A Sydney council is investigating whether to privatise its childcare centres, reigniting concerns that local authorities are looking to exit the sector.
Hornsby mayor Steve Russell has announced that his council was reviewing its operation of four childcare facilities after an unnamed private operator made an offer to acquire them.
The announcement again focuses attention on the provision of affordable childcare services across Sydney and whether councils need to run them as a core service.
Up to 76 councils run childcare centres across NSW. Last year Blacktown Council attempted to sell its 21 long-day-care centres, which led to widespread protests from parents and unions. The council in the end decided against the sale but will review the future of the centres again next year.
Waverley mayor Sally Betts said a private operator, whom she declined to name, had approached her council to take over its childcare operations. She said the offer, made in the past six months, was rejected.
''I absolutely welcome any private childcare operators setting up in Waverley,'' she said.
''However, we need more services than simply someone taking over the status quo. Our council believes we have a moral obligation to provide affordable childcare. We are not convinced that a private operator would keep the pricing at our current costs.''
Hornsby Council announced the review of its childcare services this week. The council's four childcare centres are licensed to provide 198 places.
The council also will shortly need to make a decision about the construction of a new 72-place centre as part of the redevelopment of Asquith community centre, which is expected to cost more than $10 million.
Cr Russell said the review would benchmark its childcare services against the wider industry and any expressions of interest would need to be based on providing the same number of places for each age group, across the same spread of hours and days.
He said the single, unsolicited proposal from the private sector for the council's centres was untested and the council may wish to test the market through an open tender process.
''If free enterprise can do something better, then the question needs to be asked whether we should be involved,'' he said. ''It is a very competitive sector in our shire and we need to investigate if we need to be competing against them.
''Putting out the services for tender can be a worthwhile exercise. We did something similar with our swimming pools. It turned out the council itself was the best tender, but we achieved $1 million in savings through the process.''
United Services Union general secretary Graeme Kelly said staff and the community were concerned about the proposal. There are fears it will affect service quality, prices for parents, staffing levels, and result in fewer childcare options for local families.
Mr Kelly said that with 25 Sydney councils providing long-day-care facilities for local residents, there was a concern that the outcome at Hornsby could lead to more privatisations.