Supporters of Millwall FC will be delighted to have clinched a place in the League One play-offs, thanks to a dramatic win on Sunday. But their minds will also continue to be on that other important contest concerning the club’s future – its dispute with Lewisham Council and property firm Renewal over their plans to redevelopment the surrounding area.
As I’ve documented here, the quarrel has boiled down to who controls the use of two pieces of land next to Millwall’s stadium, the Den. Lewisham was poised to impose a compulsory purchase order (CPO) so that Renewal’s 30-acre New Bermondsey project could go ahead, but stopped short following allegations about the finances of the scheme, its own conduct and that of the developer.
To get to the bottom of these, Lewisham commissioned an independent inquiry, to be led by former senior judge Lord John Dyson. An inquiry website has been launched. This confirms that Dyson aims to produce a report by the end of the year and says the inquiry will take place in three phases:
- one: a “preliminary review” will result in an Opening Statement defining the scope of the inquiry.
- two: a call for evidence from “individuals and organisations identified as having relevant information” will be made. Others will have a chance to contribute too.
- three: the inquiry’s outcome will be reported to the council and the report made public.
What will the inquiry cover? Its website refers to “an indicative scope” presented in a report by the council’s Head of Law to a full council meeting, dated 22 February 2017. This helpfully sets out allegations that have been made and issues raised by them. In brief, the allegations are as follows:
- The New Bermondsey scheme promises a new sports centre, called Energize, to be managed by a charity called the Surrey Canal Foundation Trust (SCFT), which was set up by Renewal. In 2014, the council pledged to give £500,000 to SCFT on the strength of an officers’ report which referred to Sport England pledging £2m to Energize. But the Guardian has reported that Sport England is not supporting SCFT financially and accused the trust of making “false claims“. Renewal’s chief executive, Mushtaq Malik, has told the South London Press he has apologised for “nuances over the wording concerning Sport England’s funding offer” but that “we have never said there was a cheque waiting”.
- The Guardian subsequently wrote that Lewisham and Renewal has: “admitted making a series of false claims on ‘funding pledges’ which it describes as ‘jumping the gun’ while securing a £20m grant from the Mayor of London”. The mayor at that time was Boris Johnson and the money was a loan facility provided as part of designating New Bermondsey a housing zone in February 2015. The creation of housing zones, of which there are currently 30, is a means of accelerating the building of housing in an area by bringing together the relevant local authority, developers, other sources of finance and the delivery of transport and further infrastructure in a more co-ordinated fashion. In New Bermondsey’s case the infrastructure is intended to include a London Overground station as well as 2,372 new dwellings. The Guardian listed what it called the “false claims” in the bid for housing zone support as “repeated mentions” of support from Sport England, “repeated mention” of the charity Onside Youth as a “key stakeholder” and “repeated mentions” of former javelin world-record holder Steve Backley as a director of SCSF when he wasn’t one. The Head of Law’s report of 22 February said that the council “needs to establish the accuracy or otherwise of the claims in the Guardian articles” and whether in relation to those claims “Renewal and/or council officers have misled the council”.
- The Head of Law’s report also mentions concerns about “the actions of the developer, their investors and their agents”, whether council officers “may not have carried out the necessary due diligence in relation to the proposed scheme” and “whether the matter has been handled with propriety by all members and officers”.
All of the matters outlined above should fall within “the scope of the inquiry”, according to the report. It says legal advice had been received that “any inquiry should primarily focus on the SCSF issues but not be so restrictive to impede the investigator in his/her inquiries”. Lord Dyson has become the one who will finally decide what the scope of the inquiry should be. His Opening Statement is awaited with interest.