Month: June 2006

Council tax martyr or is there more to it?

The press today is full of stories about Josephine Rooney, a Derby pensioner who decided to go to prison rather than pay her council tax. She argues that because Derby City Council isn’t fulfilling its obligations to her street she won’t pay her tax until they do. Sounds fair enough, but knowing a bit about her I thought it was worth fleshing out the story a bit.

Josephine Rooney is quite right when she says that her street is neglected. Hartington Street in Derby is a beautiful street, with some very attractive buildings and as a result of its architectural importance has been a conservation area for some years. This picture gives you some idea of how it once looked. But despite this it has an appalling reputation in Derby. It is a notorious redlight district, it is home to numerous drug dealers and the majority of the large attractive houses have now been converted in to tatty bedsits where the average length of stay for a resident is a matter of months. When I lived in Derby, one of my friends lived on the street. The condition of the building she lived in was appalling, there would often be rubbish dumped outside and in the yard, and if you’d dropped her off at home in your car you would always make sure that she’d managed to let herself in to the building before driving off in case something untoward happened. Josephine Rooney is one of a number of residents, but the key one, who has been campaigning for years to get something done about the street. I couldn’t tell you about all the initiatives that have happened on that street over the years, but given how bad the street looks now and how people were saying that “something must be done” when I moved to Derby in 1999 it is hardly surprising that Josephine Rooney has reached the end of her patience.

It is difficult for councils to defend themselves against accusations from an individual when the criticism of that person is political. What I mean is this. It is Derby City Council that took Josephine Rooney to court, just as it should do when someone doesn’t pay their council tax, but to defend itself against the accusations from Josephine Rooney that the council doesn’t care it ends up wading in to political territory. But despite this, the council has to defend itself and I think the most salient part of Derby City Council’s statement on the issue is this:

Local councillors have set up a residents group for the area but, despite a personal invitation to join the group from Council Leader Chris Williamson, Miss Rooney has refused to work with us in tackling the anti-social behaviour.

That I’m afraid is also my experience of Josephine Rooney. When I was a Liberal Democrat councillor in Derby, Josephine Rooney got in touch with the Liberal Democrats about the problems on her street. We tried to be helpful and encourage her to stand up for the street as her comments on Hartington Street were very valid. As a member of the council’s Conservation Area Advisory Committee there were often issues relating to the street coming up, and so I got to know Josephine and spoke up for the street a number of times. In fact the Lib Dems were sufficiently impressed with her and her with us that she agreed to be the Lib Dem candidate in Arboretum ward that covers her street in the 2002 elections. She ended up appearing on one leaflet as our candidate, but then she disappeared, didn’t turn up to meetings and became increasingly uncooperative with the party. There wasn’t anything that prompted this about turn on her part, but when you read the comments from Derby City Council it sounds as though part of her problem is that she isn’t as cooperative as you would imagine from the plaudits that she has received. In 2003 she stood as an Independent in Arboretum Ward and in 2004 she stood as a UKIP candidate in Abbey Ward. Neither time did she come anywhere near being elected. I find the UKIP candidature particularly interesting as they seem to be picking up a few of these council tax rebels, such as Sylvia Hardy in Derby who has been quoted as saying that she wouldn’t pay her council tax even if she could as she didn’t agree with money being spent on Europe. It makes you wonder if there is another motivation to these protests.

Hartington Street in Derby is a real issue and as a result of that money has been spent there by the council. But it is no doubt true that it hasn’t been as effective as it could be. But the biggest problem is the way the street has become so dominated by run-down rented properties that landlords don’t care about. The street needs a proper investment programme that will change some properties back in to large family homes again (not as unlikely an option as it might sound) and refurbish some properties as upmarket apartments. This will then help bring other properties up to a decent standard. This cannot be done by the council alone although it is probably true that the council (no doubt under all of the recent political affiliations it has had recently – Labour, Lib Dem/Tory and now Labour/Tory) hasn’t done enough for the area. But that doesn’t mean that Josephine Rooney is right to be held up as a martyr to the cause.

