Regional Government 'by the back door'

PLANS to merge Suffolk's emergency services with those in other counties could lead to an East of England government being formed “by the back door”, it has been claimed.

PLANS to merge Suffolk's emergency services with those in other counties could lead to an East of England government being formed “by the back door”, it has been claimed.

Two Suffolk MPs have raised the alarm over the forthcoming shake-up of the county's fire, police and ambulance services, saying it could spell the demise of local democracy.

They warned last night that power could soon ebb away from the county, district and borough councils - and they fear it could pave the way for a regional assembly in the east.

John Gummer, Conservative MP for Suffolk Coastal, claimed: “It's part of their (the Government's) intention. Once they have established the amalgamated police, fire and ambulance services they will start pressing for regionalisation of everything and change in local government. Suffolk County Council is a historic and valuable entity to lose.

“I think they will push ahead with this as soon as they dare. That is why we have to start fighting now.”

Mr Gummer predicted the Government would amalgamate the emergency services in Suffolk with those in other counties and then claim “there is no democratic control over these services and you have to have a regional assembly”.

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In deputy prime minister John Prescott's 2002 white paper, he outlined a vision of beefed-up regional assemblies. In Suffolk, it was believed that these would signal the end of county councils. In their place would be new authorities covering larger areas than the existing districts and boroughs - which would form part of a regional assembly.

Such an organisation would have more powers than the existing East of England Regional Assembly.

Mr Gummer claimed the move towards amalgamated emergency services had been prompted by the Government's dramatic defeat in the referendum for a regional north-eastern assembly.

He said: “It is all part of the same thing. I feel very strongly about this. The people in Suffolk do not want to lose local Suffolk services, they do not want regionalisation and the Government is forcing it upon them.”

David Ruffley, Conservative MP for Bury St Edmunds, said of the changes in emergency services: “This is John Prescott and new Labour's regionalisation by stealth. It's imposing regionalisation and big Quango government by the back door.

“I see an endless ebbing away of the authority and power in the county councils and district councils. “There will be a transferring of powers that those councils rightly hold: a transferring, step-by-step, to regional bureaucrats. It is fundamentally an attack on local democracy.

“It will be the death of local elected councils and that's a disgrace. Suffolk will suffer as a result.”

Under the proposals for the county's emergency services, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is intending to axe the fire control room in Ipswich, replacing it with a centre covering six counties.

Suffolk police, in one of three options being looked at in the county, could be amalgamated into a regional force also covering Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Essex, Hertfordshire and Norfolk.

The East Anglian Ambulance NHS Trust could also become part of a regional service covering the same six counties.

Jeremy Pembroke, leader of Suffolk County Council, said: “I think we feel very strongly that we should not have any regionalisation of local government.

“The district councils and Suffolk County Council know what's best for Suffolk. Many councillors were born and bred in Suffolk and understand the county. I do not think we want to lose that.

“Other regions have had the chance to vote on this and they have kicked it out, and over the grandstand.

“The Government is trying to do this through the back door.”

Chris Mole, Labour MP for Ipswich, said he expected regional assemblies to be “on the horizon” in 10 years time.

“A lot of consideration is being given to bringing a number of emergency services together because there are clearly benefits of scale and resilience issues that can be addressed through regionalisation.

“Some of the strategic planning functions are already being carried out along with things like regional development.

“The more things that are happening at regional level the more questions have to be asked about democratic deficiency and direct accountability. At some stage that has to be resolved by having an elected assembly or having different elected accountability for these functions.”

But Mr Mole said a regional tier of Government would impact on the existing tiers - the district or borough councils and the county council.

He said: “I think that the Government believes that people will not accept another layer of Government without some changes below. If you are going to have a directly elected assembly then you would not have the two tiers beneath.”

But he also confirmed that Sir Peter Gershon's review of public sector efficiency - which determined that every local authority would be expected to make 2.5% savings by 2007/8 - was also “driving the case for unitary local Government”. But Mr Mole said he would not speculate on the format that would take.

A spokesman for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister said: “In terms of the next step on regional assemblies, following the north-eastern referendum the Government accepted that and it is not pushing ahead with elected regional assemblies.

“It was a decisive vote in the north-east and we have taken stock of that and have no plans to hold a referendum in other parts in the county.”

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