To Vote or Not to Vote? That is The Question!
Last week, for the first time in my newly adopted country, I voted in the local elections, and it felt good.
Having lived here in the Netherlands for nearly two years, I have made a great effort to try and understand the people of this great nation and integrate as fully as possible.
I shop locally and support local business. I pay my taxes to the Dutch government. I attend concerts and other cultural events. I try my best to speak the language, even though I fail miserably! I do not own a car and so cycle everywhere on my electric bike, complete with the two paniers on the back. I drink tea now without milk. I sit out on the terraces drinking coffee in the middle of winter with a blanket over my knees, feeling like the Queen! And yes, I long for the beginning of March when the ice-cream shops open again as the sun breaks forth and we can allow ourselves that sweet treat in the afternoon, well at least once a week… Some friends even comment that I look Dutch! Whatever next?
The one thing that has eluded me however, is a deep understanding of Dutch politics.
As a keen follower of UK politics for most of my adult life, it is this lack of knowledge which perhaps frustrates me the most. The UK, with its relatively simple first past the post system is made all the easier by the dominance of the two main parties — Labour and Conservative. Yes, we may vote for different parties in local elections, but at national elections, it is these two big parties which tend to dominate the conversation.
Welcome now to the Netherlands where last week in the local elections, I was faced with choosing between no fewer than eighteen different parties. The choice was further complicated by to choose the individual candidate from your chosen party, a requirement I had not fully comprehended before entering the voting booth…
When my voting card landed on my doorstep a couple of weeks ago, I was surprised to learn that through my dual Irish and UK citizenship, I was eligible to vote in local elections.
Which party should I vote for? Where does one go to find information?
Well in my case, I sought advice from a neighbour.
One of the many benefits of living in a tall tower in the centre of a thriving, international city, is the amazing richness of residents at hand to ask the most mundane questions, or engage in the most intellectually inspiring conversations; all when putting out the rubbish at eight o’clock in the evening!
A visit to my friend Ellie was on the cards.
So, one Tuesday evening, after putting out the rubbish, we sat and discussed the intricacies of the Dutch political system, and I learnt quite a lot.
The Gemeente — the local council — kindly provides a questionnaire, complete with a sliding scale for you to indicate your agreement (or not) with each individual issue. Issues such as:
· Support for the building of a local mosque — even though planning permission was granted by the council five years ago
· Waste collection frequency
· Use of camera surveillance in the city
· Extension of the pedestrian area in the city
· Extension of neighbourhood watch schemes
· Introduction of a local ban on fireworks
· Possible introduction of a 30km/h speed limit in built up areas
· Development of green field areas by building houses on areas of natural beauty
· Construction of windmills in built up areas
· Support for the purchase of houses as the sole primary residence as opposed to purchase for the rental market
· Solar parks in town
· Should the council build more social housing instead of allowing housing for private ownership
Housing is my number one issue: increased social housing for first time buyers and those struggling to get onto the housing ladder; increased private housing for families; and increased rental accommodation for the vast array of people coming to work in East Netherlands, whether as an expat or indeed those choosing to relocate for the long-term.
The dearth of appropriate properties in this last category is one I know only too well. It is virtually impossible to find suitable and appropriate rental accommodation for families in East Netherlands. A quick search on Funda, the Dutch house-hunting website, shows an abundance of three-bedroom properties available in the west of the country in cities such as Amsterdam, Utrecht, The Hague and Rotterdam, however, turn your search to the east, and the picture could not be more different. A recent search brought up just three properties in the whole of the Enschede region; all properties were totally unsuitable for a family with teenage children who all play brass instruments! Yes, you have to pay much more for properties in the west, but at least there is availability.
There is some national recognition of this housing shortage by the new housing minister Hugo de Jonge, and it seems the Dutch government are upping the pace of building however, this needs to matched by local government investment and a deep understanding of the many complexities at hand.
It is not just families who require suitable houses, but also as student numbers continue to rise in many Dutch universities, increasing numbers of students are left homeless at the beginning of terms, and universities resort to making pleas to local residents to help ease the problem.
I am not sure I have the answer to all, or even any of the above, but I do know that if a city chooses to move forward in an outward looking manner and actively attract international business and students to the region, then the infra-structure and housing has to be in place to meet the demand. It is not good enough to say, this is all we have — take it or leave it because many highly innovative, entrepreneurial individuals and families, who could bring such diversity and wealth to the region, will simply choose to move on, or refuse to come in the first place, taking their industry elsewhere.
So, I have high hopes for new elected local governments across the country. Only time will tell if they are up to the task of solving this current housing crisis and retaining the trust of the local populations.
Friends tell me that if you don’t vote, you can’t complain. Well, I did vote, and I did use this opportunity to have my say. Let us hope that I am not given too much cause to complain!