Join the EADT regions debate

TODAY the East Anglian Daily Times is starting a debate on the future of East Anglia.Do we want regional government, with Suffolk and Essex absorbed into a six-county melting pot with Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire? Do we want to keep our independent county councils?The Government is busily reorganising public services on regional lines.

By Graham Dines

TODAY the East Anglian Daily Times is starting a debate on the future of East Anglia.

Do we want regional government, with Suffolk and Essex absorbed into a six-county melting pot with Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire? Do we want to keep our independent county councils?

The Government is busily reorganising public services on regional lines. Ambulance, police, fire control and health will all soon be controlled regionally and if ministers can convince the voters, they will create a regional parliament to run strategic affairs.

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Whitehall already has set up an unelected regional assembly and development agency because it believes counties are not big enough to cope with the increasing demands of the 21st century.

Part of the regional agenda is the reform of local government, which could be upon us by April 1, 2009. Counties and districts would go, to be replaced by large all-purpose unitary authorities.

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This week we are giving you the opportunity to vote on the future of East Anglia. On Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, we will be holding our own referendum.

All week, politicians from Essex and Suffolk will be having their say and you can have yours.

Political Editor Graham Dines outlines how we have got to where we are and sets out the possibilities for the restructuring of our corner of England.

Join our debate on the future of East Anglia all week in the EADT. In addition to your votes, we want your comments. You can write to Letters to the Editor, East Anglian Daily Times, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN or e-mail

Political Editor Graham Dines outlines the background to the debate on the future governance of East Anglia.

WHEN the Government lost the 2004 referendum in the north east on regional government, there was a collective sigh of relief among local government politicians and council staff in England's shires.

The introduction of regions went hand in hand with the abolition of counties and districts and the creation of large unitary authorities.

But far from putting an end to the Government's ambitions to deal with the Tory shires, it seems to have made ministers even more determined to reform local government.

Regional government in England was meant to be the ultimate form of devolution. Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and London have all been given devolved government and Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott firmly believed the eight “regions” of England would welcome their own mini parliaments with strategic powers including inward investment, roads and tourisms.

The north east - where the demand was said to be overwhelming - held the first referendum, and it was comprehensively defeated.

The Government argues that elected regions would bring an end to the democratic deficit in England. The regions are currently glued together in an artificial alliance of counties which have nothing in common - in the East, Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire are far flung from the North Sea communities of East Anglia and don't even receive the same regional television programmes.

It's this lack of identity which has scuppered the Government. You cannot impose a uniform administration on disparate counties.

The East of England region is not historic East Anglia. You cannot graft on areas which have no interest in each other.

And how do you define East Anglia - is any part of Essex comfortable as being included in it?

Ministers say that unelected regional assemblies and development agencies which they have set up need to be accountable to elected regional parliaments.

Critics claim that the ever increasing regionalisation of England - police forces and fire controls are the latest to be given a regional dimension - is not wanted. They do not want the historic heart of England ripped out for some political goal which is alien to Englishness.

Others see it as a plot emanating from Brussels - European nations love regions and believe England should fall into line.

Nobody knows which way the Government is thinking. John Prescott's enforcer David Miliband is sending out all sort of conflicting signals - letting loose the hares and seeing which hounds take the bait.

There's the City Regions concept which is exciting Ipswich - combining large towns with their hinterlands - and an idea to give more power to local communities by beefing up parish councils.

But it's clear that no change is not an option and that, if possible, existing councils come up with a solution on how they should be commonly governed.

Over riding all other considerations is the future of England's shire counties. There's a growing consensus that the existing two-tier administration of counties and districts is confusing for the public and unsustainable because of duplication of administration.

Does Suffolk need one county and seven districts, with the county council having area offices in Bury St Edmunds and Lowestoft because Ipswich is too remote from the other main centres of population?

Does county hall in Chelmsford truly reflect the needs and priorities of Harwich, Saffron Walden, Canvey Island, and Halstead?

If the answer to these questions is `no,' then the only alternative is a unitary system.

Leaving aside the London reorganisation, which abolished Middlesex and absorbed parts of adjoining counties such as Essex, the first major upheaval in the shires of Britain was undertaken by Edward Health's Conservative government.

It was a three-part solution. In Scotland, the historic counties and burghs were replaced by regions and districts. In rural England and Wales, county boroughs, counties, rural and urban districts were replaced by the current counties and districts.

In the urban north and midlands, metropolitan counties and districts came, with the counties responsible for strategic services policing, fire and rescue, consumer protection, transport and some planning issues.

These lasted 12 years, until Mrs Thatcher, angered by the antics of Ken Livingstone on the Greater London Council, took the axe to the GLC and also the metropolitan counties.

The metropolitan districts became all powerful and the John Major reforms in the mid 1990s replicated them with unitary councils such as Southend-on-Sea, Thurrock, Peterborough, and Luton.

Indications from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister point to unitary districts with populations up to 500,000 as the ideal. If existing county borders are not to be crossed, Suffolk may find itself with two councils and Essex four.

But if Waveney was to marry Great Yarmouth in Norfolk - and the two councils are in talks about their common problems - there will be much support for the rest of Suffolk to be administered by a single unitary based in Ipswich.

Essex could end up with Southend and Rochford forming and alliance and three other unitaries - north, mid, and south - especially if Thurrock is absorbed into the London borough of Dagenham and Redbridge to form a Thames Gateway authority.

A favourite game of commentators and pundits is trying to guess which existing councils end up with others. In the south of Essex, Basildon, Brentwood, Epping and possibly Castle Point fit nicely together, in mid Essex, Chelmsford, Braintree and Uttlesford seem natural partners, while Maldon, Colchester and Tendring could become a north Essex authority.

Perhaps the most radical solution would be the creation of a Haven Ports unitary authority, taking in Tendring, Colchester, Ipswich, the Shotley Peninsular currently in Babergh, and Felixstowe in Suffolk Coastal.

Critics who claim county borders are sacrosanct only have to look to the north of England to see how the Edward Heath government ignored the cartographers,

It created a shire county called Cleveland, taking Middlesbrough and Redcar out of the North Riding of Yorkshire and Hartlepool and Stockton from County Durham to form an authority to look after both banks of the River Tees.

Tyne and Wear metropolitan county covers Newcastle and North Shields previously in Northumberland and Gateshead, Sunderland and Washington new town which were formerly an integral part of County Durham.

Merseyside encompasses Birkenhead from Cheshire and Liverpool, Southport, and Bootle from Lancashire. Greater Manchester was originally to be known as Selnec - South-East Lancashire, North-East Cheshire as gathered Manchester, Salford, Wigan, Bolton, Bury, Rochdale, Ashton-under-Lyne, Stockport, Stretford, Old Trafford and Altrincham into its clutches.

The Government has promised a White Paper before the summer parliamentary recess. It is consulting and looking for local solutions - unlike Heath's Tories who forced through their reorganisation without any consultation.

Primary legislation would be needed for any reorganisation, and if ministers want it out of the way before the General Election, a Bill would be presented to Parliament after the Queen's Speech in November.

The 2007 district council elections would be scrapped and elections to the shadow authorities would be held in 2008, with the new councils themselves coming into force on April 1 2009.

Many question whether the Government has the stomach to force through any reorganisation. It will cause a lot of grief among existing local government staff, but if they want to bring to an end the troublesome Tory shires who are forever moaning - with much justification - about how unfairly they are being financially treated by the Labour government - then they will see this as a golden opportunity to neuter Conservative local government.

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