Peter Ross: Community fighting against the tide in bid to protect swim centre

Six-year-old twins Samuel and Felix Askham are among those who oppose the closure of Leith Waterworld. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Six-year-old twins Samuel and Felix Askham are among those who oppose the closure of Leith Waterworld. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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The fight to halt the closure of Leith Waterworld is just the latest battle for a community struggling to save its identity

SUNDAY morning at Leith Waterworld and the pool is full of kids delighted to the point of chortling hysteria by the churning wave machine and the great sweeping thrill-ride of the flumes. “Look at that happy child,” says Alison McDonald. Her four-year-old daughter Sarah, swimming alongside, is resplendent in pink Barbie armbands. “This is a real bonding place. There’s so much more to it than just water.”

It is a charming scene, typical of the weekend here, but could well be coming to an end. Leith Waterworld will open only 12 more times, including today, unless a local campaign can – against the clock and against all odds – convince Edinburgh City Council that it ought to be spared. If not, Waterworld will shut its doors for the last time on 8 January, and the pool which for almost 20 years has echoed with childish laughter will fall silent and still. Just water.

Waterworld is being sold off to help fund the £37 million redevelopment of the Royal Commonwealth Pool, which is due to reopen in the spring of next year. Waterworld is running at an annual deficit of £344,000. But members of Splashback, the campaign group fighting the closure, believe it is wrongheaded to think of this money as a loss, arguing that the council should instead consider it an important investment in the wellbeing and happiness of the community.

“In terms of public money it is a drop in the ocean,” says Johnny Gailey, leader of the Splashback campaign. “This is why we pay taxes – to have public facilities that don’t run on a commercial basis.”

Gailey, a father of two young boys, is 37 and works as an arts educator. The Splashback campaigners are not seasoned protesters. They are concerned parents, driven to act by a feeling that they, their families and the community in which they live are going to lose a place they cherish.

Although Splashback uses social media, it is essentially a low-tech word-of-mouth campaign, which suits Leith. At its heart is the SUB, or Swimming Utility Battlebus, a converted bike trailer painted pale blue. It is being manned, when I visit, by Chris Askham, 59, and his six-year-old twin boys, Felix and Samuel.

By just before 10am, when the pool is due to open, there is already a sizeable queue of parents and children. Most of them come over and sign the Splashback petition, which is kept in a breadbin. More than 5,000 people have signed since the campaign began at the end of last month and the aim is to double that.

Elspeth Alexandra, here with four-year-old Helen, signs the petition. “I’m thinking this is probably going to be our last time here,” she says.

“Oh, no,” says Chris Askham with amiable defiance. “This won’t be your last.” One needn’t hang around for long before discovering what the place means to people. Becky MacRobert, 34, is visiting with her two-year-old daughter Charlotte who learned to swim here. Becky also uses Waterworld in her professional life, as a careworker helping those with physical disabilities and learning difficulties; the pool, she explains, is graduated and the water pleasantly warm, making it the only swimming facility in Edinburgh which people thus disadvantaged truly enjoy using.

Leith Waterworld is the only “fun pool” in Edinburgh; that is, the only one with flumes and so on. “I appreciate that the council has to make savings, but this is a unique pool so why close this one?” says Roland Bauman, a GP who comes here most weekends with his daughter Clara. “I get the impression that it’s because it’s Leith and they think no one will complain. Maybe they thought it would be easier than closing a pool in Stockbridge.”

Many locals feel the city council is picking on a community that was already neglected and vulnerable. “It feels as though the people up the hill have given up on north Edinburgh,” sighs one Leither who wished to remain anonymous. “People are incredibly disappointed by the outcome of the trams. We feel we were sold a particular future that isn’t happening any more. There’s a big question mark over Leith now, and in the meantime there’s death by a thousand little cuts.

“The city centre gets catered for pretty well, but despite having just as dense a population, even the streets are dirtier here. This should be a thriving part of the city; it feels like it’s being left out.”

To an extent, those feelings of persecution are typical of Leith, a district of Edinburgh which was, historically, a separate burgh. Almost a century on from the merger, the area – population around 43,000 – remains distinctive. More open, outspoken and gruffly warm, it is self-contained and independent-minded, feeling both jealous of and superior to the city up the hill.

