Regions debate: Chris Mole MP

By Chris Mole MPTHE recent fire at Buncefield, Europe's biggest peace time fire, showed the benefits of some of the regional organisation the Labour government has put in place since 1997.

By Chris Mole MP

THE recent fire at Buncefield, Europe's biggest peace time fire, showed the benefits of some of the regional organisation the Labour government has put in place since 1997. Hertfordshire Fire Authority would not have coped on its own, but a new regional emergency planning structure brought special resources from all over the East of England to bear, and quickly put it out.

A few years back the East of England Development Agency led the response to the closure of Vauxhall Motors ensuring there were training and re-skilling opportunities for thousands of workers - previously it would have been left to the men from the ministry. The police have increasingly to deal with organised and mobile crime that pays no respect to borders that are hundreds of years old.

Labour's regional agenda has always been about devolving decision making from Whitehall, democratising activities that were formerly directed by the Government Regional Offices set up by the Tories.

The Conservatives set the boundaries of our region, and the incoming government felt there was little value in spending years arguing about lines on maps. Many organisations, including the CBI, BT and the Church of England, have moved themselves to organise on this basis and there is more coherence across all walks of life than ever before.

Regional land use planning and transport strategy now take place on a scale that is large enough to recognise commuting patterns, and travel to work areas that cross county boundaries. EEDA plans to build on the strength of our regional economy (the third most productive in the UK) and our voluntary regional assembly (EERA) scrutinises their Economic Strategy ensure other strategic plans fit with it. EERA is indirectly elected being made up of councillors from all over the region, and is strengthened by other key stakeholders from the voluntary, business and trade union sectors.

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Key agencies and businesses as diverse as the NHS, through the Strategic Rail Authority, water utilities and the Environment Agency are now paying attention to these regional plans.

Our region will always struggle with its identity, as does any that abuts a capital city, but the M25 is flanked by farms and King's Lynn suffers urban deprivation. There is more in common than not. Regionalism is about tackling the many issues within a region, rather than looking for difference. We don't have regional cheeses, accents or costumes; what we do have is a region that is economically diverse, with strong prospects for the future.

There are towns like Luton, Harlow and Peterborough which have similar populations to Ipswich, which can join Cambridge as economic power houses. We need institutions that are appropriately sized with regional bodies that take power wherever possible from Whitehall, are big enough to carry out specialist functions effectively, and local government that is local enough to be responsive.

It is an exciting agenda. In due course we should tackle some of the accountability issues. But there can be no going back.

Chris Mole has been Labour MP for Ipswich since November 2001. He was Leader of Suffolk County Council from 1993 until becoming an MP

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