Tuesday, 11 July 2023
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
I thank the Minister of State for being here. While childcare is primarily the responsibility of the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, there could be a planning solution to the serious shortage of childcare places in local communities. It will not fix everything but it is the kind of change we need to see.
The childcare facilities guidelines for planning authorities from 2001 are in place to steer local planning authorities such as Fingal County Council on the provision of childcare facilities for local communities. However, the guidelines are not delivering the quality and affordable childcare places in communities that desperately need them. The current planning guidelines stipulate a benchmark of at least one childcare facility per 75 dwellings in new housing developments and it is recommended that services look after approximately 20 children. That is reasonable and would have gone a long way to avoiding the problems we have. What is not reasonable are the grounds on which developers or builders can get around those requirements.The first ground is the number of studio or single-bed apartments in the development - as if people in one-bedroom apartments do not have babies. There is also an exception if there are childcare facilities in adjoining developments, even though they might be full or may not take into account the types of childcare people need. There might be an ECCE provider but it might not have all-day care. These guidelines do not take into consideration the nuance that is required.
What is also not reasonable is when childcare facilities are required under planning and they are built but are not opened. There are numerous examples of this in Dublin West. We would not let social housing sit idle like this when there is a community and social need so why are we doing it for childcare? Not only that but some childcare providers in my area are ready, willing and able to open new services, including in the units that were planned and built for childcare, but they cannot get a call back from the builder or vendor. Some of these units have been sitting idle for years while families suffer from a lack of childcare and then the builder invariably applies for a change of use. Developers also seek to postpone childcare to a later phase of the development and maybe use a bigger unit, which limits the kind of childcare provider it might be suitable for and means the planning authority has less leverage to make sure the developer does it. Some of the buildings that are built are not economically viable for providers or they might be just shy of what is required under regulation. I know from talking to planning authorities that they have to battle with builders and developers to provide childcare facilities. They want them to do it. The same thing is happening under strategic development zones even though the point of an SDZ is to make sure community services and housing come together in new developments. By tightening up the planning system, we could stop this dodging and dithering.
I reached out to our 30 county childcare committees, which try to match children and families with services and engage childcare services about possibilities for expansion. Under the same guidelines, county development plans and local area plans are to have policies in relation to childcare provision, including consultation and participation with county childcare committees. I reached out to all 30 and 16 of them came back to me. All but one said there was not enough engagement with their local authority on the delivery of childcare places. Only six of those 16 had contributed towards the recent county development plans and every single one of them said supply was not meeting demand, in particular from birth to ECCE preschool. How do we match demand and supply if no one is responsible for overseeing the delivery of the different types of childcare needed locally? How do we do it if no one is actually matching demand with supply and if the system of delivery is this ad hoc? The system needs to change.
I thank Senator Currie for raising this matter. I want to give a bit of context because she is going in on a planning issue. The national planning framework 2018 recognises the importance of the provision of childcare facilities, specifying that:
the continued provision and enhancement of facilities and amenities for children and young people, such as childcare, schools, playgrounds, parks and sportsgrounds, remains necessary and will need to be maintained at similar levels for the foreseeable future thereafter.
We are doing a review of the national planning framework at the moment. That is the current plan. We are doing a revision of the existing one as we speak and hope to have that finalised by next May.
Furthermore, the national planning framework includes a specific national strategic outcome entitled access to quality childcare, education and health services, while national policy objective 31 identifies the requirement to invest in "A childcare/ECCE planning function, for monitoring, analysis and forecasting of investment needs, including identification of regional priorities" and "The provision of childcare facilities and new and refurbished schools on well-located sites within or close to existing built-up areas, that meet the diverse needs of local populations". The childcare committees should be feeding into that and the Senator has highlighted that.
