It’s Time for the Council to Step up to Help with City’s Childcare Crisis, Councillors Say

At May’s monthly full council meeting, Rachael Batten, a Fianna Fáil councillor, said it was time for Dublin City Council to take on a new role.

It needs to look at how it could set up and run affordable childcare facilities across the city, she says. “We have a crisis in childcare.”

“This service can be serviced by Dublin City Council,” she said. “I’m sure I’ll hear many reasons why it can’t. But I want to hear the reasons on how we can service this.”

At the meeting, the council’s chief executive, Owen Keegan, said he was reluctant for the council to branch out into new roles. “When we get so much criticism for not doing the things we have responsibility for,” he said.

But the council does have some role already and it might be worth commissioning some more research on that, he says. “To see where we could make the most effective contribution.”

They could also then put something solid forward as an idea to the Minister for Children, Keegan said

That was agreed to by councillors, and according to a report later shared by officials, that research will look at what the council currently does to support childcare in the city, what challenges the not-for-profit community services face – and how the council can do more to support services.

Hazel de Nortúin, a People Before Profit councillor, said the report is a good start. “That’s a good basis to have, because we don’t have access to that knowledge.”

It’s likely the council could do more, for example, in supporting creches to use vacant spaces in the city, she says, as it might be trickier for the council to set up their own creches.

The national government has laid out its vision for how it plans to change the way childcare runs going forward, offering “core funding” to services that sign up for it in exchange for greater government say in how they operate.

After a presentation on those plans at the June North Central Area Committee meeting, area councillors mostly said they don’t think the current national vision promotes a big enough role for the state.

Said Catherine Stocker, the Social Democrats councillor at the meeting: “I think what you’re outlining is a sticking plaster approach to a situation that needs complete reform.”

The Current Set-Up

At the moment, there are 455 childcare services in Dublin, according to a presentation on 20 June to councillors on the North Central Area Committee.

Of those, 171 are community not-for-profit services, while 284 are private services, said Carol Dillon, a manager at Dublin City Childcare Committee.

The two main streams of state funding for the childcare sector are the Early Childhood Care and Education programme and the National Childcare Scheme, which provide subsidies for some services and parents depending on their situation. There are other smaller pots of money for training, say, or for not-for-profits with short-term challenges.

Average fees in Dublin city are €214 a week for full-time, €127 a week for part-time, and €79 a week for sessional, according to the most recent Pobal survey.

But those are based on services voluntarily sharing figures on fees, Dillon said, in response to some councillors’ disbelief that this is really what parents are on average paying.

At the council’s May monthly meeting, De Nortúin, the People Before Profit councillor, said she had opened up at not-for-profit naíonra five years ago.

Because it was in a council building, their overheads weren’t high, she said, and they could pay a proper wage to staff.

Tusla gave them a high rating after inspections, she said. “That’s all because we don’t have a huge overhead, that we can work in a safe, comfortable environment, knowing we’re going to have a landlord that will work with us.”

But within Dublin 10, three creches have closed in the last four years, she says, and waiting lists have grown. “So there is a crisis in the service.”

A Bit of Attention

The council report sent around after Batten’s motion says that officials now plan to review how the council supports childcare services, taking into account, for example, what buildings it provides and with what soft supports like rates rebates.

Then it will try to work out where there might be gaps in provision in the city, and if anything in the draft development plan needs to be reviewed, says the report.

The council will also talk to childcare providers, and those working at the Dublin City Childcare Committee, the Department of Children’s “local agent” in the city, to get a handle on challenges facing the sector in the city and how it can help deal with those, the report says.

That includes assessing whether spaces meant for childcare in new developments have been taken up by providers, and if uptake is low, why that is.

And, how much insurance costs are an issue and talking to the city council’s insurer, IPB, to work out if the council can do anything to address unaffordable insurance costs, says the report.

What buildings the council can provide, and how it can change planning policies to support childcare services, were two issues that have been highlighted at recent council meetings.

Planning and Powers

Fine Gael Councillor James Geoghegan said the council could consider more innovative ideas around childcare in the city’s development plan for 2022 to 2028, the council’s planning roadmap for the city, which it is currently drawing up.

“We all represent areas where there’s a high concentration of creches and then there’s other areas where there’s less, and that’s really where the planning stage should be intervening,” he said. “The planning system is one place we could do better on.”

In the draft city development plan 2022–2028, the council outlines a broad objective to facilitate affordable childcare facilities in new residential and mixed-use developments.

“Subject to an analysis of demographic and geographic need undertaken by the applicant in consultation with the Dublin City Council Childcare Committee, in order to ensure that their provision and location is in keeping with areas of population and employment growth,” it says.

But national rules largely govern what new developments should have childcare and which don’t have to.

The Guidelines for Planning Authorities on Childcare Facilities (2001) say that for new housing developments, planning authorities should require at least one childcare facility with 20 places for each 75 homes.

