Sunday, 26 February 2017

Quango scare story must not put us off honouring our local heroes - my Catholic Universe column

You have no idea, dear reader, of the journalistic bullet you have dodged in reading my column this week.

For probably the first time in my life the profession in which I studied and gained qualifications is relevant and I was, until I sat down to write this column, going to to stun you with my knowledge of obscure legislation in order to make the point that the media should indeed turn its attention a little more often to one of the largest burdens facing business in Britain today.

I am talking about our system, to give it it’s proper name, of Non-Domestic Rating; Business Rates to you and me and it’s associated domestic sibling, Council Tax.

Now I worked in the field of local government revenue collection for the best part of twenty years and I literally have forgotten more about it than most of us ever pretend to know. In fairness my memory isn’t what it once was and I am the first to concede it isn’t all that impressive a claim.

Nevertheless, I am sure that none of you will have missed that a Business Rates revaluation is due to come into force on the 1 April and virtually the whole media is railing against the potential damage that it could do to our high streets. For the first time ever my profession is current.

I was going to regale you with the inequity of the business rates system. To tell you that yes, some businesses see massive increases to their rates whilst others see reductions. 

I was going to shock you in the fact that the transition scheme introduced to protect taxpayers from excessive increases is directly funded from taxpayers with significant reductions, that if your rates should have gone down you may never in actual fact feel the full benefit because you are protecting others from increases.

And most of all I was going to tell the current furore over business rates is mainly caused by the scheduled five yearly revaluation having been delayed for two years and posit the question that if this is what it’s like with a revaluation after just seven years what disaster is there going to be when the government finally gets round to revaluing domestic properties after nearly thirty years. It will be chaotic.

I was going to say all of that in even greater depth than I already have. Just imagine how relevant albeit boring it would have been. I was going to do that right up until the minute that I started getting in the mind set to write by flicking through my newspaper and you, dear reader, dodged my journalistic bullet.

You see there was a story in the newspaper which caused my normal placid self to rage, something which I care passionately about and I venture that others may too. Let me explain.

Nearly thirty years ago now, back in 1991, a young girl in my town called Ruth Langham heard about the plight of orphans who to all intents and purposes had been left to rot in run down orphanages in Nicolae Ceausescu’s Romania.

Ruth was visibly moved by the story and like many girls in their late teens and early twenties pledged to do something about it. The big difference was that unlike many girls Ruth actually did.

Ruth worked with children and decided to go to Romania, with the support of her family, to do whatever she could to help the desperate ones she had seen on television.

When Ruth arrived in the country she met eighteen month old twins Dumitru and Ion. The brothers had been born with cleft palates and learning difficulties and Dumitru in particular was in need of an operation.

Ruth arranged for the operation and begun plans to adopt the boys, a pair of infants with complex needs who may otherwise have been left in an institution.

Ruth and her family set up a charity and raised funds to help other Romanian orphans. I doubt that there was anyone in my town who didn’t know her or the amazing things that she had done. She had helped so many people and had become a mum to two children who may well have never known the love that she gave them if she hadn’t done what she did.

Ruth was a real life hero and then she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She fought the disease and saw her two sons become young men but then in 2013, aged just 42, she lost her battle.

Of course I knew of Ruth’s remarkable story and resolved to commemorate her memory in the only way as a councillor that I knew how.

I wrote to Ruth’s parents and asked for their and the twins permission to request that a street be name after her as a permanent memorial to her memory and the role that she had played in our community. 

Ruth’s family kindly agreed and now I am very proud to say that my town contains Ruth Langham Court, a small but lasting token to her memory.

It’s often said that to all but our immediate families the legacies that we leave are forgotten within just two or three generations. I firmly believe that for those who make notable contributions to our towns and villages there is no greater honour than dedicating permanent memorials. To my mind at least it certainly beats a developer concocting some ludicrous name to make an edge of town estate seem somehow idyllic.

So you can imagine my anger when I sat down to write this morning to read a story in The Daily Telegraph entitled ‘Streets should not be named after local heroes in case the are later found to be paedophiles, councils told’.

The story outlines how Geoplace, a government quango responsible for the National Land and Property Gazeteer, supported by a spokesman from the Local Government Association have issued guidelines to local councils that places should not be named after individuals in case they are subsequently linked to ‘inappropriate activities’.

The numerous stories that you will find in the media all cite the many sites named in memory of Jimmy Savile which have since been renamed after the revelations concerning his predatory behaviour with young children.

The stories go on to cite the cost to the taxpayer when names have had to be changed.

But I have a message for those civil servants at Geoplace or members of the Local Government Association or indeed councils. The vast, vast majority of those honoured for notable works are not paedophiles but remarkable, inspirational people who have made our communities richer in many, many ways. They deserve to be recognised and we have a duty to make sure their contributions affect future generations.

It is probably fair to say that it is difficult for me to be anti-establishment when by most definitions I am part of the establishment itself. Being a councillor, a writer, a charity trustee does the sort of thing to you.

But every now and then you hear a story which makes your blood boil and this is one.

How can you let the perversions of one man overshadow the amazing work of not just of Ruth Langham but the countless other people memorialised up and down the country for the works they have done or in many cases the lives that they have given.

No, on this one the quangos must be put back in their boxes, the right to honour people should not be removed.

The good news is, the Telegraph reports, that Marcus Jones, the Minister for Local Government is against the guidance but these type of guidelines have a funny way of being adopted by local government, usually in the name of ‘best practice’.

It’s not very often that I urged you, dear reader, to take action but for once please do. Write to you local MP and local councillor and demand that these silly guidelines are given the due consideration that they deserve. 

I would hate it if the next time a councillor proposed naming a street after a fallen soldier they were told ‘it’s not allowed we’ll call it Hedgehog Grove instead’.

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