Monday 27 July 2020

Leonard Johnson's marathon appearance at Bridge Park hearing and more to come tomorrow

The day started with a brief conversation about  Counsel and some court room staff appeared now wearing facebooks.  Apparently guidance was issued last on Friday.  The Judge decided he was sufficiently social distanced not to have to wear one!  The combination of an echo on the sound and the masks made it very hard to hear properly but that was eventually remedied.

Mr Cottle for the defendants said that he was 'parking' the possible amendment to change the pleading.  The change appears to be switching from a claim that HPCC and successor organisations owned the property, to one that they were granted a lease that stipulated an option to eventually buy the freehold, with the expectation that they would do so. The legal point being argued  is whether that is sufficient for them to be deemed to have an interest in the land.

After Mr Cottle detailed issues around the plea the Judge said, 'We now know what the point is, whether it's a good one or not...'

The first and only witness today was Leonard Johnson recognised as the young man in 1981 who spearheaded the campaign for the Harlesden/Stonebridge community to have a physical base of its own at the Stonebridge Bus Depot site from which  they would run a community organisation providing a range of activities for the black community of the area.  His close cross-examination, with three breaks, lasted all day and will resume tomorrow.

Ms Holland, Counsel for Brent went straight into the issue of ownership of the site producing a 1985 document  about the Steering Group, which Johnson has signed, that she claimed showed the council owned all the site.  She said that if HPCC had an interest in the property it would have stated so in the document.

Mr Johnson said that this was the only way, the council had told them (in 1982) that HPCC couldn't sign because they were not incorporated. Holland said the council had by then owned it for 3 years. By signing it Johnson had acknowledged that the council had ownership.

Johnson said that perhaps they had been naive at the time. 'If we knew we would have no rights we wouldn't have signed.  The council was a legal entitiy and we were not.  The council had come on board saying, we wil work with you and get the garage.'

Ms Holland asked if Johnson had been a director of the Steering Group all the way through. He responded that he had resigned in 1991 and 1992 and for the last time in 1994.  He had done this at a public meeting of about 400 people when he felt his character was being assassinated. The Kilburn Times has asked, 'Was he pushed or did he jump?'  He had resigned for the good of the community so the project could continue.

Mr Johnson said that a councillor has been elected to the Steering Group board and was one of those who attacked him, 'He was a racist and slandered me.'  After that he had not been involved with the steering group but the HPCC still had a majority on the board. He was involved in other HPCC projects in the community.

There was then a discussion about whether the board had professional legal advice and whether the adviser was experienced in property law.  Johnson said, 'Brent had top lawyers, we couldn't afford that.'

HPCC  had legal advice over management  training, business units and contracts.

Ms Holland then put it to Johnson that if HPCC had a legal interest in the property the adviser would have raised it. He replied that it wa raised many times. 'The lease and the freehold had been spoken about and we wrote into the lease that we had an option to purchase - first priority as we had got the majority of the funds.'  Holland said if there was some entitlement to the building, the legal adviser would have raised it and it would be documented.

Mr Johnson claimed it was documented. The old campaign had been about getting the building. 'I was happy getting the money for the building, the staff and getting it up and running.  Brent had to take control as we were unincorporated but we always believed we owned the building.'

Ms Holland said 'You have changed your case very recently and very substantially, It is an extensive change in the last few days.  The claim throughout was that you [HPCC?] were the sole beneficiary but you now claim that HPCC would have the lease and one day have an option to buy the freehold.'

Mr Johnson said, 'All I am saying is that the council were going to get the project for us and after a while they wanted their money back. Bridge Park is unique - it is not just a leisure centre.'

Holland then referred to Mr Johnson's Witness Statement  which she said made no reference to an option to buy. It argued that the defendants owned the entire beneficial interest in the property. 'You made a statement that what you said was true. The claim was that you were the owner of the freehold. You never claimed in the statement that you had an option to buy the freehold. This was nine months after you claimed to register the restriction. Did you care if it was true?'

Johnson: 'It's true.'

Ms Holland referred to a 1988 Brent Council Policy and Resources report that stated the project had dropped the request to purchase the freehold 'for the time being.'  Johnson said he didn't remember it.