The national planning framework policy approach sets out that the provision of childcare facilities should be planned to meet needs. In this regard, the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth monitors early learning and childcare capacity on an ongoing basis, with a particular focus on responding to the unmet early learning and childcare needs of families. The Department also liaises with the city and county childcare committees to match children and families with vacant places and national development plan funding has been allocated to that Department to provide new places.Officials from the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage are also currently engaging with officials from the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth with regard to the need to update the current section 28, Childcare Facilities: Guidelines for Planning Authorities to support this policy. My Department is taking this very seriously.
The 2001 guidelines for planning authorities relating to childcare facilities were issued in 2001 by the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage under section 28 of the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended, to provide a framework to guide both local authorities and developers in the consideration of planning applications with specific regard to the consideration of childcare facilities. Planning authorities and An Bord Pleanála are required to have regard to the guidelines in carrying out their functions. The guidelines are intended to ensure a consistency of approach to the treatment of applications in respect of the land use planning aspects of childcare provision for relevant planning applications, developers and childcare providers in formulating and considering development proposals.
Subsequently, the then Department of Environment, Community and Local Government issued Circular PL 03/2016 in March 2016 which, having regard to the extension of the ECCE scheme the Senator referenced and associated increased demands on childcare facilities with effect from September 2016, requested that planning authorities expedite all preplanning application consultation requests from childcare facility providers with regard to proposals to extend opening hours to increase capacity or to provide new facilities and expedite, insofar as is possible, consideration of all planning applications or section 5 declaration submissions in respect of childcare facilities to facilitate the expansion of required capacity as appropriate.
This circular also requested that planning authorities exclude matters relating to childcare facility standards outlined in appendix 1 of the Childcare Facilities Planning Guidelines 2001, including the minimum floor area requirements per child, from their consideration of planning applications relating to childcare facilities, and to solely focus on planning related considerations that fall within the remit of the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended, in the determination of such planning applications.
In light of the policy approach set out within the NPF and more recent policy developments with regard to the provision of childcare, an interdepartmental meeting was held in 2022 to discuss the review of the 2001 guidelines and further engagement has taken place more recently. It is a matter on which I will follow up. It has been agreed between the Departments that, in the first instance, feedback will be required from planning authorities as part of this review, and steps are currently being taken to engage with these key stakeholders.
On foot of this ongoing engagement, the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth has been included in the updated list of prescribed bodies that need to be notified on certain planning matters, including the formulation of county and city development plans and local area plans. I will undertake to keep the review that is under way with the local authorities and the interdepartmental group as a priority. I will take a personal interest in this as it falls within my remit as Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage with responsibility for planning.
I thank the Minister of State. I am aware of that review and I am glad it is happening. There is a reason I am pitching this to him. I pointed out why the guidelines are not delivering and that they are not working. In the same way we do with social housing, we need to take a Part V approach when it comes to childcare.
A childcare facility should be mandatory in a new development and in an area that needs childcare. It should be agreed before commencement. During the preplanning stage, childcare facilities similar to approved housing bodies could express their interest and work with local authorities and developers on the type of childcare facility that is required in that area. If private suppliers are not available to do it, and the Minister said there will be a future dedicated agency for childcare, the State should step in and acquire and run those facilities as community childcare with the assistance of the committees on the ground. That would bridge the gap we have between planning and provision. The local authorities are up for this. They do not want to battle with builders to do this. The Part V approach would close that gap.
I thank the Senator once again for raising this important matter. She has identified the issues. In her view, it is now about process. A review is currently under way of the planning guidelines for childcare facilities. Second, officials from my Department and the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth are engaging in updating the section 28 Childcare Facilities: Guidelines for Planning Authorities with feedback from the individual local authorities. Regarding the point the Senator raised on section 5, it is considered part of this review process. It is hugely important for parents to have adequate childcare facilities in their own areas. People are under enormous pressure in their daily lives. Ideally, they want childcare facilities within walking distance of where they live. That should be the objective, as well as people being able to live and rear their families in their own locality. The Senator raised an important point. I will feed it into the review group and I will take a direct interest in the planning aspect.