Arsenal Times
How Arsenal's Sport's Centre Won The Thumbs Up
By Ian Shacklock
March 25 2009


Town Hall Picket

When Arsenal Times first raised the issue of the Community Campaign to reinstate the JVC/02 Centre some supporters saw it as a cover for anti- Arsenal propaganda. Others argued that in the age of Corporate Capital it was an unrealistic demand. Other argued such campaigns cannot win.

Firstly, the campaign leader Ian Shacklock has never been anti-Arsenal, he wanted Arsenal to be more, not less involved, in the community. Secondly without the Community Sports Centre the development of Queensland Road could have been delayed even longer. Finally the campaign did win, and it demonstrates that in this age of the Credit Crunch football clubs need community support, clubs and supporters need to lose their insularity and take a broader view of the world. You never know they might actually support you.Ian Shacklock looks back on the campaign in the article below. The Editor

Ian Shacklock writes

Budding footballers in North London were able to breathe a sigh of relief earlier this month when the New Arsenal Sports Centre was granted planning permission from Islington Council. This decision was a high point in our community sports centre campaign that has featured in the Arsenal Times since April 2008. This has been a positive campaign with positive results and finally we have been presented with an indoor pitch design and a weekly schedule that far exceed our earlier expectations. This should serve as an inspiration for anybody who is contemplating other campaigns in the interests of their community.

Getting Our 02/JVC Centre Back

However, it has not been a smooth journey. About three years ago Arsenal sent shock waves through the community when it became apparent that the replacement for the JVC centre had been airbrushed out of the plans; and a year later a multiplex cinema emerged in its place. What a mismatch! A world class stadium with a cinema as its closest satellite! This was a totally unnatural decision for a football business and my best guess is that it was driven not by Arsenal but by independent committees of regeneration specialists. They probably used financial and town planning models that might work well in less populated areas but would never have taken into account the unique values of the Highbury community. I suppose this is the price of outsourcing - recommendations are often made by people who are detached from the culture of an organisation.

Arsenal Dig in - The Campaign

Many people tried to reverse this decision but the odds were against them. The decision would not have been taken lightly, but it was a fresh one and unsurprisingly Arsenal and the Council dug their heels in. But by February 2008 the landscape had changed and it made sense to launch a new campaign. Faces had changed both at Arsenal PLC and at the Council, members of the public were criticising Arsenal's relationship with the community, certain promises had dissolved (not necessarily through any fault of Arsenal) and meanwhile the Club's match day revenues had at long last been boosted. Even the defenders of Arsenal were struggling to recognise how the community was benefiting from the regeneration.

In my view, the dropping of the sports centre was a mistake. But it was a correctible mistake, unlike the misjudgements over medical centres and tube station improvements. There was still time to correct it, since no detailed plans had been submitted, and more importantly it was possible to do this without obvious loss of face. Who, if anybody, was to blame - Arsenal or the Council? Opinions have varied on this, but frankly it had become irrelevant, and the only way forward was to assume joint ownership of the problem and to allow Arsenal and the Council to resolve it behind the scenes.

People Power  Not Anti-Arsenal

Hackney Town Hall

This led to a people's petition that attracted 3,000 signatures locally and raised general awareness of the issue. The petition was addressed jointly to Arsenal and the Council and it was presented to the full Council in three successive batches. Inevitably there were some seasoned protesters who signed it just to punish Arsenal, but the vast majority of the campaign supporters had a genuine interest in seeing mutual benefits for Arsenal, the Council and the whole community. In other words, a win-win-win situation.

The petition was a very effective means of demonstrating public support, but it was not the campaign's only tool. It was supplemented by bulletins, online forums, letters to the press, public questions in the Council Chamber and private letters of appeal to the Club. The emphasis was always on constructive suggestions rather than legal threats and the campaign was kept alive long after the petition was put on hold.

Opposition 

While all this was happening, there was mounting opposition to the new plans, especially the 21-storey tower blocks and the proposed cinema. This was very fortuitous for our campaign because it led to a major rethink of the plans. By then, support for the sports centre had gathered unstoppable momentum and the re-planning exercise paved the way for Arsenal to reintroduce the sports centre on their own terms.

Club Changes Direction - Major Milestone

In late September Arsenal issued a press statement, to reveal their new plans for the sports centre and the way it would become a perfect hub for their expanding community programme. They even explained that the change of plan was driven by popular demand. This was a major milestone for the campaign, but some of the celebrations were cut short when the detailed drawings were put on display. The indoor pitches seemed tiny in comparison with the previous facility at Highbury and they were arranged in an awkward L-shape, around an internal fire escape. This did not give confidence that the sports centre had a long-term future, and several campaigners lobbied the architects during the public consultation period. Meanwhile dozens of local objectors started to write to the Council and the plans were beginning to look insecure. Things started to look up in November when Arsenal printed a colour brochure that highlighted the sports centre as a main feature of the development; but this was followed by disappointment in December when the planning meeting was cancelled.

This delayed the project by a few weeks, and there was yet another delay due to the snowfall, but this probably worked to our advantage. During this lull period the architects managed to redesign the layout of the sports centre, the Arsenal staff were able to put together a schedule of activities, and campaigners took the opportunity to write to the council to express their support. (This demonstrated that we had not lost interest and it assured the council that the plans were not universally unpopular).

The new pitch layout was a vast improvement. The two pitches had grown in size and they were joined end-to-end. The fire escape was untouched, but some of the surrounding obstacles and facilities had been rearranged. The plans also included spectator terraces, changing rooms and other facilities. This showed that the designers were taking seriously the comments that we had submitted during the public consultation. 

 Free Promotion

Next, a provisional price list was published and this sparked an angry reaction in the local press. Arsenal pointed out that the private hire prices were comparable with other local facilities and that since the Club was actually paying for the construction of the sports centre then it could never be labelled as a money making exercise. Arsenal then disclosed that the sports centre would be free (or subsidised) for 40 hours a week - a massive improvement on the 17 hours that had been agreed previously. On 3rd March this promise became a formal condition of the planning permission for the new site. So the sports centre is here to stay and it should have even more to offer than the previous facility at Highbury.

The public may never discover the extent to which the campaign influenced the Club's decision to resurrect the sports centre, or the point in time when the directors of Arsenal decided in favour of it. But one thing is certain: the campaign has saved the Club a lot of time and effort in marketing; now there is no doubt whatsoever about the popular demand for this facility

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