As Lord Dyson continues his inquiry into Lewisham Council’s handling of the proposed redevelopment of South Bermondsey around Millwall Football Club, an appeal against Lewisham’s refusal to release certain documents relating to the scheme sought through a Freedom of Information request (FoI) is underway. I watched the start of the tribunal proceedings in Court 5 of Fleetbank House in Salisbury Square, just off Fleet Street, yesterday morning. They were illuminating in several ways.
The opening statement by Lewisham’s QC chimed with views privately held both by senior figures in Lewisham Town Hall and within property company Renewal, which Lewisham has chosen to implement the scheme, known as New Bermondsey. These, plainly put, are that claims by Millwall and others critical of the project on the grounds that it threatens the local community and the future of the club are a media smokescreen to conceal less altruistic reasons.
The tribunal heard that the club’s public stance on the scheme is driven by “narrow and parochial self-interest” and that its professed concerns about effects on the area’s residents and businesses, the grounds for the selection of Renewal as developer and allegations of impropriety at the council should be judged accordingly. “The club is not the voice of the people,” the QC said and claimed there is “no good evidence” that businesses or the community would be “destroyed”. She argued that “dust thrown up” by a hyperbolic “public relations campaign” needed to be cut through. The Guardian’s copious coverage of the story was mentioned.
The case for Lewisham also questioned why neither the FoI request nor the appeal against its rejection had been made by Millwall itself. Rather, they have been submitted in the name of Katherine Bergen, a freelance journalist. Bergen’s lawyer is also Millwall’s lawyer. The arrangement was characterised for the court as Bergen being “secretively used as a proxy” by Millwall. It was asserted that this underlined a desire on Millwall’s part to avoid scrutiny of its motivations for opposing the New Bermondsey scheme. The QC noted that the list of witnesses due to speak in favour of Lewisham’s being made to release the documents included artist Willow Winston, who owns a live-in studio in the area, and Millwall Community Trust chief executive Steve Bradshaw, but no one from the football club itself. She contended that Millwall FC would sooner not be subjected to the rigours of cross-examination.
Naturally, the opening statement from the other side in the case took a very different approach. The motivations of Millwall FC are, it was argued, of no relevance to the matter of whether Lewisham was right to withhold the documents sought and, by the way, Katherine Bergen is perfectly happy that her name is on the FoI and the appeal. “The price of the proposed sale of land to Renewal is what’s at stake,” the tribunal judge and her two colleagues heard. Was Lewisham really justified in keeping this out of the public domain on grounds of commercial sensitivity?
The other part of the FoI request related to a draft report prepared for Lewisham by professional services giant PWC on Renewal’s financial circumstances in 2013. The report was commissioned as part of the usual due diligence checks local authorities make in such cases. Lewisham thought the draft should be exempt from FoI. Part of the argument against this was that although the PWC report was only a draft, it had nonetheless informed the council’s decision to pick Renewal to develop the site.
The hearing continued in the afternoon and throughout today. I will report on the result after the full time whistle blows.
Update, 22 June. The hearing took longer than anticipated and so had to adjourn before completing. It hopes to reconvene early in July.