Holland said there had been no reference to any request on option to buy until 1986 and then dropped in 1988. It was then not raised again until June 2020. She told Johnson that the reference in his evidence was not until June 2020.  It had never been raised until then and so the claim had no credibility.

Mr Johnson said 'for the time being' may have been due to legal work that needed to be done of Brent Council finances,

Challenged that if there had been an option it would have been raised frequently. Johnson said it had been raised frequently.  'We went along with it because at the time the council was working with us. All along we felt we owned the property.  I know in my heart we weren't working for the council - we were working for the community.'

Ms Holland returned to the issue that June 2020 was the first time the claim had been made.  Johnson said, '2020 was when we had to build our case.' Holland pressed the point that he hadn't  been involved in Bridge Park since 1992 - the council had started consultation about it in 2013.  'You had never put in a claim  in all those years.'

Johnson answered tht he had only been engaged with the HPCC. He was called back when the council wanted to sell the land. 'The leader of the Conservative Party said, "You need to get back" '
There had been a meeting about the future of Bridge Park called by Cllr Butt (Leader of Brent Council,  attended by Dawn Butler MP (Brent Central), and he had refused what they offered.

There was further discussion about Johnson's involvement later when and Johnson said he was unwell and in hospital so he couldn't ger involved, the extent of his knowledge was via one or two individuals. He was called back when Bridge Park was threated.

Holland challenged that he was underplaying his involvement and had more knowledge that he was saying. Johnson denied that this was the case.

Speaking about the intial campaign Leonard Johnson said, 'We saw ourselves as the oweners.  As young boys we had to have ownership but it was in trust until we got older and more mature.  Brent were taking care of our part in the project and waiting for us to mature.  We employed professional staff but everyone trained up an apprentice to take over.'

Ms Holland said that all documentation since the time of acquisition indicated that all parties were proceeding on the understanding that the council acquired the property.  Johnson replied, 'We were unincorporated, people off the street, we couldn't buy it. The council had to do it for us. It was only after we stopped the riots that the council said, "How can we support you?" and we said they could help us get the bus garage.'

When Holland said that ownership was always going to be with the council, Johnson replied that if that had been the case 'we would have had nothing to do with it.'

Referring to the document about the project which had a preface signed by Johnson, Holland said it stated that Brent Council would buy the property and HPCC would manage it: management is different from ownership.  Mr Johnson said in the long-term the project would be self-financing and they were committed to buying the freehold. In the short-term it need an injection of hard cash. 'We were always commited to enggaing with the council. They were our main partners.'

Holland reiterated, 'It is clear ownership and acquisition was with the council and the project was managed by HPCC.'

Johnson  said he totally disagreed. Responding to the Judge he said the document had been drafted by Brent Council. Holland pointed out the document made it clear  it had been drafted with the assistance of the HPCC. There had been a distinction from the start between ownership and management. In the short-term with HPCC and then with the community co-operative.

Johnson retorted, 'No way we were prepared to just manage for Brent Council, 'manage' doesn't mean we didn't see ourselves as owning it.

In a long section dealing with the sale by LT of the bus garage and whether it had been at a discounted rate, Johnson said, 'The council couldn't have bought it for themselves. The council had no use for it. We had the vision.'  Holland quoted evidence that there had been 16 other conditional offers for the bus garage - it hadn't been taken off the market as Johnson claimed.

At this point Johnson made a mention of the Covenant on the sale which protected BPCC's interests in the community development and was inserted at the instigation of the GLC. (1)

There had been problem regarding planning permisison for other applications but LT constitutionally had to realise the market value and that, according to Holland, was what happened.

After the lunch break Ms Holland asked Mr Johnson complex questions about the latest judgment in the case, repossession and circumstances around the lease, leading him to exclaim, 'To be honest I haven't a clue what you're talking about!'

Johnson said they were all volunteers, working for the community 'out of the heart, not for income: that's our culture.'  Going back to 1981 he said the vision was self-sufficiency, 'developing our own economy, our own sustainability. We made clear we wanted nothing to do with the council but the council came to us, they literally had to beg us. How did you stop the riots?  They were mesmerised. We didn't want the council to control us. We wanted them to recognise that we had talent.  They got involved with us - not us with them. We were going for bus garage purchase before they even knew. we were going for it. We wrote up plans via community involvement we met with Harlesden Forum, Stonebridge Forum, Chalkhill.  I said [to the council], ' Let's try and do something with us. Be fair to us. Not bully us. The council has no claim whatsoever in terms of Bridge Park.'

