Wednesday 15 February 2012

Void deck centres 'benefit public', make services accessible

Communal services located in these spaces more accessible to residents, say volunteers
By Shuli Sudderuddin & Tay Suan Chiang, The Straits Times, 13 Feb 2012

Voids decks have become a hot topic following the recent petition against a day-care centre for the elderly in Woodlands.

Yet, despite the controversy, voluntary welfare groups which have set up shop in these communal spaces say there are distinct benefits.

For a start, it helps them to be more accessible to the community. Some can even pay three to five times less in overhead costs.

Mr Alfred Tan, executive director of the Singapore Children's Society, said the voluntary group started opening branches in Housing Board void decks in the 1980s in a conscious decision to get closer to its beneficiaries, and because it is cheaper.

'Some of our centres are located in void decks where there are lots of youngsters hanging around, so it makes them more effective drop-in centres,' he said. 'It is more accessible to young people and has a more homely environment.'

Mr Tan added that the Children's Society, which has six of its 10 centres in void decks, would easily have to pay four or five times more to set up in a commercial building.

Ms Joyce Lye, 60, founder of Kampung Senang Charity and Education Foundation, runs a day-care centre for the elderly in Tampines. She said having the centre at a void deck allowed her group to ask the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS) for subsidised rent.

On private property, it would pay up to $4,000 a month. Ms Lye declined to reveal how much the centre actually pays, but said it is one-third of the market rate. She added that the rent has not changed since the centre was set up 13 years ago.

Over in Dover Crescent, the Association of Women for Action and Research has its offices, helpline centre, research centre and counselling rooms in a 2,500 sq ft void deck facility in Block 5. Executive director Corinna Lim said its previous centre in Race Course Road was not as accessible.

The HDB said social communal premises at void decks are often set up by voluntary groups with support from the relevant supervising ministries. They offer non-profit social and communal services such as childcare facilities and senior activity centres.

Currently, more than 230 voluntary groups and non-profit organisations operate about 640 social communal premises at HDB void decks. The HDB charges them about $1.50 or $4.50 per sq m in rent, depending on whether they are building their own premises. The rates have remained constant over the past decade.

The MCYS said many centres are located at void decks as they serve the immediate community, and the location is convenient and makes them accessible. It plans locations for these programmes and examines proposals from those asking to set up centres at void decks.

A spokesman said: 'We will take into consideration the profiles and needs of the residents in the community and the demand for such services.'

Commercial enterprises for the community are also interested in using void decks, although they are charged commercial rates. Cherie Hearts kindergarten has 12 void deck centres and has moved into the heartland since 2004.

The Straits Times visited two estates with many social communal facilities at void decks. Residents and operators said the facilities have been integrated into the neighbourhoods for a long time.

Mrs Grace Ng, principal of the PAP Community Foundation education centre at Block 112 of Ang Mo Kio's Kebun Baru estate, said she has seen babies from the block grow into toddlers and eventually attend school.

Dover Crescent has about five such facilities within four blocks. Resident Yong Fui Hean, 38, sends his four-year-old son and six-year-old daughter to the childcare centre in Block 3. The business owner said: 'I think having these facilities nearby makes it very convenient for those who need to use them. Protesting against having them is selfish.'

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