Josephine Rooney has a habit of getting the backs up of those people who do want to try and achieve something. She doesn’t cooperate with the council when given the opportunity. Yes she does care, but is slating the council and witholding your tax the best solution. The council can’t do it on their own and they have made some efforts. She needs to stop playing the martyr by withholding her council tax and lobby for real effective action from everyone who can make a difference and not just target the council. She will have the sympathy of right-wing tabloids but ultimately it will achieve nothing.

BBC NEWS: Council tax protester is jailed
DERBY EVENING TELEGRAPH: Another day in smack alley
DERBY EVENING TELEGRAPH: Jail is ‘last thing’ I want


Shadowing Sheffield

The Yorkshire Post has announced that the Tories have appointed Oliver Heald as Shadow Minister for Sheffield, with the brief to:

“provide “a valuable direct link” between the Tory Shadow Cabinet and activists and the public in Sheffield.”

OK, so I can see a purpose here, but I can’t see it doing them any good. This appointment is not without precedent as under the last Tory government they appointed Ann Widdecombe as a Minister for Sheffield. I can’t honestly say it didn’t make much of a difference in the way that the city was represented and I can’t help but feel that it was a sad reflection on the inability of Sir Irvine Patnick, (then a Tory MP in Sheffield) to represent the city himself.

Still, with the Tories losing by more than 8,500 votes in Sheffield Hallam at the last general election (a former stronghold for them) and with their vote declining in this year’s local elections (losing Dore & Totley Ward where they currently have their only two councillors by 1,100 votes) they are perhaps getting desperate. Oliver Heald said:

“The important thing is to show that there are no parts of the country where we don’t want to know what people are thinking”

Putting aside the incredibly confusing way he’s phrased it, maybe he should just look at the response of Sheffield’s voters if he wants a view on what the people in Sheffield are thinking. The Lib Dems topped the poll across the city with the Tories coming third and with fewer votes than before.

Thanks to Peter and the Apollo Project Blog on Liberal Review for noticing the story, as to be honest the Yorkshire Post is seen in Sheffield as a bit of pro-Leeds pro-Tory propaganda and hence its readership in Sheffield is not high.

Cameron’s Revival Team


Flying the flag

I’ve always thought that it was great to see people flying flags from homes, offices and factories and I’m a big fan of making St. George’s Day a public holiday as a sort of national day. So why do I feel so uncomfortable with the number of flags flying from cars or people hanging them out of windows?

Maybe it’s a reflection in me of the inate conservative reserved nature of the English that means I don’t like such an ostentatious display of nationalism. But then I’m also half Swedish, a country that is perhaps even more reserved than the English, and yet Sweden is a country that flies the flag a lot. In fact it is difficult to move anywhere without seeing a flagpole, particularly in rural areas where most farms or cottages seem to have their own flagpole. I like seeing these flags flying and so why not from cars or vans?

So is it because I feel uncomfortable with this sort of tribalism or nationalism? No it’s not that either. Although I wouldn’t say I was nationalistic as it has conotations of being very anti other countries and thinking that England is perfect, I do feel an affection and sense of loyalty to England. I also have the same feeling towards Sweden which is a bit of problem when England and Sweden keep playing against each other in football. I probably feel this affection and loyalty though even more strongly about Yorkshire and Sheffield than for either England or Sweden. Which brings me back to football. As despite me being useless at playing football and me rarely watching football, I have a sense of tribalism and almost nationalism about being a Sheffield Wednesday supporter, and I find it difficult to feel positive about Sheffield United’s promotion to the Premiership.

Having confessed my lack of any abilities at football, perhaps part of it is the way that being nationalistic and flying the flag has become so associated with football. Of course football will always be that way and for that reason I, unlike some of the tabloids, have no problem with Andy Murray’s comments about him backing whoever plays against England – he’s Scottish what do you expect? We should want to fly the flag because it is proclaiming our identity and because it looks good. I tend to feel a bit that only flying it during football matches is a bit demeaning towards the flag. An odd notion, demeaning a flag, but I think it sums it up nicely. Which I suppose brings me round to my final feeling, maybe the reason I don’t like the flag hanging from cars is because it looks a bit naff. Could it be the snob in me that likes seeing the flag flying from a flagpole on some public building or church, but hates seeing them on a car? Perhaps that’s it.