Endangered sports, Olympic aspirations and Matildas mania: How Inner West Council dropped the ball on a contentious pool upgrade
By ROBBIE MASON
Inner West Council has ignored the pleas of over 1,000 petition signatories and refused to accommodate at-risk deep-water sports communities in a master plan for a Leichhardt pool, despite claims the decision could threaten the very existence of impacted clubs and sports.
At a meeting last night, the Labor majority at Inner West Council defeated a motion highlighting a recent petition to save the deep diving pool at Leichhardt Park Aquatic Centre (LPAC). At the time of publication, the petition bears 1,322 signatures.
According to a $40 million redevelopment master plan, the council intends to replace a deep diving pool at the site with a 25 metre swimming pool which will have a depth of 2.1 metres.
But outraged locals, underwater sports clubs and supporters of the diving community claim they weren’t adequately consulted or notified when the council voted in June 2022 to endorse the shallow pool depth. The new pool will not have sufficient depth to nurture deep-water sports.
Leichhardt Aquatic Centre is the last existing publicly-accessible diving facility in Sydney. Closures have marred the community in recent years.
Critic accuse council of poor communication
Critics are saying that the council’s actions represent a broken promise.
Gillian Brooker, CEO of Diving NSW, told City Hub that the sporting organisation was “given assurances” in 2018 that the pool’s master plan would accommodate deep-water communities.
When the master plan was first drafted in 2020, Inner West Council did liaise with deep-water sports representatives. But decision-making around the depth of the pool was deferred to a later, undetermined date.
Having decided to remove the diving tower at LPAC in the draft plan due to a case of “concrete cancer”, the local council did not notify deep-water sports communities when it voted and committed to a relatively shallow 25 metre pool in June 2022. The move escaped the attention of those most affected.
Once concerned locals became aware of the council’s intentions, they began lobbying the local government body once again. Over months of written correspondence, advocates made little progress.
Brooker told City Hub that consultation with stakeholders was “not adequate”.
“The process is frustrating and seems to be political rather than what would be in the best interest of the Inner West Community. Every time there is a new council we have to go back in and prove that we are worthy of inclusion.”
Ben Maslen, a member of the UNSW Whales Underwater Rugby Club, told City Hub a similar story of being “locked out” from council decision-making.
Not our problem, Labor councillors say
Labor councillors appeared to shirk responsibility in the Inner West Council meeting.
Councillor Mark Drury told the council, “I’ve told the clubs to talk to the state and commonwealth governments [to try garner funding]”.
But the motion did not demand any concrete commitments. Rather, it asked the council to consult with key stakeholders, investigate design options for a 3.8-metres-deep pool and produce a report with cost estimates.
Malsen said the council’s decision is “incredibly disappointing”.
“We weren’t asking for more money from Inner West Council; we just asked for them to consult us.”
“We have some design options; for instance, only having a short section of the pool deep and the rest of it shallow. That would be pretty much the same volume of water to a pool they’ve already approved. It would have similar excavation costs, similar pool heating costs and similar tiling and pool finishing costs.”
Brooker also expressed disappointment over the council’s decision.
“Leichhardt Park Aquatic Centre has been a vital hub for aquatic sports and recreation in the Inner West for many years,” she stated.
“With the loss of dive pools in Parramatta, Auburn, Ryde, North Sydney, and elsewhere, the importance of maintaining and expanding these facilities cannot be overstated.”
Brooker from Diving NSW said that the council’s decision threatens the viability and health of certain deep-water sports and clubs.
She said diving is “an avenue for young athletes to pursue their dreams of representing their community, state and country in national and international competitions.”
“Without suitable facilities, these dreams are in jeopardy.”
Greens Councillor Kobi Shetty, who put forward the motion with another Greens councillor, Dylan Griffiths, hypothesised before council last night that a rejection of the motion could represent “the death knell for diving and underwater rugby in the Inner West”.
She told councillors, “there is an issue here around accessibility and equity to participate in deep-water sports”.
Speaking to City Hub, Cr Shetty accused Inner West Council of supporting elitism in sports. She pointed out that, while there are other diving facilities in Sydney, they are almost all on private school grounds, meaning kids “with money behind them” will be able to participate in deep-water sports, while others are left in the lurch.
Outside of Leichhardt and private school facilities, there are only two other dive pools in Greater Sydney: the Sydney Olympic Park Aquatic Centre and the Warringah Aquatic Centre in the city’s ritzy northern beaches. Neither allow the general public to access diving boards, and both require investing in paid membership programs.
Once construction work begins at LPAC, Sydneysiders keen to dabble in a new hobby and amateur diving enthusiasts without a club membership will have to travel all the way to Newcastle to transform themselves into a human torpedo.
UNSW Whales member Ben Maslen said, “we basically have nowhere else to train if Leichhardt goes under. It will pretty much be the end of that sport [underwater rugby] for us in Sydney.”
The council’s ultimate decision flies in the face of the success of the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup hosted between July and August in Australia and New Zealand.
Matildas mania has swept the nation. Games played by the Matildas smashed previous television ratings, not just for women’s sport but men’s sport too. Kids have flocked to summer football competitions in droves with football administrators barely able to believe their eyes. Registration numbers for local senior women’s competitions have spiked.
In the aftermath to the Matildas’ semi-final loss to Sweden, Australian football icon Sam Kerr told media the sport desperately needs funding at a grassroots level.
“We need funding in our development. We need funding in our grassroots… We need funding everywhere,” Kerr said after the match.
Inner West Council, however, has failed to take advantage of the nation’s newfound cult-like adoration for women’s sports and the rising participation of Australian children in sport.
For many, it feels like a missed opportunity.
Love for Leichhardt’s diving pool runs deep
As the petition has revealed, there is a lot of affection for Leichhardt’s diving facilities in the local community. This warmth transcends the niche communities at the heart of the debate – the diving, underwater rugby and water polo communities.
Robin Gardem, head lifeguard at LPAC, said, “the diving springboard is by far the
most popular recreational activity at the pool when open”.
“The queue stretches halfway down the 50m pool!”
Malsen said that “incredibly upset” staff members from local scuba diving shops have contacted the club, expressing anguish, because they will no longer be able to run induction courses in Leichhardt’s deep-water pool, if authorities proceed with refurbishment.
In a Leichhardt community group on Facebook, users expressed dismay over the council’s actions in the comment section underneath a post about the LPAC master plan.
One Facebook user demanded the council reverse their decision, highlighting the importance of Leichhardt’s diving facilities for women.
Another wrote: “Getting rid of another deep pool in the Sydney region! Nowhere for divers to learn, nowhere for quirky sports to grow, nowhere for kids to just jump off a diving board and have some fun in summer! What are you doing to help [Inner West Mayor] Darcy Byrne?”
Cr Shetty said she wants the community facility to be “as multi-use as possible”.
Brooke, meanwhile, remains hopeful that the campaign to save Leichhardt’s deep-water pool is not over.
“Let’s hope that the council re-evaluates this decision and works toward preserving and improving this valuable asset for the community,” she said.