‘We don’t want soft play’: Ice skaters urge council to put skids on plan to shut popular Islington rink

Protesters outside the Town Hall. Photograph: Julia Gregory

Skaters and ice hockey players have challenged Town Hall bosses to jettison plans to close a much-loved local rink.

The arena at Sobell Leisure Centre was devastated by flooding last summer when a nearby water main burst, and the Town Hall now wants to turn it into a soft play area.

Dylan Brookner, 12, from Lea Valley Lions told Islington’s executive that “the council’s proposals do not appeal to myself, to my friends or anyone of my age group and people I’ve spoken to”.

“We do not want soft play, it is not something that we would do,” he said.

Brookner told councillors about the ‘Blades Belong on Your Feet’ campaign that encourages young people to learn to skate rather than carry knives.

Student Apratim said the closure would spell the end for some clubs: “Five university teams would lose their space. We can’t afford to travel to Lea Valley or Ally Pally instead.”

Dylan Brookner. Photograph: Julia Gregory

Protesters gathered outside the Town Hall ahead of a meeting about the rink’s future. They held larger-than-life models of ice skates and played ‘Ice, Ice, Baby’ to passersby.

The council and leisure centre operators GLL said it will cost £1.7m to replace the rink and that mounting energy costs are making it more unaffordable.

Leisure bosses have drawn up designs for a “ninja warrior park” and soft play area, which they think will attract more customers.

Plans also include upgraded squash courts, gym, and boxing area.

Nurullah Turan, executive member for health, said: “It’s vitally important that we rebuild the centre to ensure that it serves local people of all ages and backgrounds, and our proposals seek to do just that.”

He wants to hear people’s views in a consultation that opens on 26 May.

He said the rink was making a £250,000-a-year loss before it closed and rising fuel costs could see this balloon to £400,000.

Turan noted that the ice was only attracting 475 people a week on average, whereas the centre’s trampoline park was used by 2,000 people a week.

Skaters challenged the council to look at its figures again, arguing it had only counted the people booking the rink for sport and club events rather than individual use.

The council has since revised the figures and said 590 people visited the rink on average every week.

Ice hockey player Kevin Bez called for more details of the income yielded by rink bookings to get a fuller picture of the situation.

Berry Saunders from the Sobell Ice Skating Club said there were 300 people enrolled for skate lessons alone.

The skating coach said: “It is a safety hub for the community – whatever your mental health, whatever is going on in your life, if you are grieving, you go onto the ice and you switch off.”

Hannah Dolan Davies, a Disney on Ice figure skater who also plays ice hockey, said the Sobell was a great rink for beginners as well as more experienced peoople.

“My fear is that they are stopping lots of skaters starting out on their skating journey.”

She also pointed out that the area around the Sobell Centre is well-lit, with busy streets.

“As a female at a skating session, you feel much safer going back from there.”

Green councillor Caroline Russell said: “It just feels that they are not looking at the real value of the ice rink.”

She challenged the council to look at greener and more efficient ways of rebuilding the rink with new and “more efficient kit”.

Energy used by rinks elsewhere has been used to power homes, and Cllr Russell suggested investigating if such a scheme could work at the nearby Harvist estate.

“This catastrophic flood, which was terrible for our borough, could with some imagination have benefits for residents affected by the cost-of-living crisis.”

She also urged the council to look at other ways to work, such as rinks that are transformed into roller rinks during the four summer months, to cut energy costs whilst making money.

“I know that young people, particularly girls, would love a rink in Islington,” she added. “It would be a real shame if they miss out.”

Cllr Turan said that although the council is minded not to reopen the rink, it is keen to hear about other options.

“One point that was raised with us by ice rink users was that the council and GLL consider the green ice rink model at Ozone in Bracknell.”

He said the council has contacted Ozone and other ice operators “to discuss alternative business operating models to see if these could address the challenges associated with reopening the Sobell ice rink”.

Skater Simon Nicholls told the Citizen that the council has not considered women and girls enough, as the sport is popular with them and the move would “reduce women’s access to sport”.

He said the council could monetise the rink better with weekend sessions and increased capacity.

His teenage daughter, who uses the rink, does not think the proposed soft play would appeal to girls and that people would not visit it as regularly as skating club members currently do.