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Fury over ‘secret’ Town Hall loan for controversial Sobell trampoline park

Campaigners lash out after it emerges that council agreed loan to GLL

13 July, 2017 — By Emily Finch

Sobell protesters outside the Finsbury Park leisure centre last month

FURIOUS campaigners lashed out this week after it emerged a leisure giant’s project for a controversial new trampoline park at the Sobell leisure centre was funded by a “secret” Town Hall loan.

The loan only came to light through a Freedom of Information request made by footballers fighting the new trampoline park in the council-owned leisure centre in Finsbury Park. More than 500 five-a-side footballers were turfed out of the centre after work started last month at the GLL-managed site to make way for the trampolines.

The company, which is registered as a charitable social enterprise, runs 250 leisure centres in the UK and last year reported a turnover of £246million.

“It’s like North Korea with a politburo deciding everything, it’s very secretive,” said five-a-side footballer John Barber, whose team played at the Sobell for more than 40 years. “Even the ward councillors didn’t seem to know about these surreptitious loans.”

Islington Council agreed in 2014 to loan at least £6.3million to Greenwich Leisure Ltd (GLL) to make improvements to facilities including the Sobell, Cally Pool and Archway Leisure Centre.

But the campaigners say The Town Hall never made clear that works at the Sobell centre were to be funded by a loan. In a letter written to the anti-trampoline campaigners dated May 10, Mark Christodoulou, Islington Council’s head of leisure, said the trampoline park was to be funded by GLL.

Just under 900 people have signed an online petition calling for a halt to the works.

Mr Barber is preparing said his solicitor sent a letter to the Town Hall today (Thursday) seeking a judicial review on the grounds that GLL and the Town Hall went ahead with the park without consulting users.

“I didn’t want to go down this route, I’m just a footballer,” he added. “[But] I want proper due process and this loan fiasco is the latest manifestation of the council trying to do things secretly.”

GLL, which trades under under Better, won a 15-year contract to manage all of the borough’s council-owned leisure centres from Holloway-based charity, Aquaterra, following a long bidding war in 2014.

They have improved four centres in the borough since then, including Archway Leisure Centre, Caledonian Road’s Islington Tennis Centre and Highbury Pool and Gym.

These improvements were also funded by loans – though Town Hall chiefs have refused to reveal the conditions of the payments and what exact risks they carry, citing “commercial confidentiality”.

In the latest budget report in February, where the changes to the Sobell centre were briefly mentioned in a 155-page report, it was not made clear who was funding the works there.

Green Party councillor for Highbury East, Caroline Russell, said: “This is shocking if they’ve got themselves into a complicated financial deal which removes their ability to engage with the community and ignores the community’s best interests. They have the wrong priorities.”

She said it was “shocking” that council funds were being used to build over the centre’s £250,000 timbre flooring, installed by the government body Sport England for the 2012 London Olympics, to ready the centre for the trampolines.

Cllr Russell added: “It’s not okay to just destroy that in order to bring in a money-making trampoline park which is a leisure activity and not a sport activity. I understand they are under pressure but their values are wrong in this case. They’ve made the wrong move.”

The Town Hall are hoping to raise £200,000 in annual revenue from the trampoline park, to offset savage cuts from central government.

Cllr Janet Burgess, Islington’s health and adult social care chief, said the loan would be paid back through an “increased management fee” with interest, but refused to name the exact figure and nature of the loan because this was “commercially sensitive”.

She added: “We never meant to hide it because GLL are going to pay this money back and it’s a short-term loan. It wasn’t meant to be disingenuous.

“There will be a tremendous increase in numbers and my aim has always been there should be as many sporting and leisure and activities for residents as we can possibly get.”

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