Allegations over “tokenistic” leisure centre consultation denied

Campaigners want to save Islington ice rink

By Julia Gregory, Local Democracy Reporter

Sobell Leisure Centre
A Picture Of The Outside Of The Sobell Leisure Centre In Islington. Photo: Islington Council

Campaigners fighting to reverse plans to close an ice rink badly damaged by a flood have branded a council consultation as “tokenistic”.

Their claims follow a release of documents which include calls to “line up” other voices to avoid a “storm” of protest from skaters.

Islington council plans to replace the 50-year-old ice rink at the Sobell leisure centre with an active play area which it says will attract more people and be cheaper to run.

It was destroyed by flood water when a watermain burst at the nearby junction with Hornsey Road.

The trampoline park, squash courts, soft play area and ice rink which was used by groups including the London Yetis were condemned.

The council said it would cost £1.75m to replace the ice rink and it had an annual £250,000 deficit.

A confidential briefing for councillors released through a Freedom of Information request said at first GLL thought it could “simply re-instate the damaged and lost facilities” but ” the extent of the damage has meant that there is an opportunity to reconsider and re-think the facilities and offer at Sobell.”

Senior councillors agreed at an executive meeting in May that there were “not minded” to restore the ice rink.

They were addressed by skaters and ice hockey players who told them how much they valued the rink and the role it played in their physical and mental health.

One 12- year-old ice hockey player told the council that young people do not want soft play at the leisure centre.

The Green opposition group also urged the council to consider other options for building a more energy and cost-efficient new ice rink.

Councillor Caroline Russell told the May Executive meeting: “It just feels that they are not looking at the real value of the ice rink.”

The Save the Sobell Campaign Group asked for communication inside the council and with the leisure centre operators GLL before the May meeting.

They said they were “shocked and disappointed” at the way the council handled the consultation and said they felt it was “tokenistic and manipulative”.

They felt the council had “pre-determined” any decision to close the ice rink.

A town hall adviser commented in an internal council email obtained by the campaigners said “If we go with comms is basically a ” take it or leave it” we won’t have a leg to stand on.”

He also wrote: “Of course we need to go ahead with the soft play option, but we need to at least make it look as though we are listening. This needs to be reflected in the comms.” He warned there was a risk of a backlash from “backbench councillors (and residents), including those locally to Sobell and that will make it very difficult to go ahead with what we want.”

He advised “we need to line up parent groups, schools, young people to champion these plans on our behalf, otherwise we will create a vacuum where the only people we will hear from are ice rink users and will whip up another storm. ”

Green Party councillor Caroline Russell told the LDRS: “This just stinks. The arrogance revealed in these FOI emails is staggering. And it looks like they are simply trying to fix GLL’s enormous rent deficit by filling the Sobell with money-making soft play without thinking about the needs of people in Islington for proper sports facilities like the ice rink. The references to policy groups are particularly worrying – they are Labour Party groups and not part of the council’s formal democratic decision making.”

A council spokesman said the “out-of- context email exchanges” were about “full and frank discussions about how local people and Sobell users could have the greatest say in the options available, while recognising the huge challenges associated with reinstating the ice rink.”

He said the council then decided to have a fuller consultation, including the option of keeping the ice rink “so that it could better understand people’s views before taking a final decision. ”

The consultation opened at the end of May and closed on Friday July 7th.

Campaigners also hit out at the council for the alternative arrangements it has negotiated at the new ice rink at Lee Valley.

They said they were offered partial use of the rink, partitioned off with boards for the same price as hire at Sobell which they said was unsuitable with the risk of stray pucks injuring people.

The council said creating a half-size rink at Lee Valley was safety assessed and the cost of hiring the full size rink would be at their prices.

Campaigners also feared the council’s plans “would bring social costs to groups that the council should be protecting” as its own figures show most rink users are female, with 60% non-white and the majority under 30.

They said: “We find it shameful that Islington’s Labour Council are prepared to close an ice rink sports facility, with all the knock-on effects of reducing local community services, while describing their damaging proposals as “an opportunity”.

A council spokesman said: “No final decision has been made on the future of the Sobell, and, although there was a strong provisional view against retaining the ice rink, we’ll be carefully reviewing feedback before taking a decision. This, of course, includes reviewing and looking into feedback received on ways to potentially reinstate the ice rink.”

“The council has made no secret of the fact that it considered the case for not reinstating the ice rink to be an extremely strong one, such that it would take a lot to lead it to now take a different course and reinstate the ice rink. While the chances of that occurring appear at present to be slim, it is right that the council consults, listens and takes all views into account, before making a final decision.”

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