Changes to the planning system to ensure childcare facilities are delivered in communities, similar to how social housing is provided, should be implemented by the Housing Department, a Fine Gael Senator has said.
Senator Emer Currie said planning guidelines on childcare facilities should be changed to ensure targets are set and met to provide a certain number of childcare facilities for new developments that are built.
Senator Currie said: “Since the ‘2001 Childcare Facilities, Guidelines for Local Authorities’ were introduced, which local authorities still utilise, we have not seen the kind of standardised provision of childcare places that we desperately need.
“In those guidelines, a benchmark of at least one childcare facility for every 75 dwellings in new housing developments is required and it’s recommended those services would look after approximately 20 children. But that level of provision is simply not happening.
“Firstly, the requirement for a childcare facility is overlooked for one-bed apartments, due to the incorrect assumption that people in one-bed apartments don’t have children or can be facilitated by childcare facilities in adjoining or nearby developments. The guidelines don’t take into account the different types of childcare people need, whether it be ECCE or full-time care, or whether those facilities are full.
“Secondly, in what is an issue for areas like my constituency of Dublin West, childcare facilities required under planning are being built. But instead of being opened to fulfil the need for childcare provision in an area, they can lie idle for years.
“We wouldn’t let social housing sit idle like that when there is a community and social need – why are we doing so for childcare?
“I know of childcare providers that are ready, willing, and able to open new services but they can’t secure units. I know of childcare facilities being postponed to later phases of development and perhaps never appearing. I know of units that aren’t economically viable for childcare providers or that are just shy of what’s required for regulation. Invariably and eventually the builder applies for a change of use after years of vacancy, while families in need of childcare places continue to struggle.
“Planning authorities and childcare providers shouldn’t have to battle to plan and provide childcare places. The system has to change.
“I have raised the issue in the Seanad with Minister of State for Local Government and Planning, Kieran O’Donnell TD who is willing to take proposals on board. A review of the ‘2001 Childcare Guidelines for Local Authorities’ is currently underway, involving the Department of Housing, Local Government & Heritage and Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth.
“In the coming weeks, I will be sitting down with the relevant stakeholders to see what kind of policy responses would work best.
“We need something like a Part V for childcare. For example, Part V of the Planning and Development Act ensures at least ten percent of new developments of nine or more homes go towards our social housing stock. This will increase to 20% for developments from 2026 onwards.
“We need to see a transparent and regularised approach tailored for childcare too. It could tighten up the requirements for childcare facilities based on the number of dwellings in a new development, making it mandatory. Developers, local planning authorities, and childcare providers, whether they be private or community-led, could agree on the type of facility and unit required at a pre-planning stage based on the needs of the area.
“And critically, the state could take a deliberate step towards publicly provided childcare by operating these services directly.
“This would require additional resources, budget and agreement between the two Departments involved, the Department of Children, Equality, Disability and Youth, and the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. But it has been well signalled that the State needs and wants to address legacy childcare capacity issues.
“The Programme for Government commits to moving towards a fully integrated public early years childcare and education system that provides households with universal access to high-quality childcare. It also commits to establish an agency, Childcare Ireland, to assist in the expansion of high-quality childcare, spearheading leadership, best practice and innovation, and professional development.
“How do we further ensure the matching of demand and supply in the delivery of childcare locally? We need to strengthen the joining of the dots between planning and provision. New proposals could help support that change as well as government commitments,” Senator Currie concluded.