Islington Council and BetterGLL turning Sobell into glorified ‘playpen’ and conference venue without consultation

Sobell Leisure Centre from Modernism in Metro-land website

If Islington Council and GLL plan to turn Sobell Leisure Centre into a giant ‘playpen’ cum conference venue, why don’t they just come out and say so? And if this is what Islington Council is happy for GLL to do with a historic, iconic and culturally significant local leisure resource, then both should have the decency to consult with Sobell members and users, local residents and Islington council taxpayers.

However, so far both Islington Council and GLL have done the bare minimum to consult and inform. A worrying pattern is emerging; and the lack of consultation, lack of transparency and appearance of ‘done deals’ on leisure decisions, frankly lack democracy.

All about the money

The controversial award of Islington leisure management contract to GLL, in January 2014 with the contract starting 1 April 2014, was met with dismay by a significant number of Sobell members and users, as well as some instructors. It is a takeover a lot of people did not want. GLL already manages leisure services for more than half of the boroughs in London.

GLL claims it will be able to generate £1million a year for Islington, according to Certainly, according to paragraph 3.2 in the report of Islington Council’s executive member for health and wellbeing and executive member for environment on Leisure Fees and Charges 2015, one benefit of the contract provides for is ‘a significant payment to the Council.’

Of course Sobell members and users wish to see viable leisure services across Islington, and any profits ploughed back into those services.

However, generating revenue seems to be the only consideration now, and the views and needs of members/users, council taxpayers and local residents are being completely ignored as Islington Council pushes through decision after decision with as little scrutiny as it can get away with.

Profit is being prioritised before people and community needs.

Quacking like a duck

The award of the leisure contract and its benefits are interesting, coming barely six months after Islington Council announced a £1.4million investment to refurbish Sobell.

What is interesting about that, and other, investment is that so much of it has gone to equipment and improvements for children and young people: gymnastics equipment, the junior gym, the box gym.

Now there’s the trampoline park, which will take half the indoor courts space – a space currently used by hundreds people of all ages and abilities every week for a variety of sports and activities.

Let’s be honest, the trampoline park will almost exclusively be used by children, while adult sports and fitness activities are being axed.

If you’ve ever visited the Sobell on a Saturday, you will find that half the indoor court space is being used by children already – young badminton players and young gymnasts.

In addition, the ice rink is full of kids, and there are children learning martial arts in the dojo – which is also being refurbished.

In fact, there are rather a lot of children with parents waiting for their sporting siblings at the edges of the indoor courts and in the gallery area on the first floor, as well as in, what BetterGLL describes in the Sobell area of its website ‘membership lounge and the already popular Coffee Corner.’

There’s money to be generated from waiting parents and siblings in the Coffee Corner, and that’s before the installation of the trampoline park at £10 per child per hour, not to mention, trampoline park party hire.

Studio size reduced to room for make corridor

There is nothing wrong with children being exposed to and taking part in sports and fitness activities. However, adult provision at the Sobell is being cut back by stealth and sleight of hand.

In May, the size of Studio One was reduced without information or consultation.

Studio One was the Sobell’s largest exercise studio hosting the biggest classes. Now, however, around 20% that space has been turned into a corridor running the length of the studio’s far wall.

The remaining area in far corner of Studio One, which leads to an equipment storage room, has been fitted with a standard width door. Formerly, that area provided a breadth of space that allowed the large numbers of people taking part in classes to easily take out and put back exercise equipment – barbells, hand weight, steps and so on. Now, exercise time is lost due to congestion at that narrow door as people queue to take out and put back equipment at the beginning and end of classes. In fact, larger pieces of equipment, such as the ballet bars and exercise mats are now stored in Studio One, further reducing its capacity.

A smaller space has meant smaller class sizes. However, there is still congestion because of studio space lost to the stored exercise equipment, particularly when classes are at capacity which, because of the studio size reduction, they frequently are.

Many are concerned about the potential for health and safety incidents this creates, including the ability to leave the studio in an emergency. The fire exit is in the far corner of the studio; however, people have to get through the narrow door first.

All this is worrying enough. However, BetterGLL did not inform Sobell members and users about their intention to cut the size of Studio One or consult on it. Instead, members/users received a week’s notice from instructors that classes would be disrupted because of building work. It appears class instructors didn’t even know this was what was going to happen.

Group cycle studio turned into conference room

Also in May, group cycle classes were moved from the dedicated studio to another room on the other side the building – again with little prior notification and only from class instructors, no information and no consultation.

The reason for the move: to turn the group cycle studio into a conference room.

The new room, which is smaller and has a lower ceiling, was subsequently kitted out as a group cycle studio and officially launched a couple of weeks ago. A problem with the new location is that if you’re taller that around 5’ 10” and standing on the pedals of the bike, which a cycle workout often requires, your head will be scraping the ceiling.

Studio Two closed

Again in May, and again at short notice by class instructors and without information or consultation, Studio Two exercise classes were moved to Studio One or permanently cancelled.

