In deeming “unfounded” allegations of impropriety and more against Lewisham Council over its handling of the New Bermondsey regeneration scheme of developers Renewal, Lord Dyson wrote: “It is agreed between the key participants to the inquiry, notably the London Borough of Lewisham and Millwall Football Club, that the site is in great need of redevelopment”. There wasn’t much else they agreed about and there now appears to be still less.
Millwall responded to Dyson’s report by talking again of a “possible departure” from the area if New Bermondsey goes ahead, followed by an 11-page letter to Dyson signed by club chairman John Berylson taking issue with various parts of his report and its scope. Dyson’s reply, much briefer, states, “I stand by my report, its findings and conclusions”, and adds: “I regret to say that I consider your complaint of ‘unconscious bias towards Lewisham Council and Renewal from start to finish in your report’ is without foundation..
Meanwhile, the future of the 30-acre site seems no clearer than it did before Dyson’s inquiry began. This was commissioned by Lewisham after it had abandoned using compulsory purchase powers (CPO) to take ownership of land right next to the club’s ground, The Den, in order to sell it to Renewal and enable the scheme to proceed.
That retreat from CPO followed key councillors taking fright at a Guardian article alleging that Renewal had made “false claims” about the funding of an indoor sports centre which forms part of the New Bermondsey plans. Dyson said he found “no evidence” to support the Guardian article’s “central allegation” and that it had been “incorrect” to claim there was no application for financial support from Sport England in place.
Millwall and New Bermondsey: it’s time to get this story straight.
Having been stampeded by a piece of journalism that Dyson, the erstwhile second most senior judge in the land, has concluded did not stack up, Lewisham’s Labour councillors are now left with a regeneration project that many of them want in theory but have themselves contributed to making harder to deliver.
That is most notably true of Damien Egan, the cabinet member for housing, who said of the Guardian’s “false claims” claims that they “completely undermine Renewal’s credibility”. Then, in September, when seeking to become Labour’s candidate to succeed the outgoing Sir Steve Bullock as Lewisham’s Mayor – and effectively mayor-elect – and surely mindful of the local Momentum membership, Egan announced that not only was he against the use of CPO powers by the council to secure control of the Millwall land but that he also opposed any sale of its freehold, which the council owns, to “private developers”.
Assuming Egan wins the mayoralty in May, where does that leave him, Millwall and Renewal? Renewal has already secured planning consent for the entire New Bermondsey site, including the land that was to be subject to the CPO. Trying to override that consent could be problematic. Yet the logic of Egan sticking to his candidate selection contest position on becoming mayor, is that the entire New Bermondsey scheme as it stands – which Egan had previously backed – cannot go ahead. And it suggests that the Millwall land within the New Bermondsey site can only be developed by Millwall’s owners on their own or within some kind of joint venture.
Is such a scenario feasible? Millwall and Renewal have failed to come to such an agreement in the past and the chances of it happening in the future do not look great. Berylson’s letter to Dyson complains that his report quotes a letter sent to Mayor Bullock in 2013 by Renewal’s chief executive, Mushtaq Malik, in which Malik claimed that “the club could be placed in administration at any time”. Berylson argues that such a suggestion “may cause fear and consternation among business partners and employees, as well as current and potential players”. Not much sign of a thaw in relations between Berylson and Malik there.
Egan also said in September that he favours the club having “an active part in the future of any development”. If redevelopment is to occur, what sort of “active part” might transpire? Millwall contend that Lewisham has always favoured Renewal over them. Lewisham’s view is that Millwall have never produced development plans of sufficient detail.
Perhaps now is the time for Berylson to come up with proposals that no one could call inadequate. Perhaps Egan is the person to encourage this. I hear that attempts are underway to repair the frayed relationship between the council and the club. Who better than the current cabinet member for housing and likely future Lewisham mayor to take the lead?
This article was updated on 17 December to include mention of Renewal’s planning consent.