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Another annus horribilis

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Looking back over 2008, I am reminded of one of the remorseless, unforgiving rules of politics....

... one spectacular tragedy obliterates the longest unsung record of quiet but effective management.

Baby P had it all a battered, abused toddler; a dysfunctional ‘family’; a catastrophically cursory medical examination; a defiant then repentant bureaucracy; a culture of targets and box-ticking; a failed monitoring system; the demand for retribution; competitive compassion.

And, of course, the outrage was multiplied because it had happened before. After Victoria Climbié was brutalised we had all proclaimed “It must never happen again.” But it did.

Shannon Matthews

Two hundred miles north from Haringey, in the bleak and barren estates of Dewsbury, another grotesque ‘family’ plotted the kidnap then the rescue of Shannon Matthews , howling their compassion to the TV cameras.

At least the commentators spared us the trite phrase “This is a tight-knit community”.

Kirklees Council’s social services department had concluded that Shannon’s mother was incapable of looking after her variously fathered brood of seven children, but had left Shannon with her.

An unspeakable tragedy and a sort-of happy ending. Inevitably, such cases become closely associated with local government in a year in which the shadow of economic breakdown has been looming over it. Unfair? Of course it is unfair.

Social services, the department which lies across the fault line of social and demographic change, can never get it right.

Too-active intervention and they are breaking up families; too reticent and they are risking lives in the service of soggy-minded naivete.

Terrorist moll

One feels almost grateful for the distraction provided by Maria Gatland , the former IRA member who went from terrorist’s moll to Conservative executive member for education at Croydon LBC . I suppose it is hard to call it light relief though she did have a pretty irrefutable answer to those who decry local government for being grey and faceless.

And then there was Iceland. I have some sympathy for the treasurers who decided that they should not look a gift horse in the mouth even if there was a distinct whiff of cod on its breath.

I suspect the unspoken word in the town halls which decided to stick with the local NatWest was ‘There but for the grace of God’

Boris Johnson

But it has not all been doom and gloom in 2008. Ken Livingstone’s winning streak finally ran out, elevating Boris Johnson to the position of Britain’s Top Tory, at least in terms of actual power.

Those who like their politics to be colourful rubbed their hands, no doubt hoping that Boris would go from Have I Got News for You to I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue in pretty short order.

The cancellation of a string of aspirational transport projects and, even more, the effective sacking of the Metropolitan Police chief Sir Ian Blair have put Boris firmly on the Action Man map and made him outright winner of the Local Government Personality of the Year award. All that awaits him is an invitation to Strictly Come Dancing.

Recognition is a great asset in politics. The Mayor of London is known nationwide as Boris. I can’t help wondering what his political trajectory would have been had Stanley Johnson named his gifted son Timothy or Nigel.

Devolution agenda

As for the rest, it has been a year of timid advances and discreet retreats. In fact, as the Ramsbottoms of the poem Albert and the Lion might have described it, “Nothing to laugh at all”.

The great devolution agenda shuffled a few steps forward and the great housing project shuffled a few steps back.

The new unitary authorities have shuffled towards existence, while any hardy soul who ventures the thought that perhaps there should be a great tidying up of structures receives pitying looks from all three parties.

The government has promised a mini-package of legislation for the new parliament, but local government feels like a postscript to the main business.

Meanwhile I am prepared to offer a special prize for bravery in the face of rationality to any council (outside the Crossrail fraternity) which hazards introducing a supplementary business rate.

And so to 2009 and economic Armageddon. Oh yes, and county council elections, which could well, for the first time in 16 years, not fall on the same day as a general election. In the words of our own dear Queen we are braced for an annus horribilis.

Previous comment by David Curry:

Curse of the day-trippers
Recession and relegation
Reshuffle changes nothing
Biting attack on Brown

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