BY TOBY PORTER
Town hall chiefs and offshore developers look set to renew their agreement to build around Millwall’s ground – because there is no one else to develop the area.
An independent inquiry, completed on Tuesday, exonerated Lewisham council and regeneration company Renewal of any wrongdoing surrounding its plans. Its author rejected all the criticisms of the council’s plans to seize the land and sell it to offshore developer Renewal.
And the two parties look set to agree to an alliance to build 2,400 homes in three pockets of land around the Lions’ ground, The Den. Renewal would also construct a leisure centre, Energise, yards from the stadium.
A “land sale agreement” between them, signed four years ago, was due to lapse on December 20 – three weeks after former Master of the Rolls Lord John Dyson, a Supreme Court judge, pronounced that the council “behaved with propriety, due diligence and in accordance with the applicable codes of practice.”
His findings leave the way clear for a new purchase of the three sites by Lewisham, using a “compulsory purchase order” (CPO) – forcing Millwall chairman John Berylson to sell the plots.
The inquiry chairman Lord Dyson said in one of the final statements of his report: “Renewal is the obvious developer: there is no one else on the horizon. If Renewal is rejected, the site is likely to remain undeveloped for many years to come.”
The land agreement can be renewed automatically on December 20, but the old CPO, which was the subject of three heated debates by Lewisham’s cabinet last year, was scrapped in February – so will have to be started again.
But the borough’s mayor, Sir Steve Bullock, stands down this summer and Labour’s candidate to replace him in May’s local elections will be Councillor Damien Egan – who in September confirmed he would not support a fresh CPO or the sale of the freeholds of the Millwall land.
He said: “The council should start all over with a comprehensive review of all proposals from all interested parties, including MFC and Millwall Community Trust for the future of the New Bermondsey site.”
And in January he said: “My personal preference is that we should completely revisit the planning application that was made by Renewal in 2011 and go back to the drawing board.”
Millwall chiefs said Renewal’s plans threatened to drive them out of The Den, because they would prevent it from “futureproofing” its future with rental income from its own developments. Millwall chief executive Steve Kavanagh claimed in january the club may be forced to relocate to Kent if the land is sold to developers.
Dyson’s £250,000 independent inquiry was called after questions emerged over the process, including claims by the Surrey Canal Sports Foundation, which would build Energise, that it had the support of Sport England.
Lord Dyson said in his report: “I have reached the conclusion that Lewisham behaved with propriety, due diligence and in accordance with the applicable codes of practice in relation to:
- the decision to grant outline planning permission;
- the decision to enter into a conditional agreement to sell the Millwall Land to Renewal;
- the decisions to use CPO powers in relation to the Millwall Land; the decision to pledge £500,000 to SCSF;
- the council’s support for Renewal’s bid for a grant from GLA; the investigation into the LSH brochure; and the appraisal of the financial viability of Renewal’s scheme and Renewal’s ability to deliver it.”Councillor Chris Best, senior Lewisham council cabinet spokesperson said: “We thank former Supreme Court judge Lord Dyson for carrying out his independent Inquiry with great thoroughness and all the rigour we would expect from someone of his standing.“Lord Dyson’s inquiry has concluded: ‘there was no impropriety, lack of due diligence or breach of a code of practice on the part of any council officer or councillor in relation to the decisions to make a Compulsory Purchase Order’.
“This is the third set of independent findings this year following allegations about the New Bermondsey development. In August 2017, the independent Charity Commission rejected allegations of money laundering, tax avoidance and conflicts of interest within the Surrey Canal Sports Foundation.
And in September 2017 a judge-led Tribunal rejected 14 allegations of wrongdoing by Lewisham council following a Freedom of Information request about the New Bermondsey development.
“Now Lord Dyson’s independent Inquiry report has been published 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.”
Councillor Obajimi Adefiranye, chairman of Lewisham council, said: “We are extremely grateful to Lord Dyson for conducting such a thorough independent Inquiry into the allegations regarding the proposed New Bermondsey/Surrey Canal development.”
A Millwall statement said: “Although Millwall Football Club provided a written submission to Lord Dyson, as he requested, and attended an oral hearing in July, we have heard nothing since then and have had no advance warning of any of the content or conclusions of the report.
Therefore, we have only just seen the report for the first time and must now read it carefully and give it due consideration before we make any comment.”
Renewal director Jordana Malik said: “Renewal welcomes Lord Dyson’s comprehensive inquiry report and its conclusions.
“As the report states, there is no doubting the urgent need for redevelopment at New Bermondsey and Renewal remains committed to driving this forward and ensuring that it delivers significant benefits for the local community, Millwall Football Club and the Millwall Community Scheme.
“The report concludes Renewal has demonstrated significant investment and a real commitment to carry out the scheme; it also confirms that there has never been any attempt by Renewal or the Surrey Canal Sports Foundation to mislead, misrepresent or withhold information from Lewisham council.
“The independent inquiry has led to a year’s delay to a scheme that everyone agrees should happen and significant costs to the public purse.
“We hope the conclusion and findings of the inquiry will allow for all parties to move forward so that Renewal can commence delivery of this much needed redevelopment in this deprived area.”
Energise would be run by Surrey Canal Sports Foundation, whose chairman, Steve Norris, a former Conservative transport minister, said: “I am pleased the Dyson Report concludes there was no intention by the Surrey Canal Sports Foundation to mislead, misrepresent or withhold information from Lewisham Council and that it was not unreasonable or deliberately misleading for Renewal and the SCSF to have described the ‘in principal’ allocation of funding as a pledge.
“The inquiry report, in addition to the Charity Commission’s case report findings earlier this year, have paved the way for the Foundation to continue its mission to encourage local communities across Lewisham and Southwark to take part in sports, as demonstrated by the 2,850 monthly visits to the sports facilities on site today at The Thunderdome.
“The Foundation remains fully committed to seeing through the delivery of Energize at New Bermondsey.”