Oftel, the industry watchdog, yesterday confirmed that from 2000 the dialling codes for London, Northern Ireland, Cardiff, Portsmouth and Southampton would change as part of a longer term shake-up of telephone numbers who could one day see the UK move from local to regional codes. Don Cruickshank, the telephones regulator, insisted the changes would ultimately add billions of new numbers, enough to make the new system "future-proof." But BT complained that the new system went beyond Mr Cruickshank's original proposals, launched last summer, and would cause problems for customers.
Labour's consumer affairs spokesman, Nigel Griffiths, said Mr Cruickshank should be suspended from office for going back on a firm pledge made before the last numbering changes in 1995. Quoting a BBC transcript from the edition of Newsnight broadcast on 6 March 1995, Mr Griffiths claimed Mr Cruickshank had said: "Once we've put 1 in front of all the present numbers in the UK, no one who has such a number will have to change again during their lifetime."
Mr Griffiths said: "The failure to listen to experts, and the persistent denial of a further number change, makes the director-general's position virtually untenable."
The new system, prompted by a massive demand for phone numbers with the explosion of fax machines and e-mail addresses, replaces London's two dialling codes, 0171 and 0181 with a return to a single code for the whole city, 020. Existing seven-digit numbers will grow to eight digits.
The most radical alteration is for Northern Ireland, where after what Mr Cruickshank insisted had been full consultation a single code, 028, will be introduced. He said he had raised the option of a single code for Wales, but this had been rejected by local interest groups.
But it is the plan to merge the codes for Portsmouth and Southampton into 023 which concerned BT. Mr Cruickshank raises the radical prospect that other UK towns could switch to regional codes before 2010 if councils agree. It means calls from Portsmouth to Southampton, or vice-versa, will appear like local calls even though they are charged as trunk calls at higher rates.
A BT spokesman commented: "We were surprised by this. It wasn't part of the original consultation document. It could lead to confusion where customers are using local dialling to reach another city."
Mr Cruickshank refused to be drawn on the cost for business of the changes, but said estimates of pounds 1bn were far too high. "The real cost would be if cities began to run out of numbers."
Ringing the changes
1912: The first automatic exchange opened in Epsom in Surrey.
1958: Trunk dialling around the UK introduced.
1966: Letters phased out - no more "Whitehall 1212" for Scotland Yard.
1976: Last manual exchange went out of service in Skye.
1990: London code changed from 01 to 071 and 081 for inner and outer London.
1995: Prefix 0 replaced by 01 in all dialling codes.