Simon Carr: The Sketch

Why Lord Falconer should learn to take it on the chin
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The Independent Online

We were wondering what that inflatable pouch of flesh under Charlie Falconer's chin was called. A craw? A crop? A gullet? The camera puts on 10lb as we know. In Charlie's case it puts on 20. And it all goes into that pendulous Sidney Greenstreet gizzard that wobbles like an udder under his chin.

It works to best effect when he offers reasons for not saying anything. He shakes his head slightly, and it discharges whole sentences, such as: I don't think I know the answer to that. May I send the committee a note on that? I think it would be unhelpful for me to go into detail on that. It would be inappropriate of me to say. That is a matter for the local councils. I don't know, but you can look it up on our website.

These responses were all in evidence as he faced sharp questioning from the Local Government Select Committee. Lord Falconer of Thoroton committed himself to greater clarity and more transparency. That's what government's about.

So, Chris Grayling asked, what is happening about the Dome? Is it going to be sold in two lots? The land separate from the building? "Ah. That's best served without publicity," he explained. A running commentary "wouldn't be helpful". Priceless.

John Cummings noted that his whole regeneration strategy depended on engaging the public. "But what if the public doesn't want to be engaged?" he asked irritably. It's hard to say how refreshing it was to hear such a question. "All these initiatives!" he went on. "At times I think we're in danger of smothering ourselves!"

In committee, Tory James Gray once memorably described Lord Falconer's departmental efforts (on the Regional Co-ordination Unit, from memory) as "bullshit". Mr Cummings, being a Labour member, wouldn't use such language but the thought was plainly there.

"How many public meetings discussing stock transfers have you attended?" Gwyneth Dunwoody asked, unhelpfully. The wobble wobbled and something started to come out. "No," Mrs Dunwoody interrupted, "public meetings! Do you know how many people attend stock transfer meetings?" The answer, essentially, was three. Lord Falconer's crop throbbed.

Christine Russell asked if he believed that every neighbourhood could be renewed, and if not, why bother with the ones that couldn't? Evil question. The gizzard shivered.

The Urban Summit. Won't it just be a talking shop? No, no, no. It will spread best practice. Identify international experience. Agree proposals for the way forward.

But will it be evaluated? Yes, yes. An independent research contract had just been let. By the Urban Policy Unit. We're in safe hands, you see.

Occasionally we get these glimpses of the depths of the essential powerlessness of the country's most powerful people. It wouldn't matter, except that these regeneration projects add up in a cross- cutting, over-arching sort of way to £9bn of public money, and an equally large amount of political capital.

And then, suddenly you see that no one actually knows what the dickens is going on.

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