Lewisham: Is Millwall FC at last going to produce a credible development plan?

Lewisham: Is Millwall FC at last going to produce a credible development plan?

Following years of fine talk about developing land around their ground while failing to come up with any proper plans for doing so, is it possible that Millwall Football Club is at long last getting its act together?

On London has been told that the club’s chief executive Steve Kavanagh and a representative of Renewal, the regeneration area’s principal developer, are scheduled to brief Lewisham councillors next Monday about what they intend to do to end an impasse that began in January 2017 after Lewisham changed its mind about using its compulsory purchase powers (CPO) to take control of land around Millwall’s stadium, The Den, that was needed for delivering the project as it stood at that time.

The freehold of the land in question – mostly a car park and an indoor training pitch – is, like that of the stadium land, owned by the council but leased to the football club and its associated community trust.

Bear in mind that the reason Lewisham resorted to CPO in the first place was because Millwall, having signed up to be part of the area’s regeneration, had proceeded to do next to nothing to help bring it to fruition.

Advance opinion about what the club is likely to present on Monday seems to be mixed. There have been months of trailers about ambitious stadium upgrades and “a new vision” of “working in partnership” with Lewisham Mayor Damien Egan, who was newly-elected to the job last May. At the beginning of last season, more than a year ago, Kavanagh told BBC London the club had engaged architects and that plans were “very advanced,” but still no planning application was forthcoming.

The club only just avoided relegation from the Championship last season, making previous talk of bringing The Den up to Premier League standard look grandiose. Sceptics remain to be convinced that much will change. Even if a planning application is submitted, the club will need to tie up with a property developer to bring it to fruition and there’s no news yet of who that developer might be. Some observers even theorise that the club’s American owner, John Berylson, is increasingly minded to sell the club. Certainly, if he can’t get a profitable development scheme off the ground, it’s hard to see how he can avoid continuing to lose money from his investment in the club, fond of it though he may be.

On the other hand, Renewal’s readiness to participate in Monday’s briefing is among indications that something might actually be happening with Millwall this time, even though Renewal themselves have given up on including the Millwall land in their own plans. They are now readying a fresh application to Lewisham that does not include the Millwall parts of the original New Bermondsey site and also factors in the need to reach Sadiq Khan’s 35 per cent “genuinely affordable” housing threshold. That new Renewal application is expected to be submitted by the end of this year. They want to get on with the job of building stuff.

If Millwall’s proposals really are substantial and of solid quality, it will suggest that a very big penny has finally dropped. To make progress, the club needs to demonstrate to the council and to any potential development partner that it has stopped messing around. Why would anyone put money into a Millwall FC plan when the local authority whose blessing for it is needed has yet to receive anything from the club except a few speculative drawings and a lot of public relations hot air flammed up into a non scandal by the Guardian, whose coverage prompted a flight from the CPO by councillors, including Egan, who was cabinet member for housing at that time.

Regular On London readers will be aware of the club’s energetic campaign against the CPO it effectively brought upon itself. According to Britain’s most trusted news organisation, the plucky little football club and its devoted fans (many of whom live in Kent) were at risk of being forced out of their historic home (which they’ve only occupied since 1993), by a heartless and (it was insinuated) somehow too chummy alliance between an “offshore” property firm and sell-out Labour politicians.

The list of important things the Guardian still hasn’t told you about all this is worth looking at again and getting longer:

One: There has, in truth, been just about no “public pressure” or “community” resistance to the New Bermondsey regeneration scheme, as the Guardian has claimed.

Two: The Guardian attacked Renewal for being registered offshore, but never mentioned that Millwall’s US parent company is registered in the US tax haven of Delaware, even though its main office address is in Boston, Massachusetts. Moreover, a senior Renewal executive has said the company fully expects to pay tax on any profits in the UK.

Three: the Charity Commission watchdog found absolutely nothing wrong with the charity set up by Renewal to help finance new sports facilities in the area as part of the project after the Guardian had alleged it had made “false claims” about a funding pledge from Sport England.

Four: A judge-led Freedom of Information tribunal dismissed a string of “red flag” concerns raised on the football club’s behalf about the conduct of the council during an attempt to get it to disclose certain financial details. It emerged that the appeal was not brought by the club itself but by a proxy. As Lewisham’s barrister for the case pointed out during proceedings, this meant no one from the club itself would have to face the rigours of her cross examination.