But many new complexes don’t have to do that, since national guidelines for apartments brought in 2018 by the Department of Housing say that one-bedroom and studio apartments don’t count towards that threshold.

A February 2022 assessment by the Dublin South City Partnership looked at childcare needs in Inchicore to see whether more spaces were needed as part of the cost-rental development planned at St Michael’s Estate.

The report noted how two big build-to-rent developments in that neighbourhood – the Dulux site, with 138 of 265 apartments being two-beds, and the Miller/Heilderberg site, with 89 of 188 apartments being two-beds – will not include any childcare facilities.

The developers of the Dulux site had argued that there are enough childcare places in the area and that built-to-rent apartments tend to house single young professionals, the assessment says.

“The reasons for the low uptake of childcare places were not considered, neither were the types of childcare services offered in the area,” the report says.

But among groups who do not have access to as much formal childcare as they need, such as lone parents, the main barriers are affordability and lack of economic resources, the report says.

It concludes that the council needs to put in more childcare spaces at the public development at St Michael’s Estate than the 80 spots it had planned.

A spokesperson for Dublin City Council said the project manager for St Michael’s Estate is currently on annual leave, so they couldn’t get back before deadline to queries as to how many childcare spaces are now in designs.

At the North Central Area Committee on 20 June, Carol Dillon, a manager at Dublin City Childcare Committee, told councillors that one way for them to influence childcare in the city would be to weigh in on the current review of the 2001 planning guidelines.

They could raise how need is calculated for build-to-rent apartments, Dillon said. “That’s one possible gap.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Housing said that review is underway. “A draft for consultation is expected to be available in early 2023,” they said.

In Flux

“There is huge developments underway,” said Dillon, at the 20 June meeting of the North Central Area Committee.

The Department of Children is reviewing how childcare committees, and other players such as Pobal, operate at the moment.

They’ve proposed a New Childcare Ireland organisation to take over responsibility for childcare, she said, giving a rundown of a report by an expert group that has looked into early year services and funding.

The department is also looking at a new funding model, with funding for services that sign a contract with the department, she says.

Within that contract, the state would also set requirements for services and use them to guide and influence the development of services, says Dillon. “They want to see enhanced public management.”

At that meeting, Batten also asked about specific targets in the report from the expert group, particular for supply, particularly spots for under-3s, and for affordability. “Is that just not there or is there actually specific targets?”

Dillon said there aren’t targets as such in the document she went through – more principles and standards. “It’s like the blueprint.”

Stocker, the Social Democrats councillor, said she knows people being told of two-year waiting lists for childcare, and being told it will cost them €1,500 a month for a child.

Subsidising parents here and there and providers here and there is not working, she said. “What we actually need is publicly provided and managed childcare.”

Dillon said that there is mention of public provision in the expert group’s report. But “it’s not specific as yet”.

They’ve said the minister should mandate the department to examine whether some element of public provision should be introduced alongside the private provision.

“So whether that would be premises owned by the department, or whether it would actually be employees, people would be funded,” she said.

Could the Council Do It?

Niamh Kelly, a policy manager for One Family, an organisation representing one parent families, says the shortage of childcare comes down to a dependence on private provision.

It’s good to see the council taking action to solve the crisis, she says. “What we really need is a fundamental change in how we provide childcare.”

Councillors and those working in the area are still in the early stages of debate, though, as to how much the council could and should play a role in the future in providing childcare services.

Kelly says that Dublin City Council could run a pilot that, if successful, could be replicated nationwide. “But if there’s not government buy-in on such a scheme, it’s never gonna get off the ground.”

Tanya Ward, CEO of Children’s Rights Alliance, says Ireland is an outlier in Europe, without state-delivered childcare.

“Having the local council organising and delivering its own childcare, it’s similar enough to the model in Europe,” she says.

Local governments in Ireland may not have the capacity or resources to do it, she says, and perhaps the Education and Training Boards Ireland, which represents different education provision in Ireland, could be a better solution.

Batten, the Fianna Fáil councillor, says relying on the private market, and subsidising it, just isn’t working.

And childcare workers would feel more secure if they were civil servants, she says, “Hopefully they would be able to provide a more secure affordable childcare for people.”

De Nortuín, the People Before Profit councillor, says she understands if the council are reluctant to undertake the responsibility. They already struggle with managing housing, she says.

“Childcare has to be a very people-led, you know, approach with children, on the ethos that we lead with anyway,” she says.

“With childcare, there is a large liability. It’s just one of the sectors that they don’t seem to be very comfortable with,” she says. “They don’t like having responsibility over people in general.”

But it’s likely, she says, that any local government-led childcare would need European funding.

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Claudia Dalby: Claudia Dalby is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. She's especially interested in stories about the southside, transport, and kids in the city. Get in touch at [email protected]

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