With less than 4 weeks left to polling day it is likely that voters will be faced with ballot papers as long as their arms. The local elections have certainly motivated many people to run and the field is well over 1,800 at this stage with more candidates to come.
The political landscape is fluid. The Government parties are struggling in the polls and it is expected that they will lose a considerable number of seats. Those candidates running under the Fine Gael and Labour banners need to carve out a very clear message to stand any chance and to be fair most have. In a sense they must present themselves as being almost different from their party. In many respects Fianna Fail face the same problem. My experience of canvassing has been that people lump Fianna Fail in with Fine Gael and Labour. People have not forgiven them for the economic mess. That said I expect incumbent Fianna Fail Councillors to be re-elected however new Fianna Fail candidates may struggle.The big winner could well be Sinn Fein who have tapped into the discontent with the present Government parties.
The other big winners may be the smaller parties and Independents. While it is expected that both will make gains at the expense of the established parties it is not a foregone conclusion. In my view there are a number of issues that voters should consider before voting for an Independent or fringe party:
1) What do they stand for? It’s all well and good to call for ‘change’ and to be a ‘new voice’ however where is the substance behind the slogan? Candidates need to lay out exactly what they want to achieve over five years on the Council. It’s also important that the policies they espouse are both realistic and achievable. If candidates are elected on promises that cannot be delivered on essentially they are no different from the parties they want to replace.
2) Local Authority Finances: In my opinion this should be the critical issue for this election. For example Fingal will see 40 members elected to essentially manage the annual budget for 5 years. That is a budget of over €1 Billion. Proper management of this budget and ensuring value for money for taxpayers is absolutely core. The next Council members must go through each budget item line by line and ask why we are spending this and are we getting value for money. Councillors should act like the Public Account Committee and ensure the scarce resources we have are used properly.
3) Sustainable and Community Based Development: While blaming developers and the banks for the construction crash is absolutely justified Local Authorities must also take some of the blame. The next five years offers Local Authorities the opportunity to address this and to make amends. Councillors must become watch dogs and ensure that planning is community based and that no development occurs without provision being made for facilities such as schools. Lack of school places is a direct result of poor planning. At all stages communities need to be consulted.
In my view Local Authorities need people with the right level of experience and with clear policy objectives. It has to be more than just good intentions and promises that may sound great but cannot be delivered on. People are rightly cynical about politics and politicians, let this be the election where those candidates who have set out a clear and realistic set of goals are elected.