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Ross Archer is the Chairman of Lewisham Deptford Conservatives and the former Chairman of Lewisham West and Penge Conservatives.
Despite being famed for singing “no one likes us and we don’t care”, everyone should care about the attack on Millwall Football Club. by the Labour Mayor of Lewisham. The botched Millwall Compulsory Purchase Order – which they have now backtracked on – was not just an attack on a football club. It also embodies the importance of democracy in local government. Not everyone supports Millwall but we can rally around democracy.
For the last few years Millwall FC has faced a compulsory purchase order by the Labour-dominated Lewisham Council on land by their stadium. The land the Council proposed to compulsorily purchase is where the football club bases its Lions Centre – home to the Millwall Community Trust, the Millwall Cafe, and the club’s car park. The club’s youth academy was also under threat since its AstroTurf pitch, which the academy has 24-hour access to, looked likely to be relocated elsewhere if development went ahead.
This land that was under threat for a proposed 2,400 home development where only 12 per cent of these homes would have been affordable or social. The mask has slipped and Labour’s crocodile tears on affordable housing has been exposed: despite all the press releases, a safe Labour Council in London will only demand 12 per cent affordable housing.
This proposed compulsory purchase order (CPO) could have seen the English Football League downgrading Millwall FC academy of Category Two Status, which enables its youth players to play against the likes of Chelsea and Arsenal. The EFL warned Millwall that any move from their base could see this action. Young footballers in Lewisham have access to this amazing opportunity – why on earth would a local council attempt to destroy, not enhance this.
It could have also seen this much loved local club, who have an over 100 hundred-year history in the borough, being forced to leave the local community. Millwall FC said that if the CPO went through they would be forced to consider moving, possibly as far as 75 miles away to Kent. If this happened, it would have meant their community and outreach programs in Lewisham and Southwark schools coming to an end.
Yet crucially, the proposed CPO raises serious questions of malpractice and incompetence at the heart of Lewisham Town Hall.
There are a number of questions relating to Renewal, the development company who were set to be the biggest winner from the CPO. Firstly, it is a company that was founded by former Labour Mayor of Lewisham, Dave Sullivan. Mr Sullivan is also a former Director of Millwall FC, a position he held for over a decade thanks to the Lewisham Council’s sponsorship of the club. Renewal has further links to Lewisham Council through another former Director, Mushtaq Malik, who used to be Senior Housing Officer for the Council. His daughter Jordana is currently a Director.
In recent months it has been revealed that the current Labour Mayor of Lewisham, Sir Steve Bullock, sits on the board of the Surrey Canal Sports Foundation along with Jordana Malik. The Surrey Canal Sports Foundation appears to be the charitable arm of Renewal and their purpose is to raise funds to build a £40m “sports village” – known as the Energize Centre – that was vital to the proposed development. Once this fact came out Sir Steve Bullock decided to step back from having a vote in Cabinet on the decision of the CPO.
Now if these links to the developer from the political leadership in Lewisham Council were not enough to start raising some questions than the way the Council have handled the process should start to.
In 2012, Lewisham Council, informed Millwall FC that the freehold of some of their land would be offered for sale through a tender process. At this time, it was recognised that Millwall FC and the development company Renewal were likely to be the only bidders. By 2013, no communication regarding the tender process had proactively been made by Lewisham Council to Millwall FC and it became apparent that the Council were planning to sell the land in a closed process to Renewal. And when Millwall asked the Council for tender documents in November 2013 so they could make a bid, the Council refused to provide the necessary information. Given the close ties between the leadership of Lewisham Council and Renewal these events do not pass the sniff test.
In August 2014, the Department of Communities and Local Government and the Greater London Authority announced their plans to create twenty ‘Housing Zones’ – and the New Bermondsey Development at Millwall FC was announced as a housing zone in February 2015.
Another worry that has been raised with this development is the fact Renewal have no history in delivering developments of this size. Which begs the question; why was a novice developer given a major contract through a closed process? The Chair of Lewisham Council’s Overview and Scrutiny Committee, a Labour Councillor, has even raised doubts about Renewal’s ability to deliver and has criticised the handling of this process.
When you look at Renewal’s ownership, the company gets all the more interesting. It has been revealed that the owners of Renewal are now two anonymous off-shore trusts based in the British Virgin Islands and Isle of Man. Throughout the process, Lewisham Council has tried to keep the actual owners of Renewal secret and maintain that their identities are not relevant. Labour have bungled this, the process stinks, and the Mayor of Lewisham has to start answering the serious questions being levied against him.
A quick search of ‘Renewal’ on Companies House and you’ll find at least 11 different Renewal companies with slightly different names such as Renewal Two Limited or Renewal New Bermondsey Two Limited. Many of these Renewal companies are dissolved within a few years. This is all very curious when you consider Renewal’s lack of history in delivering developments of this size, the appeared closeness to the political leadership in the Council, and the fact they seem owned by two off-shore based trusts. It raises concerns that this development could have been some sort of Ponzi scheme and Renewal may sell on the land once planning permission is granted.
Most recently, the Guardian revealed that the Surrey Canal Sports Foundation (the charitable foundation set up by Renewal) falsely claimed they had £2 million funding from Sport England. The Foundation has appeared to use these claims to sway Lewisham Council into providing them with a further £500,000 of funding. It beggars’ belief that Lewisham Council do not appear to have carried out any basic due diligence on Renewal. The situation is quite unbelievable and has shown a new level of incompetence at the top of Lewisham Council.
These are just some of the main allegations and concerns raised about this whole development. However, for me this raises some wider issues. Lewisham Council is a virtual one party state: all but one of the 54 councillors are Labour. Millwall FC has been lucky that two Labour Councillors have stuck their necks on the line, Cllr Alan Hall and Cllr Liam Curran, in their opposition to this scheme, and the fact the Council have targeted a football club has generated press attention and scrutiny.
Their work, the work of Barney Ronay, a journalist from The Guardian, and the Association of Millwall Supporters in raising these issues, and recent pressure from all political sides has forced the Labour-dominated Lewisham Council to scrap the proposed CPO.
However, Lewisham has no real opposition – resulting in Labour getting a free-run with no scrutiny. In this case Labour infighting has seen this CPO dropped, but this won’t always be the case. There are too many questions hanging over the council for this to go unnoticed. Frankly, we don’t know if other developers have received similar treatments; we don’t know if other novice developers have been put in charge of major developments in the borough; and we don’t know how many of the borough’s developments are in the hands of directors with close political links to the political leadership in Lewisham.
Three years ago Labour won all but one seat on Lewisham Council. Since then they have failed to show restraint and responsibility with the power entrusted in them. They have abused the trust Lewisham electors put in them, and at next year’s council elections we will be fighting hard to return an opposition to Lewisham and fighting to return a voice of reason to the town hall. Lewisham is not the only council which does not have a single Conservative councilor, but we cannot just sit back and condemn parts of the Capital to Labour’s madness. In Lewisham we have helped expose the council’s flawed handling of the Millwall CPO without any councillors, however if we had a group in the town hall we could have done much more. Securing our council seats even in Labour’s strongholds needs to be a greater priority – otherwise we face becoming irrelevant. At next year’s London’s elections, we need to fight for representation, not just control, on our capital’s councils.