Regions: Gummer joins the debate

By Rt Hon John Gummer MPSUFFOLK and Proud - that's the masthead of the edition of the EADT that I get every day. Not surprisingly, the local paper has got it right where central government is increasingly getting it wrong.

By Rt Hon John Gummer MP

SUFFOLK and Proud - that's the masthead of the edition of the EADT that I get every day. Not surprisingly, the local paper has got it right where central government is increasingly getting it wrong.

Those three words sum up our local loyalty. The counties of England, despite all sorts of local government reform and reorganisation, represent real historic entities. In our case, we go back to the South Folk who settled here, 1500 years ago.

They were different then from the North Folk or the East Saxons and we feel we're different now from Norfolk and Essex - leave alone Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire, and Hertfordshire. Yet, the plan is to get rid of Suffolk and merge all six counties into the region of the East - all for the convenience of central government. What has Trimley St Mary in common with Luton, or Walberswick with Welwyn Garden City?

There is no evidence of any kind that this amalgamation is what the people of Suffolk or any of the other counties want. Indeed, we all remember that when Mr Prescott tried a referendum in the North East, the region that was thought to be most in favour of his scheme. The majority against was so huge that it was closer to those usually reserved for Communist dictatorships - although in their case they won!

Despite the overwhelming evidence that the public doesn't want another layer of Government, John Prescott marches on towards his goal of an England of the regions .

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Of course, Government departments - Transport, Agriculture, Environment and the rest - have had regional arrangements to deliver their services for many decades. It was merely a convenience - the parallel to a company's sales areas. There used to be a good deal of overlap and confusion because every ministry had a different regional structure which made it all very costly.

When Mr Blair came to power, he gave self-government to Scotland and Wales - Scots and Welsh MPs could vote on all English matters but English MPs couldn't vote on many Scottish or Welsh issues. We English rightly objected. So, Mr Prescott invented his regional policy. He took these Government regions and turned them into something quite alien to their purpose or to British history. He wanted to suggest they were parallel to the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Assembly.

Of course, it was nonsense from the beginning. Westminster wasn't giving to the regions any of the powers of central Government. No minister or civil servant was ever up for that! No, the only powers the regions were ever going to get were those which local authorities either had or ought to have. So, from the first, regional government was based on taking powers from the real local authorities, the counties, the districts, and even the parishes and pushing them on these invented regions.

Worse still, because the regions were entirely artificial, invented for the top-down purpose of delivering the Government's policies, they continue to be under the thumb of the Government. They have even less independence than the counties and Ddstricts. They are unelected and every one of their powers and responsibilities is circumscribed by Government diktat.

Mr Prescott saw that another tier of Government was going to be very unpopular. So, despite almost universal opposition from local people of all parties, he is hell-bent on imposing regional government by abolishing the counties and creating new so-called unitary authorities.

We are seeing the preparations for regional government already. The Strategic Health Authority only covers three counties at the moment but the plan is that it will cover the whole region. Suffolk police, one of the most praised forces in England has been told it must amalgamate with neighbouring forces.

The fact that practically no-one in Suffolk wants to lose our county police force counts for nothing.

Already we have lost our county ambulance service and the plan for full regionalisation has been announced. The fire service has had a regional structure imposed upon it and there too, complete regionalisation is only a matter of time. The Government has leant on all these organisations to come up with the same regional solutions. It's a matter of piper and tunes!

Local control is already reduced and what remains is under threat. The Regional planning arrangements have slashed County and District powers. They will be forced to take tens of thousands of new houses into the Suffolk countryside by unelected regional apparatchiks directed by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.

Even though local politicians of all parties oppose this regionalisation and Suffolk people want to keep our historic county, ministers seem determined not to listen. The time has come for Suffolk people in all parties, Labour, Liberal, and Conservative, to stand up against centralisation and the loss of local identity and fight regionalism on every front. We must remain Suffolk and Proud.

John Gummer was MP for Eye from 1979 to 1983 and has been Suffolk Coastal's MP since. He is a former Chairman of the Conservative Party and has been Minister of Agriculture and Secretary of State for the Environment.

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