Five: Lord Dyson, a former Master of the Rolls, conducted an inquiry on the council’s behalf into whether council officers had performed their duties in relation to New Bermondsey correctly. He found that all claims and insinuations of impropriety and failure to follow proper processes were unfounded.

Six: Artist Willow Winston, whose studio in the development area was subject to CPO, was depicted by the Guardian as a little local hero pluckily standing up to the greedy developer. However, some time ago Winston made a private settlement with Renewal and quietly moved out. On London has been told that she already owned a property in Camden. A senior Lewisham politician wrote to the Guardian at the time of its peak coverage, pointing this out. No response was ever received.

Some further information to come On London‘s way – and which seems very soundly sourced – concerns the rent Millwall and the community trust have been paying the council. Correspondence from two years ago says Lewisham was charging Millwall “less than £40k in rent per year (which hasn’t increased since 1993)” and that the disputed land around the club “is rented to them for less than £9k per year (£750 per month)…”[and] again hasn’t gone up in 24 years”. That’s worth reflecting on in light of Millwall and the Guardian’s claims that Lewisham wants to get the club out of the borough.

Mayor Egan’s approach to the issue is, of course, crucial and of particular interest given that when seeking nomination to be Labour’s mayoral candidate for 2018 soon after the Guardian’s onslaught, he said: “I want the council to consider all proposals for the wider site, before deciding what the appropriate form of ownership of the Millwall land should take. My policy on all council owned land is that it should never be sold to private developers”.

Whatever the substance of Millwall’s presentation next week, there seems no expectation that the club will submit a planning application this year. Sometime next year, maybe?

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14 Comments

  1. Geoff says:

    Who is this Dave Hill? You personally invested in this scheme with Renewal? This article comes across bitter and sardonic. Amateur work Dave.

    1. Dave Hill says:

      Hello Geoff. I’m a journalist and have been since 1981. I suggest you reflect on the facts my article reports and then revise your opinion of it.

  2. Stef Martin says:

    Absolute rubbish you have written basically a toffee nosed reporter making Millwall to sound bad as you all do nothing mentioned what we do for community and racism awareness
    The kids we keep off the streets and in the the community trust area that would be demolished if renewal got hold of it many years ago
    Nothing about the shady dealings renawal was imposing get your facts right before slagging a team off at the heart of London

    1. Dave Hill says:

      Hello Stef. If you have the best interests of Millwall FC at heart, you would be better off encouraging them to get their plans and finances sorted out than throwing insults at me and alleging “shady dealings” that a bunch of senior lawyers and a government watchdog have concluded never existed.

  3. Terence Jeacock says:

    I’m guessing that the writer of this article – Dave Hill – has either ambitions for a job with Lewisham Council; a financial interest in Renewal; or simply doesn’t like Millwall FC. I have never read such a one sided, partisan piece of “journalism” in my many years. I have no interest in either side of this debate, but even I came away from reading this article with sympathy for the football club.

    “OnLondon.co.uk is dedicated to providing fair and thorough coverage of London’s politics, development and culture. It depends on donations from readers.”

    Hmmm… I think the statement above needs to be amended because this article is far from “fair” or “thorough”. It is simply a poor excuse of an article which attempts to state that the football club is completely in the wrong, whereas Renewal and the Lewisham Council members who gave the green light for the CPO to be issued, and Renewal (created by ex-colleagues of Sir. Steve Bullock) a very favourable contract, are portrayed as nothing but angels. Official enquiries/investigations were made, but the lack of evidence doesn’t make actions by certain parties justified.

    This was an opportunity to write an article that viewed this issue fairly from both sides – and that could have also taken into account the views of the people in and around Lewisham, you know, the people who pay their taxes and are those most affected. But instead it is just the complete opposite of the Guardian article it criticises several times, which makes this equally just as worthless.

    1. Dave Hill says:

      Hello Terence. Your guess is incorrect: I have no wish to work for Lewisham Council, I have no particular feelings about Millwall FC either way, and I have no financial interest in Renewal. On that final point, your apparent insinuation that I might have is quite a serious one, given the circumstances. I invite you to produce one shred of evidence to substantiate it and I look forward to a very long wait.

