She was never afraid to speak her mind and despite being diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease, Valerie Binney tells Grace Hammond why she still won’t be silenced.
VALERIE Binney may have lost the power of speech, but showing the same tenacity that has marked her entire life, she is determined her voice will still be heard.
For 40 years she has been at the heart of local politics in her home city of Bradford – 19 of them as a councillor – and when she recently bowed out it was to a standing ovation from all parties.
The decision to stand down at the May council elections was not hers by choice, nor that of the electorate. Eighteen months ago, 74-year-old Valerie, who was widowed in January, was diagnosed with that most cruel of illnesses, Motor Neurone Disease (MND).
The rate the condition has progressed has been rapid. Since doctors told her the news, Valerie has lost her speech, two stone in weight and her physical strength.
But this former Lord Mayor of Bradford has lost none of her fight. Her farewell speech to a packed council chamber was relayed via a microphone placed alongside her speech activated iPad, and the chamber rose as one.
It was a fitting response for someone who has long supported others.
Born in Girlington, the daughter of a proud Bradford family, Valerie was a former head girl of Whetley Secondary School, before going onto study bookkeeping at Bradford college. She has been a long time member of the Fire Authority, a school governor and always maintained a fierce community spirit.
Speaking now through her iPad, it is clear education remains a passion. “I would tell any young person to take as many exams as they can,” she says. “They remain with you all your life. Education gives freedom of choice. It makes a young person more confident and adds to their self esteem”.
It was this ethos that led Valerie to work with a charity for homeless young people in her council ward of Thornton and Allerton, until it was forced to close through lack of funds and volunteers last year. She is fiercely proud of the young people she was able to help, believing all too often they are judged harshly.
“I believe there is good in everyone,” she says. “But we need to be there to make sure they don’t follow the wrong path. A lot of these youngsters had been kicked out of home. They would then find themselves sleeping on some friend’s sofa or on the floor.
“The boys had rowed with their parents; a lot of the girls believed that having a baby was the only way they would be looked after. They really couldn’t see how they could do anything else.
“We used to persuade housing associations and other organisations who had empty flats to let us take them on. We would help young people with their budgets but more importantly we would get them into education. I still see some of them now and they always say ‘hello’. Most are settled with partners and jobs. Some are social workers and many are now young professionals. I am very proud of them.”
Valerie is a staunch Conservative. She worked for 23 years as a full-time party agent and is fully supportive of the Government’s controversial welfare reforms. Reduction in benefits along with controversial policies like the bedroom tax have given the Opposition benches much ammunition. It is, they say, the Conservatives showing where their priorities really lie, protecting the interests of the wealthy at the expense of society’s poorest and most vulnerable. Not so, says Valerie.
“Economic constraints were not the only reason why these reforms had to happen. People were becoming too dependent on the state. Some in my ward would never have ever worked. Now what we are doing is encouraging people, especially the young, to get a better education and to have aspirations. It really is all about self-belief.”
Valerie is also fiercely proud of her home city. Bradford has often found itself the poor relation to its neighbour Leeds and the stalled Westfield development in the heart of the city did little to help its reputation. However, it is now time, she says, for everyone to rejoice in its rich history and its architecture.
“Bradford people are warm and welcoming but I do wish they would stop doing the city down. Yes, mistakes were made. We should never have pulled down Swan Arcade or Kirkgate market and it is disappointing that there was a hole in the city centre with the delay of the Westfield shopping centre. But it is being built now and it will bring people back into the city. Look at Little Germany,our wonderful City Hall and City Park.”
For someone who has always believed in honesty, Valerie is all too aware of the facts about MND.
Five people in Britain die every day from MND and 5,000 live with it at anyone time. The disease kills the motor neurones,or nerve cells in the brain and spine, but it affects every individual differently.
While some, like Stephen Hawkings has defied the odds by living with the condition since his diagnosis at the age of 21, the prognosis for most is not good. The average life expectancy after diagnosis is two to five years, but half will die within 14 months. It leaves people unable to walk, talk or feed themselves as their muscles refuse to work but their senses and intellect usually remain unaffected.
Earlier this year a new study showed that a high-calorie diet may slow down the deadly progression of the disease, but it remains an incurable disease.
The University of Sheffield is home to one of the world’s leading motor neurone research centres that is helping in the fight against this cruel, debilitating condition, and last year scientists based in Sheffield carried out research which provided clues that could help slow down the devastating effects of MND.
Valerie admits she knew little about the disease until she was diagnosed.
“It started with my speech,” she says. “People thought I had been drinking. But it has been very quick. I can only walk a few steps now. And my arms are so thin. Losing my speech is really frustrating after years of making sure my voice was heard. But I am in little pain and really I just feel like I always did. And anyway I can’t do anything about it.
“I will still be attending council meetings until I give up at the end of May. I am proud to be there. If anyone had told me I would one day be the Lord Mayor of my city I would never have believed them. No regrets.”
Valerie will be helped by a new unit set up at the Marie Curie hospice in Bradford where care and specialist consultations is managed under one roof. Dr Sarah Holmes, palliative consultant at the hospice says it means patients will not have to see six maybe seven different people at different times in hospital.
“Here care is all under one roof. It also brings patients into a hospice where as they may have been worried to do so before and where we can offer the right palliative care and support.” It is one of a handful of pilot schemes in hospices across the country and already is being hailed a success by patients and professionals.
Valerie still lives alone with support from the carers. Having survived the Brighton bomb at the Tory party conference she remains a fighter and has no fear of what the future holds.
“I am not frightened,” she says. “I have my faith.”
Her only worry is that she is now losing the use of her hands and with that her precious communication through iPad and texts to the outside world. But for now she is still has a voice.
As she told the last full meeting she will attend at Bradford council via the speak button: “It has been a great pleasure and an honour to serve the people of Bradford.”