Maribyrnong Council has ignited a community campaign against its plan to build a privately-run soccer academy on one of the most valuable parklands in Melbourne’s west.
Residents have come together to oppose the construction of three fenced-off soccer pitches with a spectators’ grandstand in the heritage-listed Footscray Park. Over 5,000 people have signed an online petition against the proposal. Multiple rallies at Footscray Town Hall have attracted between 100-200 attendees.
Footscray has already been identified by RMIT and Maribyrnong Council itself as lacking sufficient green space. Its growing population, increasingly concentrated in high-rise apartments, means the existing parkland will take on an even greater importance and must be preserved.
The proposal would drastically reduce public access to this space. Under the plan, the Melbourne Victory soccer club would be handed a rent-free 21-year lease of Footscray Park’s western lawn, giving them exclusive use of the area for up to 38 hours per week.
This is a form of privatisation – a brazen land grab by what is a $40 million company. While Melbourne Victory has promised that its facilities will be made available for public usage, the fields would be in use by the club during the key timeslots of after school and on weekends. Activities that currently take place on the lawn – such as off-leash dog walking, music and community events, and sports other than soccer – would no longer be able to do so.
Additional concerns about the academy’s environmental impact, the lack of car-parking spaces and what effect this would have on surrounding streets, and the implications of building on a floodplain right next to Maribyrnong River, have not been resolved.
Over the course of the last three months, the council’s consultation process has been exposed as an absolute farce. Despite telling residents that the proposal was in its early stages, a Melbourne Victory promotional video for the new soccer academy emerged from October 2018, long before public consultation begun.
Moreover, in one of the most multicultural suburbs in the country, where less than half of the population was born in Australia, the council has not translated even a single leaflet into a language other than English. Large sections of the population have been kept in the dark about what is going on.
Concerned community members have been met at council meetings with a heavy-handed police presence. Documents related to the proposal have not been forthcoming, and residents have heard unconfirmed reports that construction firms are already engaged in a tendering process for the development, contrary to statements from the council.
The overwhelming local opposition to the proposal was highlighted when the council revealed that out of nearly 500 submissions, 89% were opposed to the plan. Melbourne Victory responded by mobilising its supporters, who are mostly not residents, to swing the submission results in its favour. This is in stark contrast to CEO Trent Jacobs’ initial promise not to intervene in the consultation.
Under pressure, Maribyrnong Council has now initiated a new sham consultation process in the form of a community “advisory panel”. This body has very limited terms of reference and a composition that does not favour broad community representation. It is an attempt to legitimise a pre-decided outcome, disguised as a genuine engagement.
Socialist Party members are playing an active role in the Save Footscray Park campaign. We have no faith in Maribyrnong Council’s willingness to listen to the clear majority of the community. Stopping the development will require mobilising the collective strength of residents, including the possibility of mass direct action at the construction stage. This form of protest has successfully stopped many inappropriate developments in the past.
Alternative solutions can meet everyone’s needs. New sporting facilities are welcome, but not at the expense of the wider community. Footscray possesses a large amount of unused former industrial land that could be repurposed for soccer pitches. Melbourne Victory can afford to purchase one of these sites for their academy; any facilities built on Crown land should be 100% publicly owned and run.
Public and community assets will always be under attack in a society that puts profit ahead of people’s needs. We need a socialist system that allows communities real democratic control over urban planning.
By Jeremy Trott