Blair backs your Star

PUBLISHED: 21:00 30 May 2002 | UPDATED: 12:01 03 March 2010

"DON'T have it!"

That was the message today from Prime Minister Tony Blair to people worried about regional government coming to East Anglia.

"We're not going to force anyone into having regional government against their will.

"DON'T have it!"

That was the message today from Prime Minister Tony Blair to people worried about regional government coming to East Anglia.

"We're not going to force anyone into having regional government against their will. Nothing will be done without the consent of the people," he told the Evening Star.

"The message from us is clear: If you don't want it, don't have it," he added.

Mr Blair said some regions like the north east of England were keen to move towards having an elected regional assembly.

But there would be a referendum in every region before an assembly was set up there – giving people the opportunity to reject the proposal.

The Prime Minister also moved to reassure the county that Ipswich Hospital would not be downgraded as other major hospitals in East Anglia win new foundation status.

The fact that Ipswich missed out on the status – which allows hospitals to govern themselves – and that its application for more money to improve intensive care beds has been held up has prompted fears for the future of this service.

"I cannot comment on the exact reason for the hold-up, but the fact that other hospitals have been given foundation status certainly does not mean that Ipswich Hospital is being downgraded.

"The government is investing very heavily in health, but this comes with reform – and Ipswich Hospital will benefit from the changes," he said.

Mr Blair is in East Anglia on the day after he appointed Alistair Darling as Transport Secretary in succession to the beleaguered Stephen Byers.

The appointment also coincided with the splitting of the giant Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions.

Was this a recognition that it was wrong to create the "super-ministry" in 1997?

"It's a recognition that transport is a subject that needs the full attention of a stand-alone department, that its importance has increased," Mr Blair said.

Mr Blair was speaking on a train rushing through the Essex countryside – on tracks featured in shocking photographs earlier this month.

"Transport has become a very important issue for many people. You just have to look at the facts – the number of people using the trains has increased by 20 per cent over the last few years," he said.

"There are problems, many of them caused by fragmentation at privatisation, which need to be addressed.

"That is what will be happening over the next few years. The rail, and road, network of this country needs a lot of investment.

"But because it is fragmented it isn't something that can be done overnight."

This afternoon Mr Blair is visiting parents and children at Shotley Primary School – a school which has shown dramatic improvements over the last five years.

Mr Blair defended the government's publication of schools' league tables.

"They are a useful indication, but should be used alongside other information," he said.

With increasing violent crime on the streets of Ipswich – especially late-night assaults outside nightclubs – Mr Blair said the government had put money into more police officers and increased CCTV coverage.

"In Ipswich there has been considerable investment there. We are aware that this kind of crime does concern people, as does anti-social behaviour."

Naming and shaming young offenders who are the subject of Anti-Social Behaviour Orders was a matter for the courts – but he felt it could be a deterrent for young hooligans.

With Ipswich Town now caught up in the crisis over the collapse of ITV Digital, Mr Blair insisted that digital television was the future for the nation's viewers.

"The collapse was very unfortunate, especially for the football clubs which now face serious financial problems as a result.

"But the government cannot get involved in a commercial issue like this. Britain is at the forefront of digital technology and we are still looking at switching over to digital television completely by between 2006 and 2010," he said.

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