NEWS

South East regional office has defended its decision to back controversial proposals to merge Hampshire and Surrey ambulance services despite local opposition.

Under the plan, seven ambulance trusts will combine to form three new services covering Hampshire and Surrey; Kent and Sussex; Oxfordshire, Berkshire, Northamptonshire and Buckinghamshire.

The merger has been welcomed by Surrey Ambulance Service trust, which argues that it will release more funds for front-line services. But its proposed partner, Hampshire Ambulance Service trust, along with six community health councils and Southampton city council, have come out against the move, fearing that the restructuring will result in high costs and distract staff while they work to improve service quality.

South East region recommended the merger amid accusations from one Southampton-based newspaper that it was 'ignoring' the£10,000 public consultation carried out this summer, when many concerns were raised.

South East region denied the claim: 'The comments [on the plan] were very diverse and it is clear that careful thought needs to be put into the decision to ensure the most appropriate outcome.

'The regional office's view is given no particular weight, as it is simply a part of the Department of Health. Health ministers will have all the local information, views and comments made available to them before any final decision is made.'

No decision date has been announced by junior health minister Hazel Blears, but under the proposals the first steps towards merger would start next April.

Winchester and Central Hampshire CHC joint chief officer Christine Allen said: 'There is a lot of opposition to the plans. I think that is why we are surprised by the recommendation coming from the regional office. But we are hoping. . . the decision will take into account local feeling.'

A Hampshire Ambulance Service trust spokesperson said: 'We are concerned that plans will be expensive and the restructuring will take place at a time when we are working to improve services.'

But Surrey Ambulance Service trust chief executive Alan Kennedy said: 'This is about freeing up money and being able to pay for the investment that is needed in things like new technology.'