Regional fire control may be in Suffolk

A CONTROVERSIAL new regional control centre for the fire and rescue services across the six counties of the East of England could be set up in Suffolk, it has emerged.

By Graham Dines

A CONTROVERSIAL new regional control centre for the fire and rescue services across the six counties of the East of England could be set up in Suffolk, it has emerged.

The town of Haverhill meets the preferred requirement of being near the geographical centre of the region, virtually at the point where Suffolk meets Essex and Cambridgeshire. Newmarket has also been touted as a possible location.

Last night, fire chiefs in the county would not confirm whether the towns were in the running.

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Under plans being imposed by Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, each of the nine Europe-style regions of England will have to establish its own control centre by 2007.

In the East of England, the three county brigades of Norfolk, Suffolk and Hertfordshire will join with the fire authorities covering Cambridgeshire-Peterborough, Bedfordshire-Luton, and Essex-Southend-Thurrock to provide one centralised emergency response centre. However, there are no immediate plans to scrap individual brigades.

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Malcolm Alcock, Suffolk's chief fire officer, said none of the existing brigade and authority headquarters in Ipswich, Hertford, Wymondham, Huntingdon, Kempston, and Brentwood were considered big enough to house the regional headquarters.

"Officers from each county are currently looking for a site for the regional control," said Mr Alcock. "With modern technology, its location does not particularly matter, but ideally it must be within each reach of the six counties."

He would not confirm whether Haverhill is the preferred option, merely saying one area being investigated was the "Suffolk-Essex-Cambridgeshire corridor." Any site, however, is likely to be redevelopment of brown field, land.

Community leaders in Haverhill say they would welcome any move to create a regional control centre in their town.

"Haverhill would be an ideal place for the centre, as we have always claimed the town is dead central to the eastern region," said Gerry Kiernan, who serves the Haverhill North ward on St Edmundsbury Borough Council.

"It would also be good for Haverhill's economy to diversify away from the manufacturing industry on which we are so reliant."

Another West Suffolk town in the frame is Newmarket, which shares with Haverhill the advantage of easy access links from all across the region.

The news has been welcomed by Donald Levick, chairman of Forest Heath District Council, who said Newmarket - famed for its horseracing heritage - would prove an ideal location because of its excellent transport links.

"With the roadways we have near Newmarket, it makes absolute sense." He said.

Although both towns benefit from a proximity to Cambridge, there is a reluctance among senior politicians in the East of England to "crown" it the region's capital by centralising services in the varsity city.

The Government is to fund any new regional control room, as well as the Firelink radio project, the new national radio system for fire and rescue authorities.

Although the existing county brigades and fire authorities will remain independent, it is likely the control room buildings will have to be big enough to become the headquarters of a merged fire service across the East of England if the Government's moves towards regional government are implemented.

n The search for a regional control centre will not affect plans to relocate fire engines from Suffolk brigade headquarters in Colchester Road, Ipswich, to a new response centre in the Kesgrave-Martlesham area.

Officers are searching for a site, after Her Majesty's Inspectorate for the Fire Service ruled that response times for the growing estates north of Ipswich cannot be met adequately from the existing station.

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