      The article’s purpose is entirely clear and legitimate. It correctly reports that Millwall FC and the developer Renewal will be making presentations to Lewisham councillors on Monday; it correctly reports that Millwall FC has yet to submit a planning application to Lewisham Council despite (unlike Renewal) years of telling people that it intends to; and it correctly reports that every claim and insinuation of wrong doing made by the Guardian against the council and Renewal has been tested, variously, by judges, other senior lawyers and government agencies and found to be completely unfounded. The links are there in the article for you to follow which go into all that in detail, yet you prefer to rely on the kinds of flimsy nudge wink suggestions that “something must be fishy” that the Guardian’s wholly discredited coverage traded in. There never has been, by the way, any “favourable contract” between Renewal and the council. Renewal were granted permission by the council to develop a part of South Bermondsey that the council and the GLA have been wanting to redevelop ever since the latter body was created at the start of this century. They are the principal landowner in the area and their plans were considered worthy of consent.

  4. Joseph Beddison says:

    This article is a complete fabrication of the truth, there is no balance and is anti the guardian anti millwall fc and pro renewal and lewisham council

    May I ask whom has written theis article and do you have any connection to any of the parties in the article?

    1. Dave Hill says:

      Hello Joseph. The article was written by me, which is why my name is at the top of it. It is not a “fabrication of the truth”. It accurately reports that Millwall and Renewal are scheduled to make presentations to Lewisham councillors on Monday and it accurately reminds readers that every claim and insinuation made by the Guardian against the council and against the developer Renewal has been tested by judges, other senior lawyers and a government watchdog and comprehensively rejected. It also accurately reports that, unlike Renewal, the football club has failed to put a proper set of plans for developing its land before the council. Let’s hope, for the sake of the club, that that changes before too many more years have passed. That is in the club’s hands. I suggest you give them every encouragement to make it happen.

  5. David Sibley says:

    Millwall have been in the area since 1910 and the old ground now has houses on it is less than a mile away. Despite the article being completed one sides at least get your facts straight first as to why Millwall has a much bigger affinity to the area than you have implied!

    1. Dave Hill says:

      Hello David. I am aware that Millwall FC, which of course originated on the other side of the Thames, occupied another stadium close to its current one from 1910 until 1993. You say the article is “one sided”. I consider it rigorously factual. It correctly reports that the club is making a presentation to councillors on Monday, which may or may not amount to something substantial. Time will tell. It also correctly reports that a succession of judges, other senior lawyers and a government watchdog have looked into the numerous claims and unsubstantiated insinuations made by the Guardian (no doubt with the club’s assistance) that some kind of dodgy old pals act between the council and Renewal has been designed to force the club out of the borough and found them to be absolutely without foundation. None of those inconvenient facts have been reported by the Guardian, which has fed Millwall supporters a diet of unadulterated bullshit. The club has done the same. If you care about Millwall’s future, I suggest you bring all the pressure you can to bear on its owners to at long last do what is required to turn its development plans into something more substantial than hot air.

  6. Carole Hope says:

    Hi,

    Couple of points:-

    I would challenge your assertion that there was no pressure from the local community against the CPO. As a local person living in Lewisham, and a Chelsea fan, I lobbied against the CPO. Yes, just one person, but a fact rather than your sweeping statement and I wasn’t alone amongst local residents.

    I’m wondering what you think is so significant about some Millwall fans living in Kent? How many Manchester United fans live in Manchester? I live in Lewisham and have had a season ticket at Chelsea for 24 years. How many of those Millwall fans living in Kent originated in south London – or are second, third generation Millwall fans from families still living in that area?

    Equally, what’s your beef about the New Den? It’s close to the former Den and that area is the historic home of Millwall football club across the two sites.

    Lord Dyson’s conclusions were based on the brief he was given by Lewisham, he was not allowed to stray outside the boundaries of that brief and address issues raised by others.

    I’m not entirely sure why an objective reporter would use the words “some observers even theorise …”.

    Finally, hooray for the fact that “Renewal themselves have given up on including Millwall land in their own plans” which is the most sensible outcome, could have been done a long time ago and saved everybody a lot of grief!

