Flashback: Celebrations as Sobell Centre is named as an Olympic volleyball training venue in 2010
• FOR many years, I have been customer representative for Islington’s fine Sobell Leisure Centre, designed and built by the internationally acclaimed architect Richard Seifert.
Much work was undertaken on a pro bono basis for the benefit of the whole Islington community. In 2009-10, I worked with the support of others, including all local political parties, to secure the future of this centre, rather than its planned demolition and redevelopment.
The newly-saved centre went on to be selected as an Olympic training camp for volleyball during the 2012 Games, with the allocation of considerable public monies to refurbish it – including major investment in a completely new main arena floor.
In 2016, the new managing agent, GLL/Better, undertook to consult with all Sobell customers and residents before taking any decision to install a trampoline park in the main arena. But no such consultation took place.
Sobell customers and residents with whom I have spoken are not against the concept of a trampoline park. They just consider that Sobell is an inappropriate venue for such a development. Had they been consulted, they would have expressed this point of view very clearly.
Early in 2017, without any prior public consultation, GLL put a proposal concerning such a project to the Islington Council executive, who approved its implementation. Both the council and GLL have been asked by customers and residents to provide the Islington-based evidence of need that supports such a project. No such information has been forthcoming.
This park will mean a reduction of 50 per cent in the main arena capacity, causing several sporting activities which have taken place at Sobell since its opening more than 40 years ago to be displaced to other sites. The quality of some of these alternatives has been questioned by customer groups.
This project will mean that, for the first time since the centre opened, junior and senior indoor football will be completely removed. I am unaware of any consultation taking place with football’s national governing bodies (NGBs) and await a response to my emails concerning this.
On Tuesday, I spoke with parents/guardians of a junior football session. None was aware that the project will require their junior sessions to be moved outdoors. Understandably, they are greatly concerned for the safety of the youngsters, and need to know what additional safeguarding protocols will be put in place.
They were unimpressed that there is currently nowhere outside for them to shelter from rain and cold. When GLL was asked about this some weeks ago, the response was that customers should bring their own umbrellas.
On March 16, the council’s leisure department and GLL assured me that all due diligence checks had been undertaken concerning this project and a comprehensively robust and detailed communication strategy was ready to be put into action the following day. There was neither explanation nor apology regarding the shattered promise of pre-decision consultation.
Apart from a few basic information presentations held at Sobell – at times convenient to GLL – explaining the concept of trampoline parks and the simplistic and diagrammatic project marketing at the centre, including a few pop-up stands, posters and, within the past week, a video presentation of such a park in operation elsewhere, Sobell customers still await full details of how their chosen activities will be affected.
GLL has now stated that the delay in providing this information has been caused by the council’s request to delay work until after the general election count.
It is to be hoped the statistics on usage at a similar park in Barking have not been cited as support for the current project at Sobell. The considerably different demographics between Barking and Islington make the value of such evidence questionable. Evidence of compelling desire for this project from Islington residents and Sobell customers is essential.
Knowing of the 2012 Olympic legacy for volleyball that followed from Sobell being selected as a training camp, I contacted London chair of England Volleyball. No one had been consulted concerning this project.
Also, aware that the planned project will significantly reduce the capacity to play badminton at the centre, I contacted Badminton England, which states it has been consulted by the council and GLL. While finding the reduction in courts regrettable, it has been involved in the development of a new timetable for badminton players.
Individual badminton players contacted are unaware of any detail about this project and I have also asked Badminton England to confirm that the consultation undertaken has included those organisations using Sobell for tournaments as it is one of the few venues in the South-east with the court capacity to host tournaments. This capacity will be lost through this project. Netball England was similarly unaware of this project and I await a response from British Gymnastics.
It is also unclear what the effect will be on the usage patterns of the various disability groups that use Sobell. I have contacted the Disability Sports Coach board, and await their response.
With all Sobell customers having previously been assured that all relevant sport NGBs and customer groups had been fully informed about this project, I do think the responses I have received from the few NGBs I have had time to contact require the council and GLL to pause this development pending a full review by the council.
There is real urgency on this as the planned trampoline park is scheduled to be installed immediately following the election count on June 8 and some preparatory work has already been undertaken.
Sobell customer representative