I am very pleased this morning to formally launch our programme for the Local Elections which will be held on the 24th of this month.
The campaign is well underway and we are competitive in every community the country.
We have 415 local candidates in all of which 87 are women – a number of which are running across Dublin.
We are continuously engaging with young people to encourage them to get involved in local politics. And on May 24th we have 152 new first-time candidates putting themselves forward for election.
During canvassing with our candidates I have been pleased with not just the reaction which we are getting but even more importantly with the time people are taking to talk about their concerns and what they want from their local councils.
They want to be proud of the communities they live in and want local services to be improved. A number of areas have become run down and people want this to change.
In very many communities there is a deep sense of disillusionment with a government which people see as obsessed with spin over substance and increasingly incapable of delivering vital plans.
The very heart of these failures impact on core elements of community life – which means that the direct link between national and local issues is stronger now than ever.
People are talking about the harsh reality of the housing emergency. Five years after it became obvious that housing pressures were under way, and two years after the Taoiseach announced that his housing plan was working, every aspect of housing policy is failing.
People with good jobs cannot afford to buy or rent. Others are being forced to accept lower and lower standards at a higher and higher cost.
And of course there is the profound scandal of over 10,000 homeless people in emergency accommodation, which does not including rough sleepers or those sleeping on the couches of family or friends because they have nowhere else to stay.
An important part of Fine Gael housing policy in recent years has been to try and blame local authorities for the failure to build houses – while the facts show that the critical blockage remains Government restrictions and inexplicable delays which are holding back well-planned and urgently-needed projects.
Local Authorities are only allowed spend €2 million on building houses locally and we believe this should be changed but the Fine Gael government are dragging their heels.
This should be initially increased to €6million so more houses can actually be built without having to go through numerous loop holes.
We have been proposing constructive proposals at national level for over five years and this will continue to be a priority for us.
In last year’s Budget we secured €310m to build affordable houses. We are committed to significantly increase investment for building affordable homes with a €2 billion fund over the next five years –this is a €1.7billion increase.
Ten Local Authorities have already submitted their plans for affordable housing to the Minister, but the procedures are still too onerous and slow.
Councils must be allowed to act faster and to be more ambitious in meeting the most urgent housing needs. They have delivered in the past and must be allowed to deliver again.
Another key issue which is being raised during canvassing is the lack of a sustained commitment to improving the quality of community life.
Throughout the country people are looking at a failure to plan or deliver local services, to properly look after communal spaces and to help people to feel secure. Anti-social behaviour is rampant, and people are afraid in their own communities.
We want to establish a €10 m Fund to tackle gang violence so that affected communities can be resourced to work against these gangs with Gardaí before they get completely out of control.
We have seen what happened in Drogheda recently when Garda numbers were left too low for too long and when gangs were allowed to get out of control.
Community safety must be addressed over the next five years and we believe drug task forces should be expanded and that community safety forums should be set up that involve local Gardaí and community groups.
Unfortunately, Fine Gael has abandoned the idea of community development as a national priority.
On their first day in office they abolished cabinet-level responsibility for community development and closed-down a range of highly-successful schemes which had made a huge impact particularly in disadvantaged communities.
In doing this they removed all incentive within the system to strategically plan community-level services across government and excluded the public from active participation.
And frankly the recent attempt to claim to be interested in the future of rural Ireland is as cynical and it is empty.
You cannot actively promote the closure of key services, the ending of key schemes and the withdrawal of essential policing and then turn around and claim you are putting rural Ireland first.
In contrast, we passionately believe in the value of community-level services and planning and it is a core objective for us that we both restore and develop the capacity of communities to access services and key facilities.
In recent years local democracy has been systemically weakened by Fine Gael and we now have one of the weakest systems of local government in Europe.
We want this to change.
Councillors with the backing of their communities should be able to decide where the income from the Local Property Tax is reinvested.
The whole concept of this tax was it was to improve local communities. So far there is little evidence of this.
We believe that Town Councils should be restored and directly elected mayors should be introduced.
All politics is local and people want strong and vocal councillors to protect and defend them.
All of our candidates are willing to do this for their areas.
That is why voting on May 24th is important.