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Committed to physical exercise, but cutting places to play sport

22 September, 2017

Barnard Park 

• I AM almost exhausted by Islington councillors still claiming they are committed to helping people get physical exercise while cutting back on sports facilities.

We have had a succession of them recently, from Claudia Webbe to the more recent letter from Janet Burgess dealing with Sobell Centre (We’ll support Sobell sports hall footballers, August 25).

And then the article (Will Town Hall pull Barnard Park plans? September 15) quoting Councillor Richard Watts still arguing that retention of the existing pitch at Barnard Park means that it is limited to footballers and rugby players, which is errant nonsense.

I see Friends of Barnard Park grandmothers teaching grandchildren to play tennis; I see children learning how to ride bikes; I see rounders; I see the police training horses; I see children having races; and I and dozens of others run there.

Maybe, as Cllr Burgess claims, a few teenage girls will play on the trampoline in Sobell Centre but it isn’t a sport and is probably an occasional exercise or a fun few hours (I am sadly too old for it).

By encouraging children to play team sports you engage people for life. The councillors’ claims are being made despite good evidence to the contrary and the council has been ignoring the planning framework for sport.

In relation to Barnard Park, the council has ignored Sports England and has, rather shamefully, had its decision called in by the Department of Local Government and Communities, which calls in one in approximately 1,000 applications.

Will councillors ever admit this entire process was a disgrace and deeply misguided?

But nothing surprises me any more after seeing a recent response to a question from Stephen Griffith related to the park from Cllr Diarmaid Ward, who wrote: “The existing sports pitch, due to its current poor standard, does not meet the stated definition of a sports pitch to which this policy is said to apply” (the policy is DM6.4).

So in Islington Council, there is a view that it can totally neglect a sports facility, allow it to become degraded and then claim it isn’t a sports pitch and therefore not entitled to protection. Thank goodness for Angela, the park attendant who does work hard to keep the pitch clean.

We would have happily accepted a decision that had been reached after a proper and fair consultation, but it wasn’t either. For a start, there was no option to retain the full pitch in the consultation because the council had already decided it wanted it reduced.

The people consulted appear to have been carefully selected – in one night recently in the estate off Copenhagen Street more than 95 per cent of doors we knocked on signed up to retaining the pitch.

Most never knew of the consultation and none had ever been told of the plans for a seven-a-side. We got more than 150 signatures in a few hours.

The council binned more than 100 letters from children asking for the pitch to be retained as they had signed a form letter.

They misinterpreted the consultation results. The effort to publicise the consultation was pathetic. Some groups who were claimed as being in favour of reduction and upgrade of the pitch have now recanted as they were misled, as the parties seeking their support did not tell them about the huge reduction to a seven-a-side.

We believe that in another case the spokesperson of the resident group offering support for council plans did not represent or seek to get the views of residents. It could hardly have been worse.

The council has spent more than £417k on this effort and that does not include the salaries of council staff who worked on the plans.

To get this info we had to file a Freedom of Information request, which we did about six months ago,  so probably it is closer to £500k today when all costs and expenses are included.

At the same time the council has rejected generous offers of money from organisations such as the Football Association, Rugby Football Union, Arsenal in the Community and others which would have covered the costs of upgrading the existing pitch. Go figure!

As a tax-payer I am hoping the council isn’t going to throw good money after bad and that Cllr Watts, who has to date strongly pushed these plans, is truly considering his options.

The council has put huge efforts into Fair Futures and it is very worthwhile, but the children who play with Highbury Wolves and attended the planning committee meeting in May saw something more sordid – a planning decision approved by councillors without any proper debate.

To them it seemed unfair, not only because the two planning councillors who disagreed with the plans for Barnard Park had to withdraw from the committee, but the “deputy-mayor in waiting” was somehow seen as “independent” and allowed to vote in favour of the council plan.

But is it possible to have any proper debate when 47 out of 48 Islington councillors are Labour and it was a Labour plan, encouraged by Friends of Barnard Park, to reduce the pitch. We need some diversity on the council and elections are fast approaching.

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