Over Christmas I supplemented the log fire, case of port and pile of new books with a few old Rumpole DVDs of programmes originally transmitted in the 1980s. Amongst them was an episode that was a savage critique of naive and credulous social workers, who had convinced themselves that some stolen carnival masks were indicative of child satanic abuse. Mortimer clearly based this on the nonsense of a contemporary Salem-type witch hunt in Scotland in which health professionals were trained to inspect school children's anuses for signs of Satanic interference. Thirty years later little has changed.
Social workers may be utterly crap at noticing real threats to children as they are happening - baby P's fractured limbs and bruises, a thousand pubescent girls sexually abused by Pakistani grooming gangs - but they're superbly skilled post-hoc in using those failures to lever-in more money, more staff, greater bureaucracy, new tax funded scrutiny and NGO bodies and so on. It's a pretty good model; every time they screw up and the public gets angry, they commandeer more tax money, all existing staff get a promotion and the pyramid grows another layer.
Boundaries have been blurred by the merging of health, education and social work functions in local government and it's become increasingly hard to tell the cost of one part of the service from another. And of course it's not just children; council responsibility for elderly care budgets is also straining budgets to crisis point.
As local elections are a bit more than a fortnight away, many electors are looking at the poor states of their post-winter roads. Roads and parks are the first recourse for councils making cuts; both can be trimmed attritionally year after year and nothing will collapse for a long time. Parks other than London's Royal parks have become sterile biological deserts of turf and trees, the only maintenance being a fortnightly shave with a gang mower in the growing months. Fences, gates, lighting, paths, ornamental planting are allowed to gently degenerate, the councils only intervening when a H&S risk arises. Roads are the same - I can't remember the last time I saw a B road regularly resurfaced. Roads and parks can be cut year after year and the effects will be far less noticeable than closing a library, for example, or shutting a day centre. All the money that used to pay for parks and roads is almost certainly sitting in the council's extensive meeting suites having case conferences.
It can only go on for so long, of course. Eventually local tax payers, faced with ever-increasing bills and ever-poorer refuse collection, street lighting and sweeping, road maintenance, parks, libraries and leisure facilities, stuff people actually don't mind paying a reasonable wedge for, will demand change.
But not this year. Yet.
(London is insulated from much of this by the massive TfL budget being largely ringfenced to, erm, transport and very hard to transfer to social workers, and the high standards of the Royal parks disguise the poor condition of other council parks)