Bridge Park battle: Leonard Johnson wishes Brent Council to abandon land sale and reignite legacy born in 1980s
- Credit: Archant
The key defendant in the battle for Bridge Park has said he wants the council to work with the Black community to create a legacy to serve everyone, as it did in the 1980s.
A 10-day trial is under way to decide the future of the Bridge Park Leisure Centre, which is the subject of a conditional land sale agreement between Brent Council and General Mediterranean Holdings (GMH). The agreement, signed in 2017, would see the site redeveloped.
The defendants, Leonard Johnson and Stonebridge Community Trust, contend that the community has a claim on the site.
Mr Johnson, who founded Harlesden People’s Community Cooperative (HPCC) in the early 80s and is its chairman, took the witness stand for cross examination by Brent Council’s lawyer Katharine Holland QC on Monday and Tuesday.
In 1981 the community and the council were involved in the purchase of the Brentfield Road bus depot, which HPCC was not able to buy on its own.
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Mr Johnson this week made a passionate case for community ownership and maintained that Brent Council does not have full ownership of the building or the land.
Under questioning about the standing of HPCC, he said it has a constitution but that a copy had not been submitted to the trial. He was also challenged about documents previously signed, which suggested he was removing himself from the case.
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Earlier Ms Holland said Mr Johnson’s case had “no credibility” as an option to buy Bridge Park was not raised until 1986 and was dropped in 1988. She said it wasn’t raised again until June this year.
He responded that it had been “dropped for the time being” possibly due to “legal things”.
Ms Holland said Brent was the owner from the beginning but Mr Johnson said: “We owned it at the outset because we were the only ones going for it. The council had no interest in Bridge Park or the bus garage until we campaigned and were going for it.”
He added: “As far as the land goes, if we’d done it on our own, got our own people without the council interfering with us, we would have probably got the bus garage anyway and had no problem with the court case that we’re in now because the council wouldn’t have been involved. But they are the ones who jumped on our back and came on board. I’d have never got involved with the council if I knew it would come to this.”
He acknowledged the help HPCC got from the council but said it saw the council as “guardians”.
The court heard Mr Johnson never signed a lease but he said he always refused because there was never an option within it to buy the freehold.
He said leases on their own have no value, citing compulsory purchases currently being made around the site by the council.
Mr Johnson said at around the time of the council’s 2017 agreement with GMH, members of the community, including church groups and Conservative members, asked him to get involved again.
Asked by Judge Michael Green QC what he would like to see happen, Mr Johnson said he wanted “a partnership” with the council to “bring back the idea that was initially there” where “the people get the freehold”.
Mr Green said: “You want to reinstate what was there in the 1980s but in a modern form.”
Mr Johnson replied: “I think there’s a dynamic group of people who could work together with the developers.”
He encouraged “the parties to continue talking and consider another way of resolving this issue”.
The High Court trial began on July 20 with witnesses for Brent Council including chief executive Carolyn Downs; former chief executives Lord Michael Bichard and Charles Wood; and Thomas Bryson, who was council leader when the London Transport bus depot was acquired in 1981/2. They were all cross examined by Stephen Cottle, counsel for Mr Johnson.
Mr Bryson, dialing in remotely, said that “in 1981 money was very tight” and the council “hunted for money” from the GLC and others to get the project “up and running”.
“It was intended to be a partnership,” he said. “We couldn’t have done it on our own and they couldn’t have done it on their own.”
Current chief exec Ms Downs acknowledged there had been a covenant on the land that was removed by the council, but she said that since 2013, plans had been changed to provide a larger facility in response to the community feedback and that profits from the scheme would be invested locally.
She said the council’s aim is “to serve the community as it is now, not 40 years ago”.
She said a report she had seen said there was “a concern at that time that [HPCC} didn’t reflect the whole diversity of the community”.
This was rejected later by Mr Johnson who said all communities interacted through HPCC.
The case continues.