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Keeping Sydney's Pools Afloat

At North Sydney Olympic pool, framed by the Harbour Bridge and the grinning face of Luna Park, the art deco harbourside wall is decorated with seashells, pointy-nosed dolphins and seagull-like white birds that look as though they’re pretending to be the Egyptian bird-god Horus, their banded wings loftily spread. Those regal fowl have seen a lot: 86 world records have been broken under their watch. That’s roughly one for every year the pool has been open.

But the last two decades, according to the North Sydney mayor, Jilly Gibson, have not been as kind. The pool, which hosts 350,000 swimmers a year, has been leaking. A few years ago the lining on the base began to lift off, raising the pool’s floor. The council says the pool is at risk of closing without financial aid from state and federal governments.

Plans approved by the council to repair and upgrade the pool will cost $57.9m, of which $28m has been earmarked by council. In April the Coalition promised $10m for the pool – if it wins.

North Sydney is one of several Sydney pools in need of urgent repair. Others have simply closed – whether because they were too damaged to be worth fixing, or to make way for more profitable developments. Now questions are being raised over why some pools are given funding while others have had to be shuttered – and what happens if parties who have committed funds lose the upcoming election.

If North Sydney pool is a reminder of Sydney’s interwar years, Balmain’s Dawn Fraser baths, built in 1882, is a beacon of the suburb’s working-class heritage. It is also feels decidedly original: boasting a latticed timber structure that is more like something from Stratford-upon-Avon than Balmain-upon-Sydney Harbour – behind which loom the jungle-like trees of Elkington Park.

The Olympic champion after whom the baths are named trained in its green waters. Labor’s Inner West council mayor, Darcy Byrne, says Fraser’s family once went, hat in hand, from bar to bar in the area to collect enough money to be able to travel to Melbourne to watch Fraser compete in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics – where she won a gold medal and established a world record she then went on to break nine times.

Last year Byrne announced that Dawn Fraser baths was in need of $6.7m to cover urgent repairs, including raising the boardwalk and pavilions. The council approved $4.5m from its own budget but was left with a shortfall of $2.2m. The council applied for state government funding, which was approved in January.

Federal Labor has since promised a further $2m in funding, which Byrne says is needed for a full heritage restoration – costing between $9 and $10m – to take place.

Byrne says pools are any council’s single most expensive asset, but that governments have also “drastically shifted costs on to local councils in recent decades” and rate capping – councils can now only increase rates by a set percentage each year – is making matters worse.

Kogarah War Memorial pool, in the prime minister’s seat of Cook in Sydney’s southern suburbs, will undergo a renovation as part of a $300m sporting grants fund in this year’s budget. Its financial statements showed it made a $650,000 loss in 2017-18.

Other pools have closed. Parramatta in western Sydney lost its local pool in April 2017 when it was shut to make way for the Western Sydney Stadium. The Berejiklian government has since promised to build a “like-for-like” replacement at a cost of $30m, which the Liberal state MP Geoff Lee says will be finished by December 2020.

But that still leaves two more years – of school holidays and ever-hotter summers – without somewhere nearby to swim.

Parramatta is especially hot, too. It is the demographic heart of Sydney, some 24km from the harbour, and at the centre of an “urban heat continent”. A report by the Australia Institute found that, during heatwaves, temperatures in western Sydney are 6 to 10 degrees higher than the eastern suburbs.

In December last year Canterbury Bankstown council recommended that the Greenacre and Wran leisure and aquatic centres be closed permanently. Greenacre has been closed since 2016. The council plans to build two new aquatic centres.

Also in December, Lane Cove council on Sydney’s north shore made the decision to shut its 50-metre outdoor public pool “due to urgent safety concerns”.

While a lack of profitability is arguably at the heart of why several public pools have fallen into disrepair or closed in recent years, a report by the Australian Royal Life Saving Society on the benefits of public swimming pools found that each one creates an average of $2.72m in community value (mainly though health cost savings).

The chance to step away from spending or earning money, to have a break, is a large part of why these spaces are so loved and needed – especially in one of the world’s most expensive cities. They’re places where knackered parents can afford to let their kids run fairly wild, where older Australians can exercise and see friends, where children learn skills that will keep them safe – and where Australia’s next Dawn Fraser or Ian Thorpe might emerge.

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