Sobell members/users and instructors were under the impression that this was due to refurbishment work. However, it has now emerged that Studio Two is to be permanently closed, to exercise classes at least.

And once again, BetterGLL did not inform Sobell members and users about this intention or consult on it.

The women’s circuit class has been particularly affected by the closure of Studio Two. It’s the only women specific circuit class at the Sobell, and has its origins in the women’s gym that was part of the Sobell Centre 20 years ago.

It was the only class that provided a women-only exercise environment for those who wanted one. A unique feature of Studio Two was that the only way to see into the studio was through two narrow glass panels in the wooden entrance doors.

In contrast, Studio One, where the women’s circuit class now takes place, has two sets of all glass doors, and glass panels in two of the walls that run the length of the studio. On the other side of the glass panelled walls are a seating area and the first floor gallery where parents, children and people frequently watch those exercising in Studio One while waiting to do their own classes.

As a result women who had attended this circuit class for cultural or faith-based reasons, have stopped because it is no longer held in Studio Two, surely a state of affairs that would not the requirements of an Equality Impact Assessment.

Holiday programme for children, while adult exercise cancelled

Adult Sobell users have seen a reduction in Studio One capacity, the closure of Studio Two, the permanent cancellation classes, and the inability of some women who used to attend to be able to continue to do so. This amounts to less provision for adults and fewer adults being to attend what is being provided.

In addition to this, every holiday BetterGLL organises extra provision for children in the form of special programmes. Conversely, every Bank Holiday, and during the Christmas and Easter holidays, adult evening exercise classes are cancelled. That’s a lot of cancellations for those whose classes are on Mondays. This is exceptionally poor value and a poor service for adults with Sobell membership.

Now adult Sobell users will be ‘shoved off’ 50% of the indoors courts to make way for a trampoline park they were not consulted on, about which GLL is only providing the most minimal information, and which they are highly unlikely to use. What guarantees have adult users been given about their access to the other 50% of the space? What about the noise impact of the trampoline park in that cavernous space on the classes that remain for adults?

BetterGLL and Islington Council must publicly consult and be held to account

The trampoline park and other construction work at Sobell must be stopped until there has been a review of all the development work up until now, and a full public consultation before further work starts.

By stealth Islington Council is allowing GLL to carry out a major redevelopment of a historic and iconic building of cultural importance and value, to Islington and beyond, that will significantly change its use. The trampoline park is part of a £3million development of Sobell Leisure Centre by GLL.

Both Islington Council and GLL must be held to account.

As is clear, there was no consultation on the trampoline park. And there has been no consultation on the conference rooms, studio capacity reduction, studio closure or studio changes.

A petition is being organised and will be available to sign in the e-petition area of Islington Council website. Two thousand or more signatures are required to force a debate on the issue.

Look out for the petition and please sign it. If you can help or advise us, email

We must stop BetterGLL wrecking a local leisure resource that so many people in Islington love and have used for the past 40+ years.


Was trampoline park a ‘done deal’ before BetterGLL started running the Sobell?

Indoor courts at Sobell Leisure Centre. BetterGLL's will take half of this vast space

BetterGLL’s own news story on the 1 April 2014 start of the Islington leisure management contract announced plans for ‘extreme activity’ area at the Sobell centre. We’re mobilising to stop work on the trampoline park until this is investigated. Sobell users are sick of BetterGLL treating us like fools. As with much of BetterGLL’s dealings in Islington, there’s a serious lack of transparency.

Sobell members and users have a lot of concerns about the way Better/GLL is running our leisure centre. But, most pressing right now is trying to stop the start of work to build a trampoline park in the indoor courts.

What consultation? When? And who with?

BetterGLL did next to nothing to consult on this with Sobell members, users or the local community – if they consulted at all.

The consultation is supposed to have taken place in 2014, the year BetterGLL took over at the Sobell. However, the majority of Sobell members and users did not see or hear about any consultation on a trampoline park in 2014, despite attending the centre regularly, often more than once a week. The first we heard was late April/early May from instructors telling us our classes might be disrupted.

According to Islington Gazette, Sport England was approached by Islington Council and GLL but had yet to respond – and hadn’t decided whether it supported the plans or not.

In a letter in the Islington Tribune, Sobell customer representative, Barry Hill said: ‘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.’

His letter also said that customers and residents he had spoken with didn’t consider the Sobell ‘an inappropriate venue’ for a trampoline park. ‘Had they been consulted, they would have expressed this point of view very clearly.’

An article in the Evening Standard says more than 400 people, including members of fitness groups and football groups, have written to Islington Council asking them to review the plan.

Majority of courts users ‘disenfranchised’ by trampoline park

The trampoline park, which is unlikely to be used by adult or even most teenage Sobell members and users, will occupy as much as 50% of the indoor courts space – a space currently used by hundreds people of all ages and abilities every week for a variety of sports and activities, including the London Association of Volleyball England, which uses the courts for competition. They have also raised concerns.

