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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