Rotten borough no.356 in the series – Opposition Profile
Monday, 11th Sep 2017 21:54 by Clive Whittingham
Millwall’s ascent back to the Championship under local hero Neil Harris has been achieved against a backdrop of political corruption regarding the development of land around their stadium.
Nobody likes Millwall. Everybody knows it, they revel in it, it’s the way it is.
On the field you can’t help but respect the job being done by manager Neil Harris at a club where he spent ten years as a player across two spells – a time which also included his successful recovery from testicular cancer. Millwall were relegated from the Championship in 2014/15 but bounced back at the second time of asking last season thanks to a play-off final victory against Bradford City.
A large part of that success is their impressive, physical front two of Steve Morison and former Halifax front man Lee Gregory. In times of over-defensive football and one-up-front formations, Millwall play an old fashioned two up top and score goals – early season struggles in that department blown away by a 4-0 win at home to Norwich just before the international break.
But they are, shall we say, a bracing watch. Unashamedly direct, they are focused on getting the ball behind the opposition defence, getting them turned around, and then intimidating them. In the play-off semi-final last season Scunthorpe did remarkably well to hold out for a 0-0 against an all-out aerial assault across the 90 minutes, only to then collapse and concede three times in the second leg on their own ground. It is not, by any stretch of anybody’s imagination, pretty.
Off the field, visits to The Den aren’t quite the trip to the seventh circle of hell they used to be, but there’s still little to commend it as a spectating experience. Still a ground where you’ll see supporters making monkey gestures at anybody of colour in the away end, you can expect to be held in a caged walkway for an indefinite period afterwards and, if you’re unlucky enough to be near the dividing gate as the crowd bunches up, pelted with coins from the other side.
Their two recent trips to Wembley play-off finals, one lost to Barnsley and one won against Bradford, were marred by crowd violence in the first instance and a pitch invasion in the second which even Morison said in his Sky interview immediately after the game had spoiled the occasion. The club has made efforts and strides, its work in the community is valuable and second to almost none, but Millwall will always be Millwall.
So it should tell you something about just how bent the situation they’ve been facing from the local Lewisham Council recently really is that even supporters of other clubs, including our own, have offered united support and condemnation.
The Den was opened, ironically by Labour opposition leader John Smith, in 1993 having been built a quarter of a mile away from The Old Den which it replaced. At a cost of £16m, it was the first all-seater stadium built post-Taylor Report and the first new ground built by a London club since 1937. It is hemmed in on three of its four sides by railway lines but there is land immediately around it which the club rents and is currently used as a mixture of car parking and facilities for its acclaimed Community Trust.
A year ago, Lewisham Council controversially approved a compulsory purchase order (CPO) for that land so it could be sold to a private housing developer to build luxury (zero council housing, 15% ‘affordable’) flats under a development titled, rather laughably for anybody that’s been there, ‘New Bermondsey’. The plans to squeeze in excess of 2,400 homes into the cramped space would not only see the Community Trust headquarters demolished, but also severely hamper Millwall’s access to their own stadium – a particular problem on matchdays at a stadium which still requires a big police operation for many fixtures.
The purchase was approved by the council despite Millwall offering to buy the land around the ground for more money, or to be involved in a more realistic development of it which would return 50% of the profits to the council and involve the building of far more affordable housing. So why was/is the council so keen to sell it to the developer, Renewal, for less? Well, as usual, it gets very murky from here.
The ownership of Renewal – a company registered in The British Virgin Islands and Isle of Man – had been shrouded in secrecy. That was until sterling work by Barney Ronay and The Guardian revealed the company, which had never carried out a development of the scale of ‘New Bermondsey’, was actually set up by the former mayor of Lewisham, David Sullivan. He was also a director at Millwall at the time Renewal started buying up land around the football ground.
The plot thickened when it transpired that the current Lewisham elected mayor, Steve Bullock, was a director at Surrey Canal Sports (SCS), a company set up by Renewal which shares its registered address. To disguise that, the SCS website listed its address as 29 Acacia Road which the eagle-eyed and sharp-of-mind of you will notice is where Bananaman lived in the popular kids cartoon. Bullock has been nicknamed Mayor Bananaman ever since. Lewisham Council previously gave £500,000 of public money to SCS for a new sports centre at the heart of the development which SCS and Renewal repeatedly claimed in submissions to the council had already been promised a £2m grant from Sport England – something which, again, The Guardian proved to be untrue.
The lie about Sport England funding, which continued to be made in documents even after Sport England had written to the SCS asking it to stop, along with similarly false claims that youth charity Onside Youth Zones and former javelin world record holder Steve Blackley MBE were backing the SCS and its scheme, were all part of a successful application for £20m of public money from then-mayor of London Boris Johnson to back the land-grab.
When the CPO was put in front of the council’s scrutiny committee, members were legally barred from discussing anything they had read in the council’s own due diligence report into the development, compiled by PWC. Before it had been approved, Renewal started making derisory offers for surrounding houses and flats – sometimes just a tenth of their value – and put threatening signs up outside the ones who didn’t agree stating that it was in their interests to sell before the CPO forced them out of their homes.
At scrutiny, Renewal director Jordana Malik denied the company’s plan was to take the land the council had forced through a purchase of, and the planning permission it had granted for the flats, and sell the whole lot off for a quick profit. However, The Guardian subsequently uncovered a “private and confidential” sales brochure for the land offering other companies exactly that – land compulsory purchased with public money, with planning permission for flats, available at a cost of between £850m and £1bn. Jordana Malik’s father, Mushtaq Malik, is a former senior officer of Lewisham council and, as it turned out, co-founded Renewal with Sullivan.
Two former senior members of Lewisham Council, setting up an offshore company with zero development experience, standing to profit hugely from a compulsory purchase order by Lewisham Council of land that would horribly hamstring the local football club. The scrutiny committee wasn’t impressed, the CPO was called in.
Then in January Bullock announced it had been scrapped altogether. He has also since resigned his directorship of SCS. A victory not only for Millwall, but also for investigative journalism. Without Ronay’s tireless investigation and coverage of a local issue at an unfashionable, unloved club – hardly likely to shift a lot of papers – light may never have been shone on this particularly mucky tale. The media and press gets it in the neck – justifiably a lot of the time – but if/when it’s all gone, who’s going to hold these people to account?
Alls well that ends well?
With Millwall promoted, and the 4-0 win against Norwich suggesting they’ll do just fine back at the higher level – even when they propped the league up after four matches they’d had more shots on goal than any other team – the future looks brighter. But don’t count your chickens.
An independent inquiry into the crooked CPO, led by Lord Dyson, is underway. But Renewal, now engaged in an aggressive local PR offensive, remains convinced it will proceed with its development. Millwall CEO Steve Kavanagh told the BBC last week that he had written to all five Labour candidates for the Lewisham mayoral election next May and one had already come back and said they would bring back the CPO if they’re elected. A move that would force Millwall to consider relocating out of the borough altogether.
“It's not something we want to do, but at the end of the day we have to be secure in our surroundings, we have to have the commercial rights in our surroundings and the ability to manage the access and egress to this ground," Kavanagh said. "If we haven't got that here because it's taken away from us, then we will explore our options.”
In the face of such flagrant corruption and abuse of position, even the temptation to shrug and say “couldn’t happen to a nicer club” subsides somewhat.
The Twitter @loftforwords
Pictures – Action Images
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