Allegations of impropriety against Lewisham Council over its handling of a major redevelopment project in the vicinity of Millwall Football Club have been rejected as “unfounded” by a former senior judge brought in to conduct an independent inquiry into the claims.
Lord John Dyson, who, as Master of the Rolls, was Britain’s second most senior judge from 2012 until 2016, concludes his 140-page report on accusations levelled in relation to the 30-acre New Bermondsey scheme in South Bermondsey by saying “there was no impropriety, lack of due diligence or breach of code of practice on the part of any council officer or members”.
The inquiry was commissioned by the council after it drew back from using its compulsory purchase power (CPO) to take ownership of land not yet owned by its preferred developer Renewal, primarily land it leases to Millwall, following claims by The Guardian that the council had been misled into pledging £500,000 to a charity set up by Renewal to run a new sports centre in the area.
As well as finding that the council was not misled on that issue or inadequate in its inquiries into suggestions that it was, Dyson says that officers and members “behaved with propriety, due diligence and in accordance with the applicable codes of conduct in relation to seven key decisions relating to the New Bermondsey scheme”, including the granting of outline planning permission for it, entering into a conditional land sale agreement to sell the Millwall FC land to Renewal, the appraisal of Renewal’s financial viability and competence, and the decision to use CPO powers.
Dyson’s conclusions follow government watchdog the Charity Commission for England and Wales giving a clean bill of health to the sports centre charity, the Surrey Canal Sports Foundation, after investigating claims that it had overstated its support from funding body Sport England and is a vehicle for money laundering and tax avoidance. The Commission’s decision, published in August, stated that it had “no ongoing concerns about the funding of the charity”.
In September, a judge-led Freedom of Information tribunal panel rejected an attempt by Millwall FC to force Lewisham to disclose the sale price agreed under the conditional land sale agreement and expressed its “disappointment” that a journalist had been the formal requester of the information sought when she “had at all times been acting ‘on behalf of'” the club, a fact only disclosed as a result of inquiries by Lewisham’s solicitors.
The tribunal also declined to give weight in its decision to all 14 “red flag” factors raised on Millwall’s behalf as indicating wrongdoing by Lewisham and/or Renewal, including concerns that the land sale price was lower than the law requires, concerns that Renewal might sell on parcels of land to other developers, suggestions that a conflict of interest was created by the fact that Renewal’s founder, Mushtaq Malik, had worked for Lewisham two decades ago, and claims that Renewal would not pay UK corporation tax on profits from New Bermondsey (a director of Renewal told the tribunal that the company “absolutely” expects to do so).
The football club has claimed that the redevelopment scheme might force it to relocate to Kent.
In rejecting all criticisms made of the conduct of Lewisham officers and council members, Dyson wrote: “I have been particularly impressed by the care with which the officers carried out their consideration of some of the complex issues and the thoroughness, objectivity and professionalism of their reports”.
Anticipating publication of the report the Guardian sports journalist responsible for most of its coverage of the New Bermondsey scheme has tweeted of Dyson: “No doubt m’lud will be unstinting in his criticisms of the people who framed this ‘inquiry’ and are now paying his wages,” the latter reference being to the council.
Welcoming the report, Lewisham council cabinet spokesperson Chris Best thanked Dyson for “carrying out his independent inquiry with great thoroughness and all the rigour we would expect from someone of his standing,” and urged “all parties involved in the new Bermondsey development to work together to agree a way forward to bring much-needed new jobs and homes to the area and ensure Millwall FC is based in Lewisham for generations to come”.
Links to the full Dyson inquiry report and an executive summary of it can be found at the foot of the inquiry team’s website. This article will be augmented by additional coverage later.