Not playing fair
Maria Pepper discovers it's no fun running a children's play centre as crippling insurance costs mean such facilities could soon be a thing of the past in County Wexford
Astronomical insurance costs are threatening the future of children's play centres in County Wexford which may soon be a thing of the past unless exorbitant premiums are brought under control.
Local play centre owners have gone public to raise awareness of an issue which is affecting premises throughout the country, with six businesses having closed down recently.
'It has accelerated very quickly in the last two to three years', said Liz Maloney of Playzone in Clonard which is paying €19,000 a year for insurance, with Leisure Max in Drinagh forking out €42,000 in annual insurance costs.
'Our insurance has gone up 370% since we opened in 2007. On top of that we have to pay €13,000 a year in commercial rates', said Liz.
Aileen O'Connor, proprietor of Leisure Max which opened 11 years ago, revealed that the business pays €28,000 a year in rates to Wexford County Council on top of the €42,000 insurance premium.
'That's before your rent, your yearly maintenance, lighting, water and bins. We're getting nothing for the rates', added Fiona Ryan, a director at Playzone.
Play centres have not increased their admission price with Liz Maloney pointing out that Playzone reduced theirs from €7.50 to €6 during the recession and have not put it up since then.
Spiralling insurance costs are a reality across the board in Ireland, according to Aileen and it's not just play centres but hotels, restaurants and retail premises as well.
'If two children accidently bang heads in a play centre nowadays, the next thing you'll see is someone taking out a phone and taking a photograph. That's the way it's gone', said Aileen of the widespread claim culture.
'It's the claims culture in Ireland and the pay-outs are far in excess of those in the UK', commented Karl Fleming, the owner and director of Pirate's Cove in Courtown which incorporates a play centre as well as other activities.
The insurance premiums at Pirate's Cove cost more than €1,000 a week and if they keep going up, it will become unviable to operate, according to Karl. 'The cost of insurance is spiralling and it's hampering business. It's a huge cost that is not proportionate to the rest of your running costs'', he said. Pirate's Cove which has been open since 1990, obtains its insurance cover from an Australian company.
Not only is cost a factor in insurance for activity centres, obtaining a quotation is becoming more and more difficult, with renewal dates a particularly stressful time for owners.
Only two companies are offering insurance for such premises in the Irish market - Strata in Australia and Leisure Insurance in the UK.
'There is no-one willing to insure. No Irish companies are insuring', said Liz. 'Leisure Insurance considers Ireland to be toxic because every claim is three times the amount awarded in the UK courts'.
'You're going from year to year. We breath a sigh of relief when we get our insurance and then it starts building up again as the renewal time comes around.'
'For about six weeks before it is due, you are very anxious. There is the fear that they won't quote you or it will be too much'.
She said play centres provide a valuable service which is easily overlooked. 'It's a business but it's community based. Members of the Autism Network use our premises, Tusla uses the centre here for supervised visits, also the Women's Refuge, St. Patrick's Special School in Enniscorthy and Our Lady of Fatima School'. Aileen said the same is true of her centre in Drinagh which is also patronised by GAA, soccer and swimming clubs for teaming building activities, and is also a popular venue for birthday parties.
'Children are living in such a controlled environment that they need this kind of activity more than ever. Otherwise, they are up in their rooms on the X-Box', said Aileen.
'We ran an exercise boot camp for children for 11 years. Because of the nature of it, it was high energy with a lot of running around. We stopped it because of the risk of injury, we got too nervous about it', said Liz.
Play centres also offer an outlet for tourists and holidaymakers, especially in Wexford which is regarded as a family destination, and are a popular choice 'on rainy days in Curracloe' as Liz put it.
They open seven days a week and provide valuable employment with Leisure Max employing 42 people and Playzone 12 staff.
'All our staff are trained in first aid and all are encouraged to do courses related to health and safety and child welfare. Four staff members are doing childcare in college', said Liz, adding that many of the 80 activity centre businesses around Ireland are family-run.
Six play centres have closed down since January because they could not obtain a quotation or the quote they did receive was excessive.
One of them was the Adventure Playbarn in New Ross which shut its doors a few weeks ago with former owner Roz Walshe citing an extraordinarily expensive insurance premium just before the New Year as the reason for her decision to close what she described as a solid business with great potential
Ms. Walsh complained that last year the insurance bill went up 70% and this year, the increase was 100%. Her insurance brokers tried 15 different insurance companies without success.
Liz Maloney said play centres are not a high profit business but 'it is our livelihood'.
Aileen said there is a fear factor in the community generally in relation to insurance claims. 'It's not just us. It's all businesses. Common sense has to come back into it. We want people to know what's going on.'
'The risk of injury in play centres is very low but accidents happen. Someone can fall in your back garden while they are playing', said Fiona.
'We are only a facility. We are not a creche. We facilitate children to play', added Liz.
Play Centres and Activity Ireland Ireland of which Leisure Max and the Playbarn are members, has launched a campaign for insurance reform and is due to hold a special meeting on the issue in Tullamore on February 26.
In Wexford, Liz, Fiona and Aileen have met with Deputy Michael D'Arcy, Minister of State at the Department of Finance and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform with special responsibility for Financial Services and Insurance, and the Labour leader Brendan Howlin to lobby for their support in highlighting the issue.'If it keeps going the way it is, more centres will close', said Fiona, 'and children will be left sitting in their bedrooms online talking to strangers', added Liz.