Millwall and the Double-edged Sword of Compulsory Purchase

Welcome to Tuesday Team Talk. Every week, the H+K Sports team will give a unique perspective on the stories making the headlines across the world of sport.

I'll admit, writing about real estate law is a bit of a departure for this blog. But there's something happening to Millwall F.C. right now that every sport fan in this country needs to be aware of, because your team might be the next to be effected. 

To put it simplistically (I would recommend reading everything The Guardian has published on this, as they've done an excellent job) the land around Millwall's stadium ‘The Den’ has been bought by compulsory purchase order by Lewisham council to be sold to a developer. The club say this could lead to the club leaving the area altogether after over 100 years as it will uproot their community programme and make their academy inoperable. Clubs moving from their spiritual home is becoming one of the defining narratives of modern football. Where in the States the idea of clubs moving around is common place, in the UK clubs and their communities are inexorably linked. As clubs seek to be global brands, this is being tested more and more, and Millwall fans are clearly un-keen to move from their home in South London, based on the outrage it has called in the community. So strong is the feeling that it has become a heated political issue, with the club claiming to have offered the same amount of money to keep the land and the credibility of the developers and alleged links to the Labour party questioned, leading to various political parties joining the uproar.

This is clearly a very serious issue for Millwall F.C. and a worrying sight for sports fans up and down the country. As Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron wrote about the issue in The Guardian ‘Football isn’t just sport. It is about community too’. He’s right, football clubs are hugely important parts of local communities. Practically speaking, they stimulate business, attract development and energise an area. But beyond that, football clubs become the lifeblood of regions, and have a huge emotional connection to the people that live there. The Sun in their coverage of the story explicitly stated that ‘Lewisham Council’s disgraceful Compulsory Purchase Order affects every club in the UK.’ The message is clear and not wrong, if this can happen to Millwall, it can happen to your club too. It’s a threat that sport clubs, requiring big areas of land in an economy where every square foot a potential site for development, must be intimately aware of. But there is another side to this coin.

That’s because while it makes total sense to call compulsory purchase orders an existential threat to sports clubs, and declare them illegal or immoral or both, the issue really is more complicated than that. If you get rid of compulsory purchase orders, you get rid of one of the defining cultural moments in this country in the last 50 years, the 2012 Olympic Games. That’s because the Olympic Park was built thanks to compulsory purchase and demolition of 425 properties. Without it, you don’t get the regeneration of Stratford, building of the Olympic Park and the wildly successful Olympics that inspired an entire generation. It was a defining moment for sport in this country and it is hard for anyone who experienced it to argue that it wasn’t worth the investment. Certainly the people who lost their homes to compulsory purchase may not agree, but this seems to be a wildly successful use of compulsory purchase. And you can’t get rid of CPO’s without losing the opportunity for projects and moments like that.

Now I’m certainly not qualified to reach any kind of reasoned conclusion on the merits of property legislation. The point I want to make is that we need to be suspicious of simple arguments about complicated issues. The Olympics was a wonderful moment that we rightfully celebrated and will continue to reap its rewards. But we shouldn't ignore the hundreds of people who were displaced from their homes and businesses. What's happening at Millwall seems genuinely shady and potentially tragic for Millwall fans in the community. But it can't be separated from the positive results of the scheme in the past. If you think what's happening in Millwall shouldn't be legally possible, you should think what happened in Stratford shouldn’t have been. Compulsory purchase is complicated, like most things it’s neither all good nor all bad, it depends on the case itself. There's no doubt compulsory purchase is a threat to sport, but it isn't a one sided coin. If we are to fully assess the danger it presents to our clubs, and make sure that we get the best for the future of sport, we need to see this issue as being as complicated it is.


James Fenn

Hill & Knowlton Strategies Search