My first question about the New Local Government Network’s report on ‘naming things after famous people’ (I am sure there is a better title for it, but that’s the best I could come up with) is why did they bother? I don’t disagree with some of their findings, but my question is does it really matter so much that anyone should spend time writing a report on it? The biggest give away that a report should probably never have been written is when it includes a suggestion that we should have a “X-Factor style competition”. It used to be “a Big Brother style competition” but fashions change. And that is why I have a concern about the idea of competitions to name things.
Of course we should honour people who have achieved things. I think it’s a great idea, but they need to be enduring and using X-Factor style competitions you either end up with people whose fame and achievement is fleeting or you end up with people try to rig the poll in favour of someone obscure just because they can (such as when people try and change the outcome of the BBC Sports Personality of the Year).
What I am not sure you need is competitions. Naming streets after prominent figures is far more popular in the rest of Europe than it is here, but it isn’t as if it isn’t done her at all. Eastleigh Borough Council is one authority that is very good at street naming. Whilst people mocked Benny Hill Close and some people didn’t like the street name, he is the one local celebrity who will probably have an enduring appeal, and whether you like him or not he was significant in the world of comedy at the time. But equally important is the way that the council names streets after things to do with their history. Many of these may only be relevant to people who know the specific history of that area, (I lived at Bampton Court, which was named after the copse that was previously on the site of my flat) but some of them such as Spitfire Way and Pirelli Way are fairly clear. What is also good is that some parts of the borough they actually put on the street name plate the origin of the name, and thereby making it clear who Richard St. Barbe Baker is in the street name Barbe Baker Avenue in the village of West End.
However it is also usually very clear when there is a public clamour to name a street after somebody important. That’s something we have seen in Sheffield recently. When Derek Dooley died (admittedly not that well known outside of Sheffield, but a major figure in Sheffield football) straight away people started saying that something should be named after him, and only a few weeks later it was decided to name part of the new inner relief road Derek Dooley Way. A fitting tribute, popular with people in Sheffield and most of all decided following discussions with his family.
Finally though, lets remember that we don’t need to name a road or building after someone for local people to feel they have been honoured. What I like is Sheffield City Council’s ‘Sheffield Legends‘ plaques. Whilst it has been mocked a little for seeming like an attempt to emulate Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, it is actually a really nice way of commemorating people from Sheffield who have achieved something and who are popular with the people of the city. They don’t have to have been born in the city, they either need to have grown up here or been based in the city when they achieved. This means you have a huge range of people such as Joe Cocker, Sebastian Coe, Michael Palin and Gordon Banks (who are well known beyond the city), but also less well known people such as Joe Scarborough and Derek Dooley who are popular in the city. A few more plaques are added each year. Under the New Local Government Network’s report we should by now already have honoured the Arctic Monkeys, and I am sure they will be one day, but it seems only right to wait and see if their fame is enduring.
If this report means fewer roads given names that just sound pretty without any good reason for the name, then it will have achieved something. But I don’t think this report is needed to tell people what they know already. Lets make sure we commemorate people who achieve something, but lets also commemorate other things that are important, and when we do, let’s do it in a way and at a time that is appropriate rather than just having some reality TV style vote.