Regional structures beggar belief

ONE of the buzz phrases so beloved of New Labour is “joined up Government.” Whitehall departments are meant to do everything in harmony, co-ordinating policy, and ending the demarcation of civil servants protecting their little empires.

By Graham Dines

ONE of the buzz phrases so beloved of New Labour is “joined up Government.” Whitehall departments are meant to do everything in harmony, co-ordinating policy, and ending the demarcation of civil servants protecting their little empires.

This week's announcement of police mergers demonstrates that far from having a single vision for the future direction of essential and local services, the Government is flailing about, spreading confusion in its wake and sending out the message that the left hand still doesn't know what the right hand is doing.

Like it or not, the United Kingdom is being broken up into devolved components of “nations and regions.” The big idea is for England to have eight regions outside London, each with its own elected assemblies taking control of strategic matters such as inward investment, planning, highways and tourism.

That was the theory. In reality, when tested in a referendum in the North East, regionalism was given such a bloody nose that ministers retreated to regroup and to introduce their beloved regions by stealth.

And that's when Government departments stopped reading the script and regionalism started to disintegrate.

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The central vision is of all essential services grouped into eight regions. With much cajoling, the East of |England is to have one strategic health authority and one ambulance service.

There's to be one regional call centre for fire and rescue, based near Cambridge, but fire brigades are not going to be regionalised. Thus the East of England will continue to have three county brigades answerable to county councils and three fire authorities comprising representative of county and unitary authorities.

Now it's the turn of the police. Home Secretary may have wanted just eight police authorities plus the Met in London, but he has ended up with a hotch potch compromise which seems to make no sense whatsoever.

Why has be allowed Kent and Hampshire to keep their own police forces, but forcing Essex - strong enough to stand on its own - to merge with Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire, while Lancashire has to join with Cumbria to provide policing stretching from the Scottish border to south of the River Ribble?

Kent, Hampshire, Essex and Lancashire are England's four most populous shire counties. The Home Office's failure to treat them equally beggars belief.

Suffolk, Norfolk, and Cambridgeshire are to lose their independent constabularies with the establishment of an East Anglia police force sprawling from Peterborough to Felixstowe.

Thus in the East of England, we will end up with: one strategic health authority, one ambulance service, one regional fire control centre, three county fire brigades, three fire and emergency authorities, and two police forces.

Interwoven into the fabric will be merged primary care trusts, the exact number to be determined by which of the existing trusts is able to make a strong enough business case to avoid being consumed into county wide organisations.

Overshadowing everything is the future reorganisation of local government. At the moment, the East of England has six county council and four all-purpose unitary authorities. The Government wants to replace the counties with large unitaries and a White Paper in due this June.

Logic would dictate that the pattern of local government should have been decided before reconfiguring the health and emergency services. We could end up with the ludicrous situation of cross-border local authorities being created - typically Felixstowe in Suffolk and Tendring in Essex as a Haven Gateway unitary - being served by two chief constables probably based in Norwich and Hertford, two fire services, one fire control, one strategic health authority, two primary care trusts and a single ambulance service.

And if we are going to go down the road of mergers to save money and over-lapping, wouldn't it have been more sensible to have one huge 999 control room handling all calls for the police, fire and ambulance across six counties rather than the fragmented situation which is being thrust upon us?

Before embarking on the restructuring of England and our essential services, the obvious course of action would have been for the Home Office, the Department of Health, and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister to have talked to one another and mapped out a common way forward.

But was never Whitehall's strong point, no matter which political party formed the government.

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