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'Yuppies will take over Barnard Park when the sports pitch is carved up. It's kids from the estates who lose out'

PUBLISHED: 12:14 16 May 2017 | UPDATED: 15:41 17 May 2017

Highbury Football School will be left without a home after Islington Council decided to get rid of the Barnard Park sports pitch. Picture: Polly Hancock

Highbury Football School will be left without a home after Islington Council decided to get rid of the Barnard Park sports pitch. Picture: Polly Hancock

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Barnard Park sports pitch on a sunny evening last Wednesday. At one end, a group of mates play eight-a-side football using coats for goalposts. At the other end, a dad and his two kids play cricket. In the middle, a couple run widths of the pitch. This was 24 hours after Islington Council's planning sub committee voted to get rid of it.

Highbury Football School will be left without a home after Islington Council decided to get rid of the Barnard Park sports pitch. Picture: Polly HancockHighbury Football School will be left without a home after Islington Council decided to get rid of the Barnard Park sports pitch. Picture: Polly Hancock

It’s the last free-to-use full-size pitch remaining in Islington. The pitch will be dug up and replaced by a new seven-a-side facility – which will be a third of the size – and “grass areas”.

This is Islington Council’s own scheme, first announced in October 2015, to make the east side of the Barnsbury park easier on the eye, and reduce anti-social behaviour by increasing visibility.

The public was clearly in favour: 126 letters of support, compared with 42 objections. But David Scrafton, who runs Highbury Football School on the current pitch, thinks it will be the poor families of Islington who lose out.

“Excuse my language,” he said, “but this is s***. Yet again, the little guy has lost out.”

Every Saturday and Sunday morning, up to 150 kids use the pitch for the school’s training sessions, which are offered at affordable rates. That’s not to mention the other footballers, cricketers and runners who are able to use the current pitch at their leisure.

Highbury Football School will be left without a home after Islington Council decided to get rid of the Barnard Park sports pitch. Picture: Polly HancockHighbury Football School will be left without a home after Islington Council decided to get rid of the Barnard Park sports pitch. Picture: Polly Hancock

There’s a suspicion among parents that much of the support for redevelopment came from well-to-do homeowners of the handsome Georgian terraces that overlook the dilapidated pitch in Richmond Avenue and Barnbury Road.

The new seven-a-side pitch will be split between paid and free use – though the proportions have not yet been detailed by the council.

And David said: “On the other side of this park in Copenhagen Street, you have kids from the estates who don’t have back gardens. Does the council want them to go to the street corners instead? The new pitch will be for young professionals who have the money to pay to use it.

“It would have been far better to redevelop the current pitch and keep it full-size. This is where you can gather people in a controlled environment. We have between 100 and 150 kids training with us. We won’t be able to do that on a seven-a-side pitch. Where do we go now?”

Sport England, the charity that campaigns to keep people active across the country, agrees with him. It lodged an objection to the council’s plans, saying sporting provision in Islington will suffer. It believes a new full-size floodlit pitch should have been built instead – while respecting the council’s need to “take into account a wide range of views”.

Highbury Football School will be left without a home after Islington Council decided to get rid of the Barnard Park sports pitch. Picture: Polly HancockHighbury Football School will be left without a home after Islington Council decided to get rid of the Barnard Park sports pitch. Picture: Polly Hancock

“No one is saying the pitch is good quality,” David added. “The ground is crap. But this is a very important facility. It’s huge, bigger than an 11-a-side pitch, meaning it provides opportunity. It’s not just about our football school – lots of different people use this.”

Parent Ian Nelthorpe recently started taking his six-year-old son Moses to the training sessions. He attended last Tuesday’s meeting, and was “incensed” at the committee’s decision.

He said: “I wanted my son to play sport, and Highbury Football School is great because it offers two-hour sessions. What I was really excited about is the sheer number of children – from a whole range of backgrounds – playing there.

“It’s quite inspiring on a Sunday morning to see up to 150 kids, and six different games, on the entire pitch. The only thing I can compare it to is the football leagues on Hackney Marshes.”

He added: “Barnard Park offers something quite special. It’s more than just playing football, it’s the camaraderie between peers. We just won’t be able to get that on a seven-a-side pitch.”

Highbury Football School will be left without a home after Islington Council decided to get rid of the Barnard Park sports pitch. Picture: Polly HancockHighbury Football School will be left without a home after Islington Council decided to get rid of the Barnard Park sports pitch. Picture: Polly Hancock

There’s still a chance Islington’s decision could be overturned.

Because of Sport England’s objection, the council now has to refer the application to the National Planning Casework Unit, meaning it could yet be “called in” by the government and overturned.

Ultimately, however, the council is set on getting rid of the pitch. Karen Sullivan, service director of planning, said: “The planning sub-committee considered this decision very thoroughly, at great length, and considered carefully opinions from both sides.

“The committee decided that the plans set out an appropriate balance between providing space for people to play football and those who want to use the park for other leisure activities.”

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