Millwall, The CPO, The Fans & The Journalist
It was a story that smelt off from the very start. The story of the shady arrangement to sell land immediately surrounding Millwall’s home, The New Den, has been bubbling away since September and today it was confirmed that Lewisham Council has abandoned these plans. It is a significant victory for the club, which had confirmed that it may have had to leave the borough altogether, had it gone through. Moreover, though, it is a victory for the power of protest from supporters who refused to be fobbed off by the council that seemed to hold both them and their club in contempt, and for something about which we hear very little, these days – good, old-fashioned investigative journalism.
The story of this first compulsory purchase order first emerged into the public sphere last year, with a report from The Guardian’s Barney Ronay outlining how the council was planning this purchase, along with a sale to an offshore-registered company called Renewal, which had never carried out any work in the area but which had been set up in the first place by the borough’s former mayor, Dave Sullivan, who is a former council colleague of the current mayor Sir Steve Bullock and of its current chief executive, Barry Quirk. Being registered off-shore, however, afforded Renewal the luxury of being able to keep its ultimate ownership from prying eyes.
Renewal had been granted first and only rights on a £1bn regeneration of the area around The New Den, backed by public money from the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, with accelerated planning powers thrown in as well. However, the supporters group Millwall AMS were doing their own digging into the situation whilst Ronay was keeping the story very firmly in the public eye, whilst publishing further findings of its own, including the revelation that one of Renewal’s parent companies was looking into selling its interest in the property developers. In November, a Freedom of Information request for an unredacted copy of a 2013 PricewaterhouseCoopers due diligence report which was understood to contain the reasoning behind why Renewal were granted these highly lucrative rights led to the hearing into whatever had been going on was postponed until December.
The story, however, continued to gain traction. Tim Farron, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, described the idea of the club having to leave Lewisham as “heartbreaking” and called on the council to reconsider their plans. It was similarly requested that secretary of state for local government, Sajid Javid, and the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, intervene to review the entire deal, in particular concerns over the small amount of affordable and social housing planned for the area and for the cost of building an overground railway station being shifted from Renewal and onto the taxpayer. And then, in December, and at the very, very last minute, the hearing was put off again, this time until the eleventh of January.
And when the eleventh of January came around… the hearing was postponed again. By this time, the reputation of Lewisham Labour was deep in the gutter, and there finally seemed to be some acknowledgement of this fact in the comments of Councillor Alan Hall, who stated that, “As the CPO call in review is further delayed Lewisham Council must seize the offer of talks with both hands for the sake of its reputation, its residents and Millwall FC”. This time, the issue related to the fact that the land that was to be grabbed was used by Millwall’s academy, which is critical to the club. It was the suggestion that the academy was unviable if this order went through that led to this second postponement.
By this time, however, it started to feel as though the wheels were coming off the council’s wagon, and last Friday what may turn out to be final nail in its coffin became public knowledge when Ronay reported that Surrey Canal Sports Foundation, body formed by Renewal to oversee a sports complex at the heart of the development, had misleadingly stated that it had secured a £2m grant from Sport England to help towards its plans. There was no such grant, with a Sport England spokesman telling the Guardian that, “In 2010 we received a funding application from the Surrey Canal Sports Foundation, but this was subsequently withdrawn in 2013. We therefore have no funding agreement, of any kind, in place with them.” This had resulted in £500,000 of public money being awarded to the Foundation by Lewisham Council.
On Monday the twenty-third, forty-five of the borough’s fifty-four elected representatives backed Alan Hall’s call for the seizure of Millwall’s land to be submitted to an independent inquiry. Significantly, this support included that of councillor Damien Egan, the Labour cabinet member responsible for housing, who had been an ally of the Mayor of Lewisham, Sir Steve Bullock in seeking the order going through. Egan’s statement read as follows:
We should completely revisit the planning application that was made by Renewal in 2011 and go back to the drawing board.
I don’t think it is acceptable that the public still have questions as to who the financial beneficiaries of the Renewal scheme are, I think this is information we should now be asking of all developers.
The allegations in the Guardian in the past week about misleading claims of Sport England funding are serious and, in my opinion, completely undermine Renewal’s credibility.
Early this afternoon, what had by this time come to feel inevitable finally came to pass, when Bullock confirmed that the CPO had been scrapped altogether, stating that, “I have always been clear that Millwall must be at the heart of the development and it is my view that these concerns need to be thoroughly addressed, the CPO should not proceed and that all parties concerned should enter discussions to identify an agreed way to achieve the regeneration of this area while resolving these concerns.” He also confirmed that he will not be resigning over this matter. It is a significant victory for both Millwall AMS, whose tireless work has shone lights on dark corners of a deal that the council clearly did not want being publicised, and for Barney Ronay and the Guardian, whose efforts both in further uncovering details of the seamier side of the story and keeping it in the public eye have been magnificent.
If there is something particularly grubby about this story, it is that Millwall has been at the heart of its community now for a long time. Four years ago, when key departments at Lewisham Hospital were threatened with closure, the club was vocal in its support for the campaign to save the hospital, warming up for the FA Cup semi-final against Wigan Athletic in “Save Lewisham A&E” t-shirts and making a payment of £5,000 towards the cost of a judicial review into the actions of the Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt MP. The review found that Hunt had acted outside his powers and therefore unlawfully in deciding to substantially cut services and close departments at Lewisham Hospital, and the cuts were axed.
The final victory this time doesn’t go to Millwall Football Club, although it is to be hoped that whatever redevelopment plans are submitted in the future put the club and other local businesses first, which certainly doesn’t seem to have been the case with the CPO that has now been jettisoned. The final victory goes to Millwall AMS, who have demonstrated the power that supporters can have if required, and to Barney Ronay and the Guardian, for their reporting and investigation into a story that may not have been about the glamourous side of the game, but was an extremely important one to tell. All concerned deserve all of the credit that they are receiving today.
The full story, in detail, of Millwall and the CPO can be found in a series of articles on the Guardian’s website.
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