Given GLL’s own announcement on the award of the Islington leisure management contract, which appears to date from before they started running the Sobell, which states: ‘Funding has already been earmarked for a number of initiatives which include(s) … creating an extreme adventure activity area at Sobell Leisure Centre,’ it does appears the trampoline park was a ‘done deal’ before BetterGLL took over running of the Sobell on 1 April 2014.

A significant number of Sobell members and users are concerned about this, and are in the process of organising a petition to stop work starting on the trampoline park until there has been an investigation into the matter – with a view to stopping the trampoline park being built at all.

Keep an eye out for the petition in this website and on Twitter and Facebook. Please sign it.

Monstrous carbuncle

As if BetterGLL’s management of the Sobell isn’t monstrous enough already, the construction of a trampoline park really would blemish the character of this much-loved, ‘old friend’ for the community that uses it.

Historic and iconic, the Sobell Centre is only sports facility known to have been designed by Richard Seifert, the architect behind Centre Point.

Part funded by a charitable contribution from the Sobell Foundation, the leisure centre was officially opened in 1973 by the Duke of Edinburgh. Sir Michael Sobell, a local businessman and philanthropist, gifted the leisure centre to the community.

Many Sobell users have been members for decades, some for generations in the 40+ years of its existence, as they bring their own children and grandchildren to take part in sports and activities.

Islington Council lacks transparency, too

The installation of the artificial turf, floodlit football pitches, the kids’ gymnastics equipment, the fitness gym extension and new equipment; the new boxing gym; the junior gym improvements; the redesign and rebuild of the men’s, women’s and group changing rooms were the result of a £1.4 million investment by Islington Council.

That’s right; the council made those improvements, not BetterGLL.

That said, however, local press accounts of Islington Council’s responses to requests for information on the trampoline park consultation show the council to lack as much transparency on the issue as BetterGLL.

News links about the trampoline park

Sports force out to make way for Sobell Centre trampoline park — Islington Tribune

Islington council blasted for turning Olympics training venue into ‘novelty’ trampoline park — Evening Standard

Axed footballers denied ‘proper consultation’ over trampoline park at Sobell Leisure Centre — Islington Gazette

Sobell Leisure Centre gives five-a-side football league the boot to make way for trampoline park — Islington Gazette

General Election delays installation of trampoline park at Sobell Leisure Centre — Islington Gazette


We don’t want a trampoline park

Badminton on Sobell indoor courts

Around the end of April (2017) instructors began to tell Sobell users that their classes were going to be disrupted because Better/GLL is building a trampoline park. For most Sobell users, this was the first time we heard about the trampoline park, and all of us were pretty unhappy about it.

We are unhappy because we weren’t consulted. We didn’t ask for a trampoline park, and no one thinks we need one. If we had been consulted, people would have said, no.

Why? Because nearly 50% of the indoor courts space will be lost to the community of people who have used it week after week, year after year — the 100s of badminton players, footballers, netballers, basketballers, volleyballers, as well as, wheelchair users and other users with specials needs, not to mention the young gymnasts.

They still want to use this space, and other Sobell members and users still want them to use it, too. What will happen to all of this activity and these people when half of the court space has gone?

The indoor courts are a precious, well-loved and well-used resource in a local leisure centre that whose purpose was to provide such a resource to ordinary people in the local community.

We weren’t asked

We don’t want that space to be given over to a trampoline park that so few of the current users will want or even be able to use.

Better/GLL may say they did consult on this. However, it was so minimal as to be imperceptible. The majority of Sobell members and users didn’t know anything about it until our instructors told us.

Better/GLL may say there were consultation materials at the front desk/reception area. However, given that Sobell users end up queuing out of the main doors at peak times because they are forced to get class tickets from reception because ‘non-attendance’ fines prevent them using the kiosks and there are only ever two Better/GLL staff at reception who prioritise answering the telephone rather than serving customers in front of them, perhaps they didn’t see them.

Better/GLL may say there were consultation materials on the noticeboards outside the studios. However, because the time it takes to get class tickets means Sobell users end up being late for their classes, perhaps they didn’t have time to look.

Better stop

If you don’t want the trampoline park, complain to Better/GLL, make your views known to customer representatives, write to Islington Council, write to your local councillors, write to Islington’s MPs – Jeremy Corbyn and Emily Thornberry, write the to local press – Islington Gazette, Islington Tribune, Camden New Journal.

The trampoline park is Better/GLL’s latest act vandalism. This isn’t better. The Sobell and its members will be worse off. Less space will mean fewer activities and fewer users. We’ve got to stop this before Better/GLL further diminishes our beloved local sports facility. We can’t let them do this.

News links about the trampoline park

Sports force out to make way for Sobell Centre trampoline park — Islington Tribune

Olympics training venue into ‘novelty’ trampoline park — Evening Standard

Axed footballers denied ‘proper consultation’ over trampoline park at Sobell Leisure Centre — Islington Gazette

Sobell Leisure Centre gives five-a-side football league the boot to make way for trampoline park — Islington Gazette

General Election delays installation of trampoline park at Sobell Leisure Centre — Islington Gazette