On one side is the most famous skateboarder in the world, hundreds of young residents and a fundraising campaign that has secured tens of thousands of pounds to restore a skatepark. On the other side are the councillors in a small traditional North Yorkshire town who have repeatedly voted against the proposals.
After skateboarding became an Olympic event for the first time ever, the people of Norton-on-Derwent – best known for its bacon factory and horse racing stables – have found themselves at the centre of an unlikely global campaign over the quality of sporting facilities in rural Britain and the right of young people to skate.
The skaters and their supporters are demanding the town backs plans to refurbish a giant half-pipe, which is one of few of its kind in the north of England. Sky Brown, the 13-year-old who won a bronze medal in the sport for Team GB last week, has sent a message of support along with the father of modern skateboarding, Tony Hawk, and former champion Danny Way.
“If the skateparks are deteriorating we need to fix them up,” said Hawk in a video message from California. “We need more public skateparks and the council should be helping you.”
Instead, councillors in Norton, which sits on the other side of the River Derwent to its sister settlement of Malton in Ryedale, have repeatedly pushed back on proposals to refurbish the 20-year-old half-pipe, which needs urgent repairs. Last month the town council voted five-four against allowing community activists to rebuild the equipment, citing health and safety concerns, despite a skateboarding brand offering to pay £15,000 of the cost in return for a sponsorship deal. Councillors concluded the meeting by threatening to call the police on protesters, only to find themselves at the centre of an international media storm involving the skateboarding community.
Ryan Swain, who has led the campaign to revive the half-pipe, said the decision “made a mockery of the public and all the hardworking and skilled volunteers who have helped do their dirty work, stripping back the ramp for it just to be dismantled and scrapped”.
It has also focused attention on the role of aristocratic landowners in an area of the country where a handful of families still dominate land ownership, with campaigners suggesting there is a secret plan to develop the skatepark site rather than focus on training future Olympians. The Fitzwilliam Malton Estate, which holds the freehold to the land, is controlled by the Old Etonian ex-army officer Sir Philip Naylor-Leyland, whose family has owned much of the town for the last 300 years.
A spokesperson for the estate said it supported the skatepark’s revival in principle and had signed a short extension on the lease which runs out in early 2023. Although the estate has “no immediate” plans for development on the site, it has submitted it as a “potential area for redevelopment in the future”.
Ann Spencer, the mayor of Norton, said the council had already invested tens of thousands of pounds in the site but could not apply for external grants without a long lease on from the Fitzwilliam Malton Estate. An external assessment had also concluded the half-pipe needed to be completely rebuilt and could need a constant health and safety presence on site.
“This group are wanting to go in and do a quick job on it and it is not acceptable to British standards … This skatepark is open 24 hours a day and is free seven days a week. The health and safety expert said he didn’t know of another [half-pipe] in the country like this that’s free to use.”
Spencer said Sky was a “wonderful kid” but had suffered substantial injuries during training while on her way to winning an Olympic bronze. “We feel we can’t risk something like that.”
Swain said the decision was shortsighted now that skateboarding is an Olympic sport and showed the negative attitude to the sport in some areas of the country. “It’s another facility ripped down which is free to use for young people. We could harvesting new, young and exciting talent in skateboarding on that ramp that could one day be representing Team GB at the Olympic Games.”