Millwall vs Lewisham Council & The Property Developers

by | Feb 19, 2016

It’s now been three years since Millwall Football Club – the players, the officials and the supporters – went out to bat for its community. Football clubs have never felt more detached from the areas in which they’re based, but throughout the 2012/13 season the club was at the forefront of a campaign to save the Accident & Emergency unit at Lewisham Hospital. Players warmed up before matches in t-shirts protesting the proposed closure of the unit, whilst the the club itself used the extra exposure that it received as a result of an FA Cup Fourth Round draw against Aston Villa to promote the cause, giving permission for hospital staff and supporters to hand out leaflets at the match, whilst supporters themselves turned out in their thousands to demonstrate against the proposed closure. In August 2013, a judge at the High Court ruled that the proposed closure was unlawful. Lewisham Hospital’s A&E unit was saved.

Against such a background, the news that the local council was seeking a compulsory purchase order of land adjacent to the club’s stadium felt astonishing. But there is was, in black and white. The club’s car park, cafe and the Lions Centre – a leisure and community centre of the type that, in an ideal world, all football clubs would have in order to cement connections with their local communities – has been used by the club under a lease from Lewisham Council since 1995, and in 2013 it submitted plans to redevelop the site, with plans to acquire the freehold and develop a hotel, four hundred homes, accommodation for local businesses and a new home for the Millwall Community Trust on the site. The council, however, decided that it would rather sell to a private company called Renewal, who claimed that its project would create 2,000 jobs, 2,400 homes and a new overground railway station.

There were three main reasons why the council’s behaviour over this matter stuck in the craw of many supporters. The first is those aforementioned community links. Millwall’s links to the council had been strong to the extent that Lewisham Council were the club’s shirt sponsors from 1987 until 1989, and prior to this the role was taken by the London Docklands Development Corporation, the body charged with the regeneration of the Docklands area of London, which had fallen into a bad way after considerable amounts of its infrastructure was damaged or destroyed during the Second World War, something that was only exacerbated by changing practices in the post-war years. Millwall, in other words, wore the name of the very world from whence it came on the very front of its shirts, and as the campaigning for Lewisham Hospital’s A&E unit demonstrated, this community bond was one that had not been surrendered by the club.

Secondly, there was a feeling that this sort of a redevelopment was one that should be afforded to the club. Lower division football clubs have few opportunities to get involved in initiatives that could benefit them in the ways in which this redevelopment would, and for this one to be passed over the club to a private developer, especially through compulsory purchase orders, left a bitter taste in the mouth. The club’s chief executive, Andy Ambler, stated that, “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance to make sure what is built on our doorstep actually works for the club.”

Life in the lower divisions of the Football League is a hand to mouth existence, and clubs in London have a greater concentration of competition for support than anywhere else in the country. There are four Premier League clubs in London as well as another eight Football League clubs as well as Millwall. With The New Den being less than a quarter of a century old and land prices being what they are in London, moving to a new ground that would allow the club opportunities to develop and bring in extra money is more or less out of the question. The club, it is contended, will never have another chance like this.

The third reason given for opposition to all of this had a slightly darker undercurrent to it. There have been rumours circulating that the connections between Lewisham Council and Renewal are closer than is comfortable, considering what has been going on with regard to this land deal. Sullivan was formerly involved with Lewisham Council at quite a senior level, being the leader of the council twice, although in 1993 the new Chief Executive of Lewisham Council, Tony Lear withdrew his job application after Terry Hanifan, the outgoing chief executive questioned the role of two councillors, one of which was Sullivan, in appointing Lear into his position. According to this report from The Independent from 1993:

Dave Sullivan, the former deputy leader, and Ian Arnold, the chair of the environmental services committee, had failed to declare an interest when they sat on the appointments panel. Both work for a company, Agency for Public Service Development, which had received contracts from Brent council’s environmental services department, of which Mr Lear was the director.

To be clear, we are not suggesting any impropriety on the part of Mr Sullivan over his involvement with Renewal. However, the close connections of the company with the council that he used to be the leader of are clearly grounds to concern if the council is involved in actions that will detriment Millwall Football Club to the benefit of a company that he has subsequently been connected to. If Renewal wanted to take on this deal, why didn’t they buy out Millwall’s lease at a rate that the club might have found acceptable? Why the need for compulsory purchase orders? Why didn’t the council allow the club to bid for the land itself? Certainly none of these questions have been answered to the satisfaction of the football club or its supporters, as was plainly apparent from the fact that an online petition against the decision has acquired more than 17,000 signatures since it was first raised. At a meeting on Wednesday night, perhaps a little of this message started to filter through to the council. The compulsory purchase orders were deferred, with a statement from the Council confirming why this was:

The circumstances of a person potentially affected by the CPO have just come to light. These circumstances need to be investigated before the cabinet can consider the report concerning the CPO. That will now take place as quickly as possible so that the consideration of the report can be rescheduled at the earliest possible date. Considering the substantial representations that have been received on the matter, members of the cabinet have asked that the opportunity that this delay presents is taken to try once more to bring Millwall and the developers Renewal together to see if they can come to an agreement.

This is not really a victory as such for the club just yet, but it’s a start, at least. The deferral allows the club more time to state its case and to seek to work towards a more beneficial partnership with the council. For its part, Renewal remains bullish – “We believe a compulsory purchase order is now necessary to ensure this important regeneration can be progressed” were the words of one of its directors, Mark Taylor, in a statement issued after the ruling, but him expressing an opinion is not the same thing as the compulsory purchase orders having been rubber stamped. It seems quite clear that there should be at the very least a completely open, completely transparent tender process for this, and that the preferred option might well be for all parties to work together on the project. It’s difficult to say what the best long-term solution, but whatever it is that secures the future of Millwall FC should obviously be taking precedence over any other considerations.

You can find out more about the situation at Millwall by visiting the Defend The Den website.

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Photograph used under CC 2.0 licence from Flickr user Joshjdss.