Dewsbury to be reborn as child services 'centre of excellence'

Yorkshire town attempts to rebrand itself in wake of Shannon Matthews case

The blustery Yorkshire mill town of Dewsbury has been compared to Beirut, and its recent history as the home of the 7/7 suicide bomber Sidique Khan, a violent gang murder and a bedrock of support for the BNP provoked one newspaper to describe it as "the town that dare not speak its name".

Last year, politicians and columnists vilified the former wool capital (and by association its 54,000 inhabitants) after the disappearance, and subsequent discovery, of the schoolgirl Shannon Matthews, kidnapped by a male relative with the collusion of her mother.

Now the town's elders hope to turn the criticism on its head, by making it an international centre of excellence in child welfare. Phil Wood, an internationally renowned urban strategist and a former resident of Dewsbury, has prepared a report detailing how the town can move on.

"Dewsbury can do something which would become a symbol to the nation that Britain is no longer prepared to be the worst in the industrialised world for child well-being," Mr Wood said.

The town, he concedes, was "grievously stung" by the Matthews case, which became a lightning rod for "a deep and visceral anxiety that Britain, as a whole, is getting seriously out of line in the way it brings up its children".

Local leaders have recently returned from a visit to Gateshead where they learnt more about the Tyneside council's award-winning children's services. They have also studied pioneering Scandinavian systems, which track a child's development throughout its life and are looking to bring in the EU and Unicef to support the project.

The inspiration for this is, perhaps surprisingly, Memphis, the steamy city on the banks of the Mississippi which, like Dewsbury, enjoys a proud industrial heritage based on textiles and the arrival of the railroad – and also knows what it is to be on the receiving end of the outside world's disdain. In 1968, Martin Luther King was gunned down at the Lorraine Hotel and, for more than a decade, Memphis suffered the stigma of his untimely death.

The city began to achieve closure when the motel where King was shot was transformed into the National Civil Rights Museum. Memphis now styles itself as the "city of second chances" a place where failed entrepreneurs are encouraged to start again. Mr Wood called for Dewsbury to "find its own equivalent of the Memphis Museum".

Paul Kane, who heads the town's new regeneration board, is charged with putting the vision into practice and has had some success. Last week the Tory leader, David Cameron, visited Dewsbury Moor, where Shannon Matthews lived, to apologise to residents for claiming the estate was "a place where decency fights a losing battle against degradation and despair". Mr Cameron admitted he had "over-reacted".

Mr Kane believes such comments caused deep and lasting hurt. "A lot of the things people said were degrading of the area. This could have happened anywhere in the UK, but we were seen as a pariah town with all the shame and stigma that is attached to it. People don't want to say they come from Dewsbury, they say they are from Leeds or Huddersfield. This is what we are trying to turn around."

He added: "I am pushing for Dewsbury to be the centre of excellence for child welfare. You can't dwell on the bad things but make sure you turn them around."

Following the Matthews affair, politicians in Dewsbury agreed to put aside their differences and sit on a newly formed Regeneration Board. All parties have agreed to continue working together, whatever the result of next year's election.

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