LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 07: A general view outside the stadium prior to the Emirates FA Cup third round match between Millwall and AFC Bournemouth at The Den on January 7, 2017 in London, England. (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)

“Millwall are a convenient coat peg for football to hang its social ills on”

—Reg Burr, former chairman of Millwall Football Club

Millwall Football Club has always been associated with the darker side of football. The history of violence and hooliganism amongst the fans means that the club will always be looked down upon. Although this reputation is somewhat unjust nowadays, for they are often used as a scapegoat, they don’t care, as the song goes. What should worry all football fans, however, is that there is a chance that Millwall will be forced out of South East London, against their will, by Lewisham Council.

The council has planned to sell land surrounding The Den, where the first-team plays its home matches, to an offshore properly development company called “Renewal”, for some time now. It looks very likely that this move will go ahead, with the council currently considering whether or not to put into place a compulsory purchase order on the land. Should the order go through, Millwall say, the club will almost certainly be unable to stay in Bermondsey.

A club being forced out of its home is reason enough for the football world to be angry. There’s much more, however, for which those trying to force this sale through deserve derision.

The Millwall Community Trust does an incredible amount of work for people in Lewisham, Southwark and elsewhere. According to the “What We Do” page on its website:

“Our work last year saved Lewisham Council £7.5 million and we worked with over 3,000 individuals making a positive impact in their lives. The Trust’s efforts don’t stop there as we support and work with many different campaigns and organisations to make our programmes inclusive for all.”

This kind of good work is nigh on irreplaceable in the community. Were Millwall and its Community Trust to leave, thousands of people in South East London would suffer hugely. Surely this is reason enough for Lewisham Council to re-think its plan to sell the land surrounding The Den to private investors.

Thankfully, some politicians have voiced their anger. Neil Coyle and Vicky Foxcroft, MPs for Bermondsey and Old Southwark and Lewisham Deptford, wrote a joint letter to Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, in which they urged him to block the compulsory purchase order. Tom Watson, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, called for Lewisham to “defend the Den” and Tim Farron, leader of the Liberal Democrats, voiced his support for Millwall to stay in Bermondsey.

This is a good start, but the current situation is of concern to many more in British politics; particularly the Labour Party. The idea of a council risking the destruction of a community in order to sell land to a private, offshore business should not even be countenanced in a political party which considers itself either left-wing or the party of the people. Tom Watson’s tweet was a step in the right direction, but Labour as a whole must encourage its representatives in the area to fight this decision.

All of this alone is enough to make a lot of people very angry, but the alleged conflict of interest in the council’s decision could well be the tipping point. The Mayor of Lewisham, Sir Steve Bullock, sits on the board of Renewal, the company to whom the council wants to sell the land. Because of this conflict of interest, the council’s chief executive, Barry Quirk, is overseeing the proceedings. His being in charge is somewhat problematic. He is unelected, meaning that he has less of a need to act within voter’s interests, which wouldn’t be as much of a problem were he not a former colleague of Mushtaq Malik, the CEO of Renewal.

Lewisham Council’s desire to sell the land should irk football fans, all the people who would be affected by Millwall’s potential relocation, voters in the are and the Labour Party at the very least, but the way in which proceedings are being conducted is enough to irritate almost anyone. There is not enough evidence to accuse anyone connected with the council of corruption outright, but the way they are handling this matter is incompetent at best.

The chief executive of the council being a former colleague of Renewal’s CEO does not necessarily mean that he will be biased or corrupt, but even the slightest conflict of interest should be avoided in a matter which affects so many people. Lewisham Council are giving off the impression that they are very keen to sell the land and aren’t taking the broader context into consideration.

Renewal has pledged to be a big player in the “New Bermondsey” project, designed to regenerate the area. They have said that they will build 2400 new homes in the area, as well as a new sports centre and an overground station. This investment in the area would be most welcome, provided that the community itself is not damaged in any way, but this should not be at the cost of Millwall, who themselves plan to build 400 homes on land which they lease, being forced out of the part of the world for which it has done so much to help. If the land is sold, the council has a responsibility to keep the club at The Den.

Millwall is at the heart and soul of Bermondsey. Even if it were just an ordinary football club, forcing it to relocate would be outrageous. But kicking the club out of the area which it does so much to support in the name of profit is unacceptable.

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