    1. Dave Hill says:

      Hi Carole. Apologies for slow response. I have no doubt that some local people were concerned about the previous plan, but I’m pretty sure the Guardian overstated it with talk of massive local public pressure and so on. This was tested a bit at the FoI tribunal hearing and, honestly, there just wasn’t much evidence for it at all.

      It’s certainly true that fans of London football clubs (and those in other cities) can come from what you might call the neighbourhood diaspora (Spurs fans from Hertfordshire, West Ham fans from Essex and so on), but I was trying to make the point that depicting those opposing the previous scheme as a large group of lucky underdog South Londoners is romanticizing things a bit (makes for a good David v Goliath scenario, but maybe not quite that simple).

      You’re right, of course, that Dyson’s report was commissioned by the council, but his findings were pretty comprehensive and clear. Some of that territory too was explored at the judge-led FoI appeal hearing, and the council got a clean bill of health.

      My argument here is that all that stuff about the club being threatened with having to leave the area because of some supposedly dubious deal between the council and Renewal has been pretty thoroughly dismantled by Dyson, the Charity Commission and at the FoI appeal hearing (from which the football club emerged rather badly, I’m afraid). I can understand why Millwall fans would be concerned, but the allegations made by the Guardian haven’t help up under scrutiny.

      In the end, the club will have to come up with credible detailed plans that the council (and the London Mayor) are happy to approve and the finance necessary to put them into effect. My advice to fans, for what it’s worth, is that they should urge the club to get on and deliver. Best Wishes.

  7. A. von Lea says:

    I live close to Millwall stadium but not a supporter.

    If the point of this article is highlighting that Millwall have been a bit incompetent surrounding the development, so what? They’re a championship football club not a developer.

    Also, given most football clubs find it hard to be profitable, it’s entirely fair they’d fight to secure their financial future and to be worried about losing access to parts of the surrounding land they currently use. They faced some uncertainties such as their youth club losing academy status, and yes the possibility of not being premier league ready.

    I agree with the sentiment in the comments that you have a chip on your shoulder about this. No doubt you’ve had a fair amount of vitriol from Millwall fans, but this isn’t an unbiased article.

    A point not in criticism of the article but something not mentioned, part of the delay in the development was a missed application for GLA funding due to the controversy. Housing Infrastructure Funding has now been awarded for the building of the Overground Station, which apparently needs to be spent by 2023.

    1. Dave Hill says:

      Hello. I can promise you I have no “chip on my shoulder” about any of this. Why would I? Neither I have received much abuse from Millwall fans – not that I would care less about it if I had. What do mean by “not unbiased”? The article reports, correctly, that Millwall were due to make a presentation to Lewisham councillors last night. That presentation duly took place.

      It also reports correctly that every allegation about the council’s conduct and supposed “false claims” about the scheme made through its effective PR channel, the Guardian sports pages, has been examined by independent bodies and found to be unjustified.

      One, the Guardian claimed that Renewal had falsely claimed to have secured the support of Sport England. The government’s watchdog the Charity Commission investigated and found that no such false claim had been made.

      Two, every single item on a long list of claims about impropriety by the council and/or Renewal made by a proxy for Millwall FC – perhaps it didn’t fancy being cross-examined by a barrister – as part of appealing against a Freedom of Information decision was found by the judge-led tribunal presiding over that FoI appeal to be unwarranted.

      Three, Lord Dyson gave the council a completely clean bill of health and dismissed a central Guardian allegation.

      In short, the whole Guardian/Millwall FC story that an old pals act between the council and the developer was designed to force the club out of the borough has been comprehensively dismantled. The Guardian has not reported these inconvenient facts. I have.

      You are right that the football club is not a developer, but it signed up to the original plan for redeveloping the area. That meant it would need to find someone to work with that had the finance and expertise the club lacks. For a while, there were discussions with Renewal to form a joint venture to that end. I don’t know why that never happened, but I do know that Lewisham eventually lost patience with the club failing to come forward with proper plans and therefore holding the regeneration up. That’s why they resorted to CPO in the first place.

      It remains to be seen if the club really is going to get its act together this time. If it doesn’t, don’t be surprised if the CPO option again comes under consideration before too long.

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