Maribyrnong Council’s plan to privatise Footscray Park’s western lawn suffered a setback in October. It was announced that all five of the community representatives elected to the council’s advisory panel were candidates of the Save Footscray Park campaign.
This success was the result of an intense two weeks of letterboxing and leafleting. It reflects the widespread opposition among local residents to the council’s plan to allow a private soccer academy run by Melbourne Victory FC to be built on public land.
Despite this win, two thirds of the panel is composed of unelected representatives from organisations cherry-picked by the council. The panel excludes the various migrant communities that use the park and has shut out community organisations like the Maribyrnong Ratepayers Group and Friends of Footscray Park.
The panel’s terms of reference openly favour the soccer academy. One of its four stated aims is to advise the council on “the community benefits of the youth academy as outlined in the proposal”.
None of the aims focus on the academy’s many drawbacks, or on the need for more open public parkland to service Footscray’s fast-growing population. The City of Maribyrnong already ranks poorly for access to green space and cannot afford to lose any more.
The community should have no illusions in this rigged body. It is a clear attempt at another sham consultation engineered to deliver a favourable outcome for the council and Melbourne Victory.
Supporters of the proposal argue that there is a need for better sporting facilities that would be met by the academy. However, this genuine need should not mean the loss of a public park.
Maribyrnong Council openly admit that they have not considered any alternative sites. This is despite large amounts of ex-industrial land sitting unused and available around the west.
The old Maribyrnong Defence Site, which is set to be sold off to developers, is just one unexplored option. While it would be far better if the site was not privatised at all and used for public housing, it would still be a win for the community if some of the land was retained by the council for recreational purposes. Melbourne Victory could then apply to lease this land for their academy.
Whatever the committee’s recommendation, Maribyrnong Council will have the final say over the park’s future. After four years of secret backroom negotiations before this proposal became public, the council and Melbourne Victory are no doubt determined to make their efforts bear fruit.
If the council ignores the community’s concerns and pushes ahead with the project, construction works will likely start before the next council elections in October 2020. Then the only way to protect the park would be to establish a community picket to prevent the works from taking place.
Local residents should prepare for this eventuality. We need to keep up the momentum of the campaign and continue fighting until the privatisation of Footscray Park is completely taken off the table.
By Jeremy Trott