By ALEC SMART
Opposite Leichardt Oval, the former home ground of Balmain Tigers Rugby League Club, now the merged Wests Tigers, construction on a childcare centre began in 2015. Comprising of multiple classrooms and three partitioned play zones, the building work was finally completed in 2018.
The premises, consisting of citrus trees, sand pits, an old-fashioned waterpump, sunshades, meandering paths and rooms with craft tables, play equipment and a teepee, is remarkably clean. In fact, to misquote comedian John Cleese in Monty Python’s infamous ‘Cheese Shop’ sketch, it’s certainly uncontaminated with children.
Unlike the Leichardt Oval opposite, which is the most played-on professional rugby league ground in the National Rugby League competition (794 games since 1934), the nursery has never thundered with the sound of little feet running across its playgrounds and classroom floors.
Several parents, whose children play on swings and climbing frames in the neighbouring kids’ park, are puzzled as to why they’re unable to register their kids at this pristine nursery, which remains locked and lifeless.
Alexandria of Lilyfield summed up the collective dismay. “I remember hearing it was supposed to open in 2016. I wanted to enroll my daughter Harriette, who was born in 2015, here when she was younger. I rang Leichardt Council several times to enquire but they just said, ‘We don’t know what’s happening with it.’ I ended up enrolling Harriette in another daycare centre further away.
“Now my son Angus, 11 months, is almost ready to start attending daycare, but seeing it is still unopened I might have to take him somewhere else too.”
Leichardt Ward Councillor Marghanita Da Cruz told City Hub, “It was a resolution of council in June 2018 to proceed with the Leichhardt Park and Steel Park Childcare centres and staff are currently being recruited and the centre is seeking accreditation.
“Quality childcare services were a core function at Leichhardt Council and continue to be so with the Inner West Council. Childcare and Aged care are a significant employer in my ward..”
But Balmain Ward Councillor John Stamolis says the Council has delayed opening the centre for so long, peak demand for childcare services has passed.
“The centre was a 2012 election commitment from Leichhardt Council. Council promised to build two childcare centres but after a Council report showed low demand, this was cut back to one.
“Council missed the baby boom by years. Parents were screaming at us to do something from 2007 as demand was reaching peak levels. Then, in 2015, five years after the actual peak of the baby boom (which occurred in 2010), Council started building the centre.
“Meanwhile, a number of other operators had filled the gap. As such, Council knew that our centre wasn’t really needed, but proceeded anyway.”
A spokesperson for the Inner West Council responded, “Construction of the new Mary Street Lilyfield childcare centre in Leichardt Park was completed in mid-2018. Staff recruitment has been underway since September/October. It is anticipated the service will be operational from February 2019.
“Council recently re-resolved that the Lilyfield childcare centre would be Council owned and operated. The Centre has been built with an eye to a possible future conversion into an after school care facility if the demand shifts as local children grow.”
But Cllr Stamolis is sceptical the centre will be financially viable, given that a large proportion of young children in the area are no longer of pre-school age, and there is a general decline in the birth rate across the region.
“Over the years, how many times did we hear the party politicians say, ‘We have the biggest baby boom in Sydney here in our own back yard so we need this childcare centre.’
“In essence, Council missed the baby boom, it ignored its own report which recommended that a new centre was not needed, it took no notice of the increasing number of childcare operators coming into the area (even though Council was approving these), it dismissed resident concerns and it has still failed to open the new centre yet and 2019 is about to begin. So, why, after commencing the works in early 2015 wasn’t it opened in late 2016 or early 2017? Why is it still unused now in late 2018, especially when Council is trying to up the reasons for building the centre?”
The spokesperson for the Inner West Council is adamant the centre will be a success when it opens. “There is always a waiting list for Council childcare places. Meeting the needs of our residents remains a key priority for the new Council as it was for the former Leichardt, Ashfield and Marrickville Councils.”
Meanwhile, the centre lies dormant, and the parents in the adjacent park are preparing to enrol their kids in other childcare facilities elsewhere, because they’re not able to rely on Mary Street being open when their children need it.
Like a Tigers fan longing for Grand Final glory, the centre may have to settle down and wait a long time for another baby boom to fill its playground with children.