Complementing political family tradition, Fainna Fáil Councillor, Aengus O’Rourke, was elected to serve the role Westmeath County Council Cathaoirleach at the local authority’s AGM this week.
Noting his pride as he accepted the Mayoral chain from outgoing Cathaoirleach, Cllr Frankie Keena, Cllr O’Rourke, stated that his late grandfather, PJ Lenihan, had served the role in 1952 and he was “now immensely proud to follow in his footsteps.”
Looking towards his term of office, Cllr O’Rourke, stressed that there was much to deliver and working cohesively as elected representatives would ensure that planned development projects are realised.
“There will be difficult decisions to make, and there are, undoubtedly, tricky times ahead. So many international factors are impacting our economy at this time resulting in a cost-of-living crisis which is impacting severely on every household. In this context I want to lay out my stall. I will not be supporting an increase in the Local Property Tax for 2023, I didn’t support one for 2021, or 2022 and I won’t be supporting it in September. We can and will deliver the services that people have become accustomed to, I have every faith in our Director of Finance and the members formalising a budget that doesn’t require us to increase taxes.
“The main issue we must address as a local authority of course is housing. While we have made strides in recent years and our pipeline on paper is healthy, in reality delivery is slow and uncertain. I would urge our housing section to redouble all possible efforts to tackle this crisis. We can and should be doing more to drive the ‘affordability’ agenda – give people hope, provide real options for working people who are caught in the cruel housing trap - paying excessive rents unable to save or move on.
“We are presiding over a complicated, fragmented, half-baked social housing model, not of our making. Many of the social housing options that we are explaining to constituents are simply not fit for purpose. I agree with the sentiments expressed by our President - we have failed the people in terms of housing, there is simply no other way to describe it. I have said this myself in this chamber on numerous occasions.
“I wish to see this council engage an outside professional agency to undertake a root and branch review of our housing needs and delivery in Westmeath. Taking in private, social, affordable and also examining our housing delivery plans and needs going forward for the next 10 years. ‘Housing for All’ is a good document, but this county has its own very specific needs, one size does not fit all. We need our own plan, our own specific targets and goals derived from real time statistics relevant to the towns and villages of this county. If we know exactly the housing need by profile, by village and town, by demand levels across Westmeath we can better plan for the future,” Cllr O’Rourke asserted.
The Cathaoirleach lauded the impact of community organisations within the county who work on a voluntary basis for the betterment of the county regularly liaising with the local authority with proactive and positive engagement.
“I want to compliment the community section of this council. I have seen first hand as we all have, the proactive and positive engagement there is on a daily basis with the many voluntary groups and residents’ associations across the county. The groups I am talking about are the blood in the veins of this county and they deserve and will continue to get our full support. The PPN has been a hugely successful link between these groups and the local authority. I will continue to work, to ensure that we further strengthen and deepen these all-important links.
“I am aware as you are too, of a number of key positions across the council becoming vacant in recent times. Transportation for example - there are a large number of vacancies and certain projects are hampered in this department as a result. I would urge the CEO and management team to redouble their efforts to fill any vacancies to ensure our plans and projects are hitting the ground without delay,” Cllr O’Rourke remarked.
Concluding, the Cathaoirleach expressed his hope for a productive term of office “delivering for our towns, delivering for our villages and, ultimately, delivering for the citizens of Westmeath.”