Independent inquiry clears Lewisham council of ‘land grab’ claims over Millwall development

Millwall FC’s stadium The Den. Pic: Jo Dodds

Accusations of impropriety over Lewisham Council’s plans to “seize” land around Millwall Football Club’s stadium by Compulsory Purchase Order are “unfounded”, according to an independent inquiry published today.

Announced in February, the inquiry was commissioned by the council after it withdrew from controversial plans to use a Compulsory Purchase Order (CPO) to purchase an area around Millwall’s stadium, the Den, and sell it on to Renewal, an offshore‑registered developer.

A compulsory purchase order allows certain bodies to buy land or property without the current owner’s consent, in return for compensation.

After a period of vehement opposition from residents, local businesses, Millwall FC and its supporters, Lewisham council backtracked amid allegations it had been misled by Renewal and the Surrey Canal Sports Foundation (SCSF) – a charity set up by Renewal to manage the area’s transition to a sporting village.

But the report by renowned retired judge and former Master of the Rolls Lord Dyson examined the process and ruled that there had been “no impropriety, lack of due diligence or breach of a code of practice on the part of any Council officer or member”.

The verdict appears to clear the way for further CPO acquisitions of the area in the future.

Nick Hart from independent fan group Millwall AMS, who were at the heart of campaigning against the CPOs, told East London Lines: “The inquiry was Lewisham-funded and Lewisham-inspired in terms of reference, created – in our opinion – to specifically produce this outcome where the Council is shown to be clear of any wrongdoing or impropriety. So we take it with a pinch of salt.

“The $64000 question is what action Lewisham council will take now, whether the CPOs are going to be revived.

“What we would like to see is for the area to be regenerated. It clearly needs investment. We also want the football club to be an active participant within that regeneration of that area so as to ensure [the club’s] economic future in the borough. We say that Millwall is a vital part of the community, not only on match day, but also the many associated initiatives and community schemes. Everything it does for the area is vital.”

Labour councillor for Sydenham Chris Best said: “Now…we urge 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.”

Lewisham Council says this is the third independent report in a year to investigate and reject allegations related to the development, referred to by the council as the New Bermondsey Project.

Renewal gained planning permission in 2011 to redevelop the area surrounding the Den, involving plans for 2,400 homes, a church-mosque complex, a sports centre and a new London Overground station. The £2bn scheme would be part funded with public money under the Housing Zone programme, which promotes urban renewal.

Council officials said in a Mayor and Cabinet meeting in December 2016 that they believed there was ”a compelling case” in the public interest for the compulsory acquisition of the land.

Millwall and its supporters have long contested the development plans, seeing them as a threat to the club’s community and youth work, as well as to local businesses.

Alternative plans proposed by Millwall involved more affordable housing and aimed to keep the club at the centre of the community.

Richard Pickering, owner of Millwall Cafe, one of the businesses who resisted the CPOs, said at the time: “We consider the offer [for the Millwall Cafe] derisory. By the time we’ve paid off the bank loan, staff redundancies and the initial costs, it won’t leave enough to buy a similar business.”

In September 2016, the Guardian reported that Renewal had among its founding members two former Lewisham council officers, former mayor David Sullivan and ex-councillor Mushtaq Malik.

Renewal is registered in the British Virgin Islands and the Isle of Man.

Lord Dyson has said previously that expressing an opinion about whether or not Renewal should undertake the development “would clearly be outside [his] terms of reference”.

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