Council planning chief booed as protesters kick off over potential loss of football pitches

Campaigners hold up red cards outside Town Hall. Photograph: Julia Gregory

Campaigners have staged a protest over fears that football pitches used by hundreds of people every week could be lost as part of a leisure centre’s makeover.

Cllr Diarmaid Ward was booed as he told residents at a full council meeting that he was “excited” by plans for a new Finsbury leisure centre, medical centre and homes – including 100 council flats.

Residents in the public gallery also held up red cards to show their feelings.

The shouts prompted Mayor Marian Spall to remind people that the gathering was “not a public meeting”.

Dressed in football kits, residents had braved the cold as they protested before entering the chamber.

Islington Council wants to redevelop the Finsbury leisure centre and build homes on part of the sports pitches, putting some of them on the roof instead.

Critics say the plans would be “detrimental to the wellbeing of Bunhill residents and the local gardens”.

They argue the council’s scheme – yet to be fully outlined – would see overdevelopment in the UK’s most densely populated borough, and could impact on the Grade I-listed St Luke’s Church, home to the London Symphony Orchestra.

Campaigners from Better Bunhill said: “We need to protect much-needed open space for children and everyone’s wellbeing. This is also a chance to set a precedent for the future of London’s liveability.

“It’s also a last chance to save the mature trees, light levels, the football pitches and Bunhill from overdevelopment.”

Resident Luke Howard asked the council how it would work to expand the “current lack of open space” in the borough and use surplus offices around the St Luke’s area to meet housing needs.

Cllr Ward, executive member for finance, planning and performance, said the Town Hall “is committed to building more council homes for residents and creating more green space in the borough”.

He said there “is no evidence of surplus office space” in the area.

“There is a careful balance to be struck between providing genuinely affordable homes, an inclusive economy and social needs and ensuring our open spaces and biodiversity are improved,” he added.

Howard said residents recognise homes are needed but the borough is the most densely populated in the UK.

“We don’t believe the plan will protect the green space,” he added. “It will have a detrimental impact on the green space and on the residents.”

He said knocking down the leisure centre is not a green option and asked the council to rethink and “keep the pitches as they are”.

Cllr Ward said: “”I do want to work with you and make sure your views are heard.

“I will make no apology for 100 new council homes.”

His comments were jeered.

He said every councillor meets residents “in dire housing needs” and there are 14,000 people on the housing register.

“I am very excited about the brand new leisure centre, new medical centre, the brand new football pitches, and 100 council homes for families in desperate need. It is a wonderful development.

“I would dearly love to build 100 per cent council homes on the site.”

He said the only reason it had to build homes for sale is to help fund the project and blamed a lack of government support.