Fire changes herald creeping regionalism

IF the fire service goes regional, it won't be long before the police follow. EADT Political Editor GRAHAM DINES looks at the growing storm over "biggest is best.

IF the fire service goes regional, it won't be long before the police follow. EADT Political Editor GRAHAM DINES looks at the growing storm over "biggest is best."

WHICHEVER political party has formed a government in the past 40 years, it has made Britain a more centralist country, moving away from local decision making.

From Harold Macmillan to Tony Blair via Sir Alec Douglas-Home, Harold Wilson, Ted Heath, Wilson again, Jim Callaghan, Margaret Thatcher and John Major, local services have increasingly disappeared.

The Conservatives wreaked havoc on local government in 1963 and 1974, abolishing county boroughs and merging them with shire counties or creating the Greater London Council, big London boroughs, metropolitan cities, large shire counties and artificial sub regional counties in England, and regions in Scotland.

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Huntingdonshire, the ancient Soke of Peterborough, Middlesex, Rutland and Yorkshire's three ridings were wiped off the map, Bournemouth was shunted from Hampshire in Dorset, and historic Essex in London's east end was emasculated. In came Avon, Humberside, Cleveland, Greater Manchester, Merseyside, Tyne & Wear, West Midlands, three new counties in Yorkshire, large Welsh counties including South Glamorgan and Powys, Scottish regions such as Central, Borders and Highland.

Local police forces and fire brigades with their own chief constables, fire chiefs and watch committees were also submerged into bigger units.

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Twenty years later, the Tories were at it again, axing the GLC and the metropolitan counties and later Berkshire. Essex lost Southend and Thurrock.

Over the years, Labour and the Tories have reformed and rationalised the National Health Service into all sorts of different permutations, much loved cottage hospitals have been sacrificed for huge general hospitals, the ambulance service centralised.

Labour has given Scotland an elected parliament and Wales an elected assembly.

"Biggest is best" says central government and to hell with local services and civic pride. Provincial life is not worth a candle as the metropolitan ruling classes have convinced two generations of politicians that it is easier to deal with a small number of large authorities instead of a large number of small units.

Now Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott is about to inflict on England even more change. His fire service reforms, announced in the Commons on Monday, will introduce large regional brigades, which logically will see local constabularies following suit.

In his White Paper Our Fire and Rescue Service, Mr Prescott claims it has been increasingly difficult for many fire authorities, particularly smaller ones, to cope with the expectations of the public.

England has been divided into eight continental-style regions. The East of England lumps Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire with Essex and traditional East Anglia – Suffolk, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire – to form a region stretching from the North Sea to the Chilterns and from the Wash to the Thames.

Referendums are being offered initially to the North West, North East and Yorkshire & Humberside regions, to see if there is any support for Mr Prescott's regional agenda.

"In those areas where elected regional assemblies are set up, we will establish new, larger, fire and rescue authorities on a regional basis." He insists these authorities "will be more efficient and will be better able to discharge their responsibilities for dealing with non-fire emergencies."

In the meantime, the brigades will remain under local authority control but "it will become increasingly difficult for small authorities to deliver the more efficient service required."

So even though some regions will reject elected regional government when eventually offered the opportunity in a referendum, the government is demanding regional brigades.

Before April next year, existing local fire authorities will be required to establish London-style "robust regional management arrangements with members from existing fire authorities."

Mr Prescott "expects" regional management boards to take responsibility for, among other things, establishing regional control rooms, regional procurement, and regional personnel and human resources management.

He adds: "Such a regional approach will ensure that service improvement and also greater savings are achieved from regional fire control rooms."

Could the police follow? It is well-known the Home Office would like to deal with fewer chief constables – the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, eight regional chief constables, and one person in charge of combined Welsh constabularies would fit into a set-up which could eventually pave the way for one giant national police force outside London.

I asked East Anglia's most experienced local government politician, Essex county council leader Lord Hanningfield, what he thought of John Prescott's regional solution for the fire brigades.

"It's absolute nonsense – one of the daftest things to come out of Whitehall," said the Tory leader, who is backing the East Anglian Daily Times campaign to oppose regional brigades.

"Instead of going regional, the way forward is to combine police and fire control rooms at a county level into one call centre.

"Why does everything have to be bigger? The health service goes through regular upheavals and so does local government."

I put it to him that the record of previous Tory was hardly blameless. "I believe we have learned the lessons – our policy is now to put services at the heart of local communities.

"I have just returned from the United States where they take pride in the town police and fire departments and local hospital boards. They don't believe in giant, super authorities."

The fire brigade upheaval is the start of the Government's regional agenda. It is the first visible sign in the East of England that John Prescott really means business.

Even if elected regional authorities are rejected at the ballot box, regional structures will be introduced, whether you like them or not.

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