Esther Trijono must make 30-minute round trips by car to drop off or collect her son from his creche on the other side of west Dublin.
When she was looking for childcare for her two-year-old son Louis a year ago, she was told by creches closer to her home there would be no available places until 2025.
With older son Jack in school nearer to home, Esther says the logistics of juggling drop-offs and collections can “be a bit of a struggle”.
It is frustrating for her, then, that there is a vacant creche unit built as part of the housing estate where the family live that has not opened yet.
The creche unit has been empty since it was completed in 2021, despite being actively marketed for sale.
A spokesman for the developers, Castlethorn, said it was in the company’s interest to have it sold and the unit recently went sale agreed with an asking price of about €340,000.
“We’d be delighted to see it open as soon as possible,” he said.
Delays in opening of earmarked creches in new housing developments are not unique to west Dublin, despite the shortage of creches and childcare places.
While politicians are seeking an overhaul of the planning guidelines, childcare providers have cited concerns about the cost of purchasing and kitting out vacant units among the reasons why they are being left empty.
In some instances, the delivery of creche units are put off until later phases of a housing development. There are also cases where developers have sought planning permission to change childcare units to housing.
Esther says the staff at the creche Louis attends are “lovely” and the family “lucked out” in finding a place there, but a childcare place closer to home would “absolutely” make life easier.
Her experience of difficulty finding childcare will be familiar to many parents elsewhere in Dublin, the commuter belt and other cities.
Across the country just over half (51 per cent) of childcare services surveyed by Pobal, the State agency that delivers funding for childcare services, reported that they had vacant places over a period of a year spanning 2022 and 2023. Almost half, 48 per cent, reported that they had waiting lists.
In Dublin some 45 per cent had vacancies but almost 60 per cent had waiting lists at least in some age groups.
A number of explanations have been put forward as to the cause of the squeeze on childcare capacity in some places.
They range from increased State subsidies to help parents with the costs bringing increased demand, to the requirement for more workers – and the difficulty finding them – to look after babies for whom higher staff-to-child ratios apply.
Fine Gael senator Emer Currie, who is based in west Dublin, believes delays in the opening of creches built within large housing developments is another factor contributing to a shortage of childcare places.
She is calling for an overhaul of planning guidelines for childcare facilities that were drawn up over two decades ago.
Under the 2001 guidelines, planning authorities should require the provision of at least one childcare facility in new, larger housing developments. The suggested ratio is one 20-place childcare facility per 75 dwellings.
The guidelines say that the facility should be provided “unless there are significant reasons to the contrary – for example, development consisting of single bed apartments or where there are adequate childcare facilities in adjoining developments.”
Ms Currie has trawled planning applications in Dublin West, the constituency where she is based, over the last five to 10 years for instances where the guidelines would apply and the childcare facilities have been built. She said she found that “only about half of them are open and operating”.
“Four are empty... five are occupied [by childcare providers],” she said.
“There is another that was supposed to be built by now but has been pushed back to a later phase of development.
“Parents are obviously frustrated that they can see the hoarding up saying this is a creche for sale or for rent and yet they can’t access childcare in an area.”
She says loopholes in the current guidelines “have to go”.
Her idea for an overhaul of childcare planning would see the introduction of a model similar to the so-called “Part V” system for providing social and affordable housing as part of housing estates being built by private developers.
She is proposing that the State “acquires these units and then can lease them back at an affordable cost to childcare providers”.
Frances Byrne, director of policy at Early Childcare Ireland (ECI), a representative body for 3,800 members providing childcare services, said the scale of the difficulties surrounding the delivery of creche units in new housing developments “depends on where you are”.
Early Childhood Ireland chief executive Theresa Heeney told an Oireachtas committee in November that the cost of purchase or lease was very often prohibitive. ‘It could be upwards of €1 million for just a shell,’ she said
She said the problems identified by Ms Currie would be common in Dublin and the commuter belt counties around the capital as well as in Cork, Galway and Limerick, but establishing creches in new housing developments may well be working elsewhere.
Ms Byrne said that a planned new single agency for early years and school age care needed a formal liaison mechanism with local authorities so that there was a shared planning oversight process.
Childcare providers also point to the difficulty of cost – vacant childcare units must be affordable.
Early Childhood Ireland chief executive Theresa Heeney told an Oireachtas committee in November that the cost of purchase or lease was very often prohibitive.
Among their suggestions was that new primary schools should be designed to incorporate preschool facilities. This ‘would be more sustainable for parents in allowing combined trips for young children; reducing stress for parents and traffic congestion’— Proposal by a subgroup of Dublin City Council's planning and urban form strategic policy committee
“It could be upwards of €1 million for just a shell,” she said.
Aside from the purchase cost, Elaine Dunne, chairwoman of the Federation of Early Childhood Providers, put the cost of kitting out empty childcare units to the required standard at as high as €250,000.
If a developer was building a creche unit, “it should be built to the full spec”, and if the capacity is below 50 children “that’s not really a viable business” even for the smaller childcare providers, she said.
One childcare provider that hopes to expand is Cherry Blossom Montessori in Castleknock, west Dublin.
Owner Fiona Bowe said her childcare service was “thriving” and completely full with a waiting list when she explored the possibility of opening another creche in recent years.
She considered two vacant units that were on the market in recently built housing developments, but found that buying was “just not achievable” as an individual childcare provider that was “not a mass corporate chain”.
This is because of the large costs involved in the work required to ensure the creche could open with enough child places to make it viable.
Ms Currie is not the only one suggesting changes to the planning guidelines on childcare. In 2022, Dublin City Council commissioned a report to review its role in supporting childcare provision.
A subgroup of the city council’s planning and urban form strategic policy committee examined the report and wrote to Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien and Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman expressing concern that the 2001 planning guidelines had not been updated. It requested a comprehensive review and new guidelines.
Among their suggestions was that new primary schools should be designed to incorporate preschool facilities.
This “would be more sustainable for parents in allowing combined trips for young children; reducing stress for parents and traffic congestion and would also provide the opportunity to increase creche provision in rapidly growing areas”, the group said.
They said that clear guidance was needed in the design of childcare facilities with a requirement for minimum standards and space requirements, including incorporating standards required by Tusla, the State agency that inspects creches.
The subgroup wanted the review to consider the most appropriate methodology for estimating demand for childcare in a given area.
“Too often cases are made by landowners that there is no demand in an area where councillors are informed of pressure by parents,” the group said.
They said the review should examine a decision to exclude schemes with a high number of one-bedroom units from the requirement to provide childcare.
“The presumption that all one-bed units are occupied only by single people/couples without children is inappropriate, particularly in a housing context where the price of both renting and buying locks young families into small-scale accommodation,” the group said.
A Department of Housing spokesman said there were plans under the Planning and Development Bill 2023 to replace guidelines on childcare provision from 2001 with new national planning statements.
Once the legislation is enacted, it is envisaged that there will be a public consultation as part of this process.
The spokesman said work already undertaken by the Departments of Housing and Children on reviewing the current childcare guidelines, including submissions received, will contribute towards the preparation of a National Planning Statement relating to childcare facilities.
A spokesman for the Department of Children said updated guidelines are expected to be finalised by late 2024 or early 2025.
It seems that issues with delivering childcare facilities in new housing developments are likely to be around for some time yet.