But Leith, of late, has not had its troubles to seek. Earlier this year it was decided that the trams would not now run to the area, despite a great deal of costly and disruptive infrastructure work, and as a result of this – and the general economic downturn – much expected public and private development seems now to be on hold.

Where once there were ambitious plans to continue the development of the waterfront with retail and leisure projects, and housing, it now seems more likely that any development will be industrial. While jobs are welcome in an area where youth unemployment in particular is high, there are fears that a planned biomass power station would be an environmental and economic disaster.

“I used to say I would never move out of Leith,” says Susan Dougal, 52, who lives in the small housing estate next to the swimming pool, “but I would seriously think about it now.” She and her daughter are collecting old toys for a tenants’ association sale. “This used to be a great community. A lot of the fighting spirit has been lost.”

The closure of Waterworld, especially, is symbolic of the failure of the Leith dream. The pool was built in 1992 on the site of the former Leith Central railway station, the grand yet shabby facade and clock tower of which still face out on to the foot of Leith Walk. In Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, the derelict station – “a barren, desolate hangar, which is soon tae be demolished and replaced by a supermarket and swimming centre” – is frequented by drug users and alcoholics, and seems to stand for everything that projects such as Waterworld were supposed to help sweep away.

Yet, the old sicknesses persist. The area has a serious problem with heroin. “See that toilet?” says one Splashback campaigner, pointing to a public convenience right outside Waterworld. “It’s practically a shooting gallery.”

There is also a perception that violent crime and a general atmosphere of menace are on the rise. Judyta Wronka, 25, one of the many Polish immigrants living in the area, has just been to weekday mass at that beautifully named church St Mary’s Star Of The Sea. She has lived in Leith for five months and works as a cleaner. “Personally, I don’t feel so safe here,” she says. “In the evening I feel afraid to go out. There are a lot of people drunk or on drugs, and a couple of days ago there was a young man attacked just outside my gate.”

On Constitution Street, Steven Salmond, 28, stops to talk. He is an unemployed labourer with a three-year-old son, and is finding it difficult to get a job. His partner has found a part-time position after almost a year on the dole. Many of Steven’s friends and family are experiencing similar difficulties. He knows people who have become involved with drugs and drink because they are so frustrated trying to find work, and those who have turned to crime because they are desperate for money. “These are guys who have worked all their days but have fallen on bad times,” he says.

In the Port O’ Leith pub, which has a postcard of Karl Marx in a Santa hat taped to the gantry, Tommy Martin, 43, explains that he lost his business – a gardening shop – three years ago as a result of the disruptive tramworks on Leith Walk.

“Whenever there is an economic crisis, Leith suffers,” he says. “This is where the majority of the working people of Edinburgh live, but there are absolutely no facilities. Leith Waterworld was an oasis in that sea of deprivation, but even that is being taken away from us. I’ll tell you now, we will occupy the pool and keep it open. I don’t care what the courts, the council or the police say – that’s our community and we are going to fight to defend it. We’ve been left with no choice and have nothing to lose.”

Leith, it seems to me, is experiencing a crisis which goes deeper than the loss of a swimming pool, as painful as that may be. It is losing its identity. This is what happens to a working-class community when there is no work. Though something of the old values remain in those many community-minded folk who run the youth centre and the tenants’ associations, or who keep a kind eye on elderly neighbours, there is also a strong sense of creeping paralysis and dread.

Before leaving for home, I stand for a few minutes in the shopping precinct at New Kirkgate, looking up the hill towards Edinburgh’s silhouetted spires. There are junkies sprawled on the benches by the verdigris statue of Queen Victoria, and pigeons arc through the twilight with a sound like sarcastic applause. A builder’s van stops at the lights. The workies have their windows rolled down and are singing loudly along with – of all things – The Proclaimers’ Sunshine On Leith. “Sorrow, sorrow,” they sing. “Sorrow, sorrow.”

The motto of Leith is Persevere. In that spirit, the fight for Waterworld goes on. But how much more can Leithers take before going under?