if completed. The plan is for the facilities in Energize to be run by a charity, the Surrey Canal Sports Foundation, which was established by Renewal in 2011. Energize would provide a new home for the Millwall Community Trust and Lions Centre facilities under the regeneration plans.

There was still no agreement between Renewal and Millwall’s owners. In July 2015, Berylson wrote off £8.4m of interest on loans made to the club by CHV and said he was “as fully committed as ever” to it. By early 2016 the council’s cabinet was moving down the CPO route. Berylson wrote an open letter to councillors, saying he had invested more than £48m in the club and claiming that Millwall’s “very survival” was under threat.

He asked why the club’s development plans – which he said would produce nearly 400 homes and improved accommodation for local businesses – had not been allowed to progress and he questioned Renewal’s credentials as a developer, the viability of its scheme, its future intentions for the site and the transparency of its business affairs. Berylson also challenged the financial robustness of the Surrey Canal Sports Foundation and said that, by contrast, Millwall’s development plans include a guaranteed new premises for the community trust, next to the stadium “where it belongs”. He called on the council to drop the CPO.

But in September 2016, Lewisham mayor Sir Steve Bullock and the council’s cabinet approved going ahead. They argued that this course was necessary to at last get the New Bermondsey scheme underway. The football club protested that the CPOs would have “a devastating impact”, on its academy, the activities of the community trust and its ability to function properly and in early January 2017 made its claim that it might force a move to Kent.

At the end of January, the council’s cabinet called a halt to the CPO process and on 22 February decided to set up an inquiry into it. They asked the chairman of the Bar Council to appoint a suitable person to do the work. Lord Dyson accepted the task.

For those on the side of the club, its owners and the trust, Lewisham Council is engaged in a “land grab” for the benefit of shady property developers. For the council and Renewal, the club is putting its own private interests before the revitalisation of a run down area, from which it would itself benefit. How will the argument be resolved? On London will report on whatever happens next.

5 Comments

  1. Do you work for Renewal? If not they should thank you for the biased and factually incorrect article you have produced on their behalf. Any decent journalist would have got their facts right before publishing, unless of course they had a personal agenda. Two bob piece by a very naive reporter.

  2. Hello John. Thank you for visiting the site. To answer your question, no I don’t work for Renewal. Can you tell me on what grounds you describe my article as “biased and factually incorrect”? Many thanks.

  3. Nothing about dodgy address and phone number in Renewal documentation, just one example of shocking level of scrutiny by the council. Nothing about false claims regarding £2M Sport England funding. Nothing about strange financial transactions, donation that became a loan to SCSF, nothing about Bullock’s resignation from SCSF, nothing about Charity Commission investigation, nothing about donation of £500K agreed by council to SCSF. Nothing about lack of affordable housing in Renewal’s scheme. Nothing about Renewal’s lack of track record and previous screw ups. That’s just off the top of my head. Suggest you consult AMS for pertinent information.

    • Hello Carole. Thank you for visiting this site.

      The article is not intended to be a list of charges levelled by one side of the argument against the other. It is not an opinion piece. Rather, it tries to explain what the argument is about, particularly for the benefit of readers who might be new to the story.

      I’ve tried to summarise the background to the issue and the main points made by both sides; to provide some of the relevant history; and to describe the most fundamental matter at stake, which is a conflict over the use of land.

      The specific points you raise have been reported elsewhere and lay outside the scope of this article for the reasons I’ve set out (and it is quite long enough as it is). I am, in any case, cautious about repeating allegations made elsewhere about people or organisations from wherever they emanate until I’ve satisfied myself that they stack up or are of real significance. That doesn’t mean I won’t revisit them in subsequent articles.

  4. There’s no mention of the Surrey Canal Sports Foundation either in the article, which I feel is very important – lots of documented lies and untruths in their operations…

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