One HQ plan for all 999 services

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RADICAL PLANS to create joint headquarters for police, fire and ambulance services across the United Kingdom are being drawn up by the Government in an attempt to improve emergency response times.

Pilot schemes for joint 999 call centres and shared buildings for the three emergency services were unveiled yesterday as part of a pounds 120m drive to "revolutionise" public services.

Jack Cunningham, the Cabinet Office minister, and Alan Milburn, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, announced a raft of new projects aimed at saving time and money for the public.

More than 33 schemes to encourage better co-ordination between different Whitehall departments and agencies were unveiled under the Government's Invest to Save programme over the next three years.

Joint centres for police, fire and ambulance services are aimed at saving life-saving minutes in response times, as well as cutting costs by getting the three services to co-operate.

The services would not merge all their facilities, but key infrastructure such as vehicle maintenance and telephone call centres would come under one roof. More than pounds 7.8m has been set aside by the Department of Health to create three pilot projects for the new 999 services.

Elizabeth Neville, Chief Constable of Wiltshire Police and one of the bidders for the cash, said that joint centres could save "life-saving minutes" by enabling a more flexible response to emergencies on a "one call brings them all" basis.

Wiltshire already has some police cars fitted with defibrillators, which can save heart attack victims' lives if applied in time. They patrol areas of the county which ambulances find it hardest to get to, she said.

Frank Dobson, Secretary of State for Health, said yesterday he had been pushing the idea of joint call centres for the emergency services for some time.

"The taxpayer can't be expected to pay out three times over and we must look for the best deal for all three services. This means looking at joint control and communication systems," he said.

"The acid test must be better services for patients and the public."

Other innovative schemes being backed by ministers include projects to cut house-buying times by linking all conveyancing agencies on the Internet, and a Scottish scheme to rehabilitate of young offenders.

Dr Cunningham revealed he will publish a White Paper in the spring setting out Labour's vision for "radical modernisation" of public services. The paper would spell out the need for more strategic, long-term policy-making across departments, exploiting new technology to improve services and improving civil servants' performance through a new Civil Service Management College.

Half the schemes announced yesterday are pilot projects, to identify the scope for savings, which are said to be potentially "quite substantial". The other half are ready to start and are expected to save about pounds 50m over the next three years.