Challenged that it had been Brent Council land from the start Mr Johnson said. 'No. The Urban Programme, GLC, only came on board because of HPCC.  Brent knew it was the only way to get the money.' He said he had got people on board, talked to Chair of Wimpey and got the car park surfaced free: 'Wasn't that money?'

The  Judge suggsted a 10 minute break. Johnson apologised for his passion.

On resumption Ms Holland said that there was absolutely no refernce in any of the documents to the council gifting the land to the HPCC.   In response Mr Johnson claimed that the document said they could eventually purchase the freehold. 'I don't believe at any time Brent owned the land. They bought it, yes, if you are saying that because their names are on it.'

He cited Lord Young's support for the project and HPCC's invitation to Prince Charles to open the building and his putting him on th Prince's Trust.

Holland put it to Johnson that he had said the only reason HPCC was not on the documentation was because they were unincorporated but all documents showed it was Brent property and it was they who received the  grant funding. Johnson responded that if it hadn't been for the HPCC Brent wouldn't have got the funding.  'It is absolutely clear in all the documents. We are named in the acquisition of the bus garage. Named on all the documents.  We made a presentation to the council: "You are the problem. Let us have have an economical foundation for our community. Others have something. We are at the bottom of the pit."  They unanimously agreed. We wanted an asset, a stake, to run businesses.'

The Judge asked, 'Isn't running a business an asset?'

Leonard Johnson replied, 'We were the only ones who didn't have an asset. We told people we are the owners.'

Ms Holland said that if the intention was for HPCC to be the owners they would be named in the documents.  Johnson replied that this was because Brent council was 'indulging in skulduggery and put a racist on the board.'  In answer to a further question he  said that the council knew what they were up to: 'get HPCC to get the asset. Then when they've got it, get rid of it for themselves.'

Holland pointed out that it was for the community, not for HPCC,

Mr Johnson replied that HPCC represented the community. They were the only organisation that linked with everyone. The only organisation that could get 1,000 people into Brent Town Hall to hear his report.

Holland pursued the point saying, 'You were a significant person - you were not the community.  The council does have a role in community - you do not.'

Johnson said that the recent meeting about Bridge Park achieved 1,200 people at three week's notice.

The next exchange covered previous ground over sources of funding and whether it went to the council or HPCC. Holland suggested that HPCC was only named on the Urban Aid documentation because the council had to refer to social needs to get the grant. Mr Johnson said,' I want to work with the council but I don't need them to take our assets away.  Brent locked themselves into a corner with GMH. Why didn't they come to use for help?  We want to work with them.'

Ms Holland suggested that community entity some time acquring the property was just a hope.

Johnson, 'No, it was a belief. We thought the council would make sure we got it.'

Holland, 'An aspiration, not an entitlement.'

Johnson, 'Our community don't see that - the opposite.'

Holland then quoted Leonard Johnson's Witness Statement in which he used 'aspiration' to hold the property. This had also been the word used by council witnesses.

Johnson responded that the CEO at the time had said there was no objection in principle to them acquiring the freehold. They couldn't at the time until the whole organisation had been trained up to be professional.   He said they wanted to be in a position to pay the council back.

Johnson said that they had an accountant for the details of the grants, 'I opened the door to the funders.'

Holland pointed out that there had been no promise or assurances over HPCC acquisition. Just because it was mentioned  it didn't mean they would definitely get the freehold.

Johnson said that there had been assurances at a council meeting. The witnesses were being economical with the truth.  These people were there.  We looked at ourselves in terms of Watt County, we had a man come over from there. If they were telling the truth, they would say they agreed that HPCC would get the freehold.'

Ms Holland argued that if HPCC had an interest in the property they would not have needed a license to occupy. Johnson resplied that this was just a management procedure to make sure they were covered by insurance.

He added, 'The community are saying the council sold Bridge Park to an off-shore company and they are absolutely livid about it.'

(1) Brent Council applied to the GLC successor body, Bromley Council, for removal of the Covenant and this was granted.

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