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.