'Without assistance we will go down, of that I’m sure' - Sheffield play centre boss pleads for funding

“I don’t sleep at all now, at the thought of the whole thing collapsing.”

Friday, 16th October 2020, 12:30 pm

A popular Sheffield softplay centre which has entertained a generation of Sheffield children is teetering on the edge of permanent closure after coronavirus restrictions saw income plunge to 13 per cent of normal.

The Play Arena has received no government or council grants, despite £86m being handed out in Sheffield, and a ‘bounce back’ loan and company reserves have been spent.

The crisis has taken a savage toll on founder, Sipra Deb, who has been to hospital several times with heart scares and health problems brought on by the stress of battling to save her business. Ms Deb is running the 22-strong company using her own, fast-dwindling money.

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Staff in masks behind screens at Play Arena.

She said: “It’s the most harrowing event of my life. The Play Arena wasn’t just a business, for almost 10 years it has defined me. We’ve had one million children visit - in Sheffield it’d be easier to count who hasn’t been. Now it’s all gone to hell. I feel like an utter failure.”

The Play Arena, on Little London Road, Heeley, opened in 2011, claiming to be the largest in the country. The only soft play centre in south west Sheffield, its popularity soared with children who loved the slides, rides and climbing frames – and frazzled parents glad of the chance to sit down.

Ms Deb claims it even led to the regeneration of the area which now has a family pub and other developments nearby.

Plans were laid for a £175,000 revamp for its tenth birthday next year - before lockdown in March slammed it shut.

Sipra Deb of Play Arena.

“Never in my wildest dreams did think I’d have to close the doors,” Ms Deb said.

Staff were furloughed and the city council has helped with a rates holiday until April, but bills of £10,000-a-month have been piling up.

The venue reopened in August after almost £10,000 of safety measures, with headcount massively reduced from 720 to 150 and a ban on parties, which had been a sizeable chunk of turnover.

“When my accountants actually came out to me I knew it was bad.

Safety measures at Play Arena.

“Staff were so excited when we re-opened, they said ‘we will make this work!’ Most have stayed because they love the place. My chef said he always wanted to retire here.

“Now they’re wondering what’s going to happen, the uncertainty has caused mental problems. I’ve had to have difficult conversations saying we might not come out of this.”

On Wednesday, Sheffield’s new ‘high alert’ level imposed further restrictions including a ban on households mixing indoors. It triggered a wave of cancellations and refunds including from grandparents who would visit with grandchildren to help out with childcare.

Ms Deb insists the venue is ‘safer than a supermarket’ and as kids’ lives become increasingly constrained, its services have never been more needed.

The Octopus at The Play Arena - an estimated 1m children have visited the venue, which now faces closure.

“The numbers we are operating on give everyone a massive space. We’ve got fogging machines and we actually close for cleaning three times a day. It’s safer to come here than the supermarket.

“I think The Play Arena is critical to a sense of normality for children who have lost so much. We can’t expect them to just go to school and come home and have nothing in their lives, especially in winter. That has a knock-on effect on parents. We offer an important service.”

Ms Deb missed out on a Government coronavirus hospitality grant because the premises’ rateable value is too high.

She said she spoke to cabinet member for business, Coun Mazher Iqbal, and believed she had a good chance of receiving a Sheffield City Council-administered discretionary grant. But her bid was rejected.

She said: “The council said ‘It’s businesses like yours we really need to help’. But it didn’t.

“I’m not one of life’s victims. I always think there will be a solution, I just have to find a way. But now I’m taking each day as it comes until the money runs out.

“It’s not in my hands. Without assistance we will go down, of that I’m sure.”

South Yorkshire politicians want a ‘local lockdown lifeline’ of Government support to avoid a ‘huge economic downturn which will impact the people and businesses of South Yorkshire for decades to come’.

In a letter to the Prime Minister they ask for an immediate injection of funding for services which protect the public, a support package for businesses in the hospitality, leisure and recreation sectors, support for jobs, additional testing capacity and an increase in support payment for people are unable to work because they are self-isolating.

Meanwhile, the number of cases of the virus is increasing.

Nationally, 67 per cent of ‘close contacts’ are reached within 24 hours, but critics say this is too low. The Local Government Association says locally run tracing services have reached 97.1 per cent of close contacts who were asked to self-isolate.

Greg Fell, director of public health for Sheffield, also says the system needs to be much faster. And there has been criticism that results are too slow and only one in five people are self isolating properly.

Last week, a technical glitch meant the close contacts of 16,000 people in England who tested positive were not traced.