Monday, September 26, 2005

Reflections after a trip to Newcastle

A couple of days ago I had occasion to drive to Newcastle and back to visit a work colleague. I was already well aware at an intellectual level that getting from West Cumbria to the North East was quite a slog, but intellectually understanding this is not the same as doing the journey. I went by the A66 to Penrith and M6 to Carlisle: it took well over three hours to get from Gosforth to Carlisle and my colleague, who used to live in Whitehaven, tells me this was par for the course. I came back via Scotch Corner: this also took more than three hours and took me through the most dangerous stretch of road in Britain, where there are signs warning that nearly 200 people have been killed or injured in the last few years. And the train journey is no easier.

Overall the round trip from West Cumbria to Newcastle took longer, and was more tiring, than a one-way trip between West Cumbria and London.

I’m sure this isn’t news to any native Cumbrian and that everyone born here or who has lived here longer than me is thinking something along the lines of “finally worked that out, have you?” But please bear with me. What really bothers me is that decisions about transport networks and the organisation of public services as they affect Cumbria are being made by people in London who have absolutely no idea what that journey is like.

It was obvious at the public inquiry into the daft proposal to de-trunk the A595 that this had been dreamed up on the basis of national criteria and looks totally logical from a desk in London – and it was equally obvious that anyone with first hand knowledge of the roads and communities affected realises that downgrading the road is a really terrible idea.

Similar arguments apply to the future of local health services. There are real difficulties about providing every possible medical service locally in an area like Cumbria. Obviously we want the best possible health care: unfortunately for some specialist services that is going to mean a visit to a regional centre. However, we must never lose sight of the fact that every time a service moves to Carlisle that imposes suffering on people in West Cumbria and when a service is moved to Newcastle it is even worse. And where there is absolutely no alternative but to provide some NHS services at a regional level, perhaps we need to re-think where that should be – many of Cumbria’s North-South transport links, while far from good, are not as difficult as some of the East-West links.

The same issue applies to proposals to regionalise the Fire service and the latest scheme to regionalise the police.

I am deeply unhappy both with the idea of abolishing local fire control rooms and merging Cumbria constabulary into some giant regional force. The government’s argument for larger police forces is that the small ones are supposedly inefficient. Perhaps if they didn’t have such a huge burden of form-filling and could spend more time catching criminals both small and large police forces could be more effective. I heard from a recently retired copper that when he started work thirty years ago they had to fill in forms equivalent to an average of about two pages of A4 when they arrested someone, but that now it would be closer to fifty pages.

It has not been my experience that large operating units are always more capable. There are certainly some efficiency savings with bigger units – economists like me call them economies of scale – but big organisations are usually more bureaucratic, less flexible, and often less able to adapt to local and human needs. Even if we can save on administrative overheads by having larger police forces, it will remain important to take as many policing decisions as possible at a local level. But I remain to be convinced, and any proposals to merge local police forces, especially into huge regions, should be examined with a fine tooth comb.

1 comment:

Andrew said...

I live in Millom and have just started to investigate the world of "blogs". Thank you for highlighting some of the issues facing the local area. It is a concern for people in Millom that de-trunking appears to be going ahead. As it is the roads are poor enough. If the stretch of road between Grizebeck and Thwaites is ever blocked, it will mean a huge diversion for large vehicles - Barrow to Millom via Penrith and Cockermouth as far as I can tell. Surely no other place in England of equivalent size hangs on by such a slender thread as far as road links are concerned? (PS - I still hugely enjoy living in this area, the benefits far outweigh the various difficulties you describe so clearly).