FUTURE demand for a popular type of childcare provision could outstrip supply in Darlington in the coming years as concerns mount that providers are under increasing financial pressure.

A report to Darlington Borough Council’s children and young people scrutiny committee states several settings in the borough have reported that their operating costs are higher than funding rates.

Since 2017 every local authority in England has had a statutory duty to ensure a sufficiency of 30 hours early education and childcare places for eligible three and four-year-olds.

The findings follow the government freezing the rates it pays childcare providers to offer qualifying parents agreed hours of “free” government-funded care until 2020, leaving nurseries and childminders facing paying for higher wage bills and a real-terms funding cut.

The council’s latest research with parents has shown that there is latent demand for childcare in the borough with cost being the main barrier to higher take up of private hours.

Some 59 per cent of families with a total household income of less than £20,000 said cost was a barrier, falling to 50 per cent with income up to £39,999 and 31 per cent with household incomes of £60,0000-plus.

It also found parents would welcome more flexibility to accommodate their often-complex mix of work and training commitments, including earlier starts, later finishes and the ability to change arrangements at short notice. Lack of early start and late finish times were a barrier for one in ten parents.

Analysis of the overall supply of childcare places shows there is sufficient capacity to meet demand, but when the mix of supply is compared to parents’ ideal arrangements there are modest gaps in school and pre-school playgroup provision.

The report to the committee states parent and provider feedback also suggests there is sufficient capacity to meet overall demand for 30-hour places. But it added: “There is a risk however, that future demand for stretched places [where childcare is provided over 52 weeks a year rather than 38] may be higher than supply.

“Some settings have also reported that financial pressures are impacting on their capacity to meet children’s special educational needs and disabilities.”

The report details how there are significantly fewer registered and active childminders in the borough, with the number dropping from 140 in March 2008 to just 80 in August.

Officers said as well as the recession, the change in Ofsted registration procedures may have had an effect.

The committee will also hear employers in the borough are also calling for greater flexibility and lower childcare costs. The report states: “There is evidence to suggest that childcare issues are impacting on employers’ ability to recruit and retain staff and manage effective performance at work.”