Councillors not drowning, shouting

A new report prepared by the Darebin City Council is the latest setback for a group of councillors pushing for development of a 50-metre pool in the municipality’s northern suburb of Reservoir.

The report, based on advice from LaTrobe University and consulting group Otium and released to the public in late April, recommended spending $38 million to develop the Reservoir Leisure Centre into a “local wellness hub”, but advised against building a 50-metre pool.

Staff at the Reservoir centre and a number of swimming and community groups advocated for a 50-metre pool during consultations. But the report concluded that a large pool would not address the “health and wellbeing needs” of the community.

“It’s not enough to just give the (Reservoir Leisure Centre) a paint-job, it needs something more substantial and particularly, why not us build a 50-metre pool?”: Cr Gaetano Greco. Photo: Timothy Evetts

The report represents a major blow to the faction within the deeply divided council that has been pushing for a new centre to be built in Reservoir.

Councillor Tim Laurence told last month’s council meeting that conditions at the facility were “appalling”, with visitors “standing as sardines in the summer in the 25 metre pool”. The community deserved the same pool as Northcote enjoyed in the 1980s, he said.

At a public council meeting in February, Councillor Gaetano Greco accused Darebin of class discrimination by spending $63 million rebuilding a leisure centre with a 50-metre pool in wealthier Northcote while ignoring the needs of poorer Reservoir. That project is underway, and due to be completed in 2023.

“There’s some socioeconomic discrimination,” he said.

“Areas that are more depressed in our city are not getting the same attention.”

Cr Greco told The Junction the local community had not been adequately consulted. He argued that the decisions made now could disadvantage future generations, and that the people of Reservoir deserved a complex that was not just revamped but rebuilt.

According to the 2016 census, Reservoir has more than 50,000 residents, making it Australia’s largest suburb by population. However, the existing Reservoir Leisure Centre only has a 25-metre pool.

“It’s not enough to just give the (Reservoir Leisure Centre) a paint-job, it needs something more substantial and particularly, why not us build a 50-metre pool?” Cr Greco said.

In an index of disadvantage that measures income, education and employment, the Australian Bureau of Statistics ranks Reservoir in the thirteenth percentile in Victoria. It is more than six times more disadvantaged than nearby Northcote.

“You almost have like a first and third World,” Cr Greco said. “You have this polarisation that’s occurring.”

He said children and young families in Reservoir needed better facilities, not a centre where “tiles are dropping off and occasionally there’s been a bit of flooding”. The new proposal includes repairs to the existing facilities, but Cr Greco said local children also needed a bigger pool for swimming lessons and carnivals.

“When I was a little kid, a 50-metre pool, that’s where you learnt to swim … that’s where schools could participate and have their competitions.”

“Once you have people in lanes, they take up a lot of space,” said Gary Toner, head of Swim Australia. “If there’s a swim club they’d push for 50 metres, but they’re only a small user.” Image: Reservoir Leisure Centre, with permission.

But Gary Toner, head of Swim Australia – the peak Australian body for swim schools – said the size of a pool had no real impact on learn-to-swim programs. They could be run in 25-metre, or even 15-metre pools, he said.

Mr Toner said smaller pools “with higher water temperatures” were often best. He said the most important thing for communities was to maximise overall water space with a range of pools for recreation and lessons.

“Once you have people in lanes, they take up a lot of space,” he said. “If there’s a swim club they’d push for 50 metres, but they’re only a small user.”

But Mr Toner recognised there was one key limitation of smaller pool sizes. “What you can’t have at 25-metre pools is a 50-metre competition.”

At the February council meeting, Councillor Julie Williams agreed that a 50-metre pool was needed for competitive swimming. “Parents like myself have had to travel at least 15 kilometres away … so my child could continue being active and at a competition level,” she said.

Cr Williams said the council should “think about this smartly” and build assets to support future population growth. “Why should the people of Reservoir be given second-hand or just Band-Aid jobs?”

Cr Greco said he wanted more consultation with Reservoir residents to see if they wanted a 50-metre pool before any decisions were made. “Why should we make that decision?” he said.

But the push for more consultation was met with resistance from Councillor Tom Hannan, who told February’s meeting the community had already been consulted. “It seems to have been dropped out of the discussion that there has been quite significant consultation with the community up to this point.”

That argument continued into the most recent April 26 council meeting, with a 2019 phone survey of just 300 residents receiving particular criticism from some councillors as being insufficient. Cr Laurence said, “300 people in a survey is a disgrace for a $38 million project”.

Attempts to include the option of a 50-metre pool and to seek more community consultation were ultimately defeated by what Cr Greco previously described as partisan block voting. Cr Greco – who lives in Northcote but has represented one of the city’s northern wards for 14 years – said the council was more divided now than in the past.

“I don’t think there’s enough listening,” he said.

“You don’t just manage power by exerting your dominance on council, you have to pay attention to a minority and how are you inclusive of minority views.”

Council officers will now undertake early design work on various options over the next year before presenting back to the council in April of 2023.

Cr Hannan was contacted but declined to comment. Cr Laurence did not respond to a request for comment.