Prime Minister speaks to the EADT

THE Prime Minister spoke yesterday to EADT Political Editor Graham Dines about a new neighbourhood policing initiative, illegal travellers sites, regional government, the future of council tax, rural services and the controversial abandonment of the A11 dualling north of Newmarket.

This interview first appeared in the East Anglian Daily Times on Wednesday March 9 2005

THE Prime Minister spoke yesterday to EADT Political Editor Graham Dines about a new neighbourhood policing initiative, illegal travellers sites, regional government, the future of council tax, rural services and the controversial abandonment of the A11 dualling north of Newmarket.

TONY Blair will still not reveal what everyone in the country knows to be a fact - that the General Election will be held on May 5.

Even though he has joined in the phoney war of words with the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats with alacrity, attacking his rivals' policies and announcing a whole raft of ambitions of his own for a third-term Labour government, he cannot bring himself to name the day.

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Of course, he does not need to until the first week of April if the election is to be May 5. But as it is not remotely probable, with all the election hype being generated, that this Parliament will run its full course to June 2006, the nation will be subjected to a game of cat and mouse in the next four weeks.

In a first floor dining room at Downing Street yesterday, I spoke to the Prime Minister along with a group of lobby journalists from regional morning and evening newspapers on a whole range of issues of direct concern to the voters.

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Tony Blair had no briefing notes. He was able to talk confidently and at ease over lunch, removed from the metropolitan elite who like to direct the political agenda.

First he pulled a rabbit out of the hat. He announced a Government initiative on community policing to supplement "the record number of police officers in England, 140,000".

The bobbies are to be supplemented by 24,000 community support officers. "This will enable us to bring back neighbourhood policing - to bring visible uniformed policing back on the streets in communities up and down the country," he said.

"It's a package that people want. We have been piloting this in London for a couple of years and it has been very successful - now it will be rolled out across the country.

"It is equally import that the scheme is introduced for towns and villages in rural England - it helps to beat crime and gives people confidence in their local communities."

Mr Blair promised it would not be just urban areas that would benefit from the £340million initiative, which would be funded directly by central government rather from police authority council tax. "We will be increasing the police budget to pay for it," he pledged.


n illegal travellers' sites, which have sprung up in the past two years near Chelmsford and in Elmswell, near Stowmarket:

"We are giving local councils the power to remove illegal settlements and it is extremely important they use those powers.

"You cannot have a situation where the rights of those who settle illegally prevail over people who live in an areas.

"We have introduced provisions to allow an immediate stop notice to be placed on an illegal development - people will be able to go to the courts and get it stopped immediately.

"There are issues about how you provide proper legal sites for travellers - it should be done in a proper planned way and not by people just pitching up and doing whatever they want."

n hunting, the rural economy and the power of supermarkets: "We have a hunting law and the Countryside Alliance issued guidance which people seem to be abiding by - there's a compromise of sorts after the legislation which seems to be working out.

"For most people who live in the countryside, hunting is not an issue. It's local schools, local hospitals, jobs, standard of living, transport - we are putting in a lot of money and effort.

"I think the supermarkets have an armlock on suppliers - it is tough for farmers, but it is difficult for us to interfere in the way people do business.

"There is a code of practice and we will look carefully to ensure is there is something more we can do to make sure it is abided by."

n regional government following the underwhelming response of people in England's regions towards elected regional authorities:

"In Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland there is a clear national identity. Even in the North-West and North-East where there is greater regional coherence than anywhere else in England, they don't feel the same.

"We said as a manifesto commitment we would give people a shot at elected regional government. If people came to us and said we want it, we would facilitate that, but I don't notice that happening."

n the A11 dualling from Newmarket through Elveden to Thetford and Attleborough, a project no longer given national priority after being handed to a newly-appointed regional transportation panel for further assessment:

"I understand the problem. But it's all about money in the end. I know this has been a long running campaign for good and justifiable reasons. But we have to realise that every single penny of money we commit is taxpayers' money and there is not an endless amount of it."

n the future of council tax:

"For many people, property tax is a major and difficult question. The problem with the tax in general is that a small increase in council spending requires a large percentage increase in tax.

"I totally accept that reform of council tax is a long term issue - we are looking at that now, but we have managed with extra money and the threat of capping to keep the average rise down to 4%.

n the rebanding of properties for council tax, which he insisted would be revenue neutral:

"The Liberal Democrats say they're going to get rid of council tax and everyone says 'Fantastic'. But then the Lib Dems say they will replace it with a local income tax and that's less fantastic.

"Most people don't want their local authorities to have the same powers as the Inland Revenue over their income."

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