The minister for Norfolk ...

SHAUN LOWTHORPE Gordon Brown appointed a minister to champion the cause of East Anglia last night - an MP from Stevenage. Millionaire style guru Barbara Follett, who represents the London commuter belt seat in Hertfordshire, was unveiled as a new minister for the East of England with the task of speaking up for six counties including Norfolk and Suffolk in government.

SHAUN LOWTHORPE

Gordon Brown appointed a minister to champion the cause of East Anglia last night - an MP from Stevenage.

Millionaire style guru Barbara Follett, who represents the London commuter belt seat in Hertfordshire, was unveiled as a new minister for the East of England with the task of speaking up for six counties including Norfolk and Suffolk in government.

Last night Mrs Follett said she her goal was to provide a stronger voice for the region.

“The region doesn't have much of an identity and at the moment it pulls in different directions,” she said. “People are operating in silos and that's the position the Prime Minister has asked me to look at.

“We have got problems with housing and problems with transport and the idea is to have a co-ordinating role and provide a voice for the region.”

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But former Norfolk MP Gillian Shephard slammed the appointment. “She would have great difficulty in understanding anywhere that doesn't have a pavement,” she said.

Mrs Follett will be expected to help co-ordinate policy across the region on issues such as schools, transport and education, but she said will learn more details of her exact roles and responsibilities today and hear which other ministerial job she will hold.

Critics slammed the move as “window dressing” and questioned whether or not the wife of author Ken Follett would have any understanding of the needs of Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire.

The Hertfordshire MP, who has campaigned to have more women in Parliament and became famous for her makeovers of fellow Parliamentarians, is one of a number of regional champions appointed by the Prime Minister yesterday at the first day of a reshuffle which saw David Miliband become the youngest foreign secretary since David Owen and Jacqui Smith become the first woman home secretary.

Alistair Darling moved to the Treasury to succeed Mr Brown as chancellor, and Norwich City fan Ed Balls promoted to secretary of state for schools and skills.

Tessa Jowell takes on a similar role for London and the South East and former agriculture secretary Nick Brown will lobby for the north.

Yet while many remained unconvinced about Mrs Follett's appointment, there was backing at the concept from both the Regional Assembly and the East of England Development Agency (Eeda).

But what is yet unclear is whether the move is another attempt to revive a policy for regional government which was spectacularly kicked into touch after voters in the North East rejected plans for an elected regional assembly three years ago.

North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb said: “It's a typical Labour government response to the problems of overcentralisation - rather than taking power away from the centre will have no impact on this region.

“It's window dressing, what really needs to happen is proper decentralisation of power so that people have control over their own lives.”

Daniel Cox, Leader of Norfolk County Council, said Norfolk often loses to the louder voices of counties such as Essex and Hertfordshire, which have little in common with rural counties.

“The challenge for Barbara Follett will be that when she speaks out for the eastern region, she makes sure she speaks out for all, and not just the urban areas,” he said. “The proof of her effectiveness will be whether we, in Norfolk, will get heard more than we presently do, as a result of her new role.”

Mid Norfolk MP Keith Simpson said the appointment left the three counties even further adrift of influencing government policy.

“Norfolk doesn't have an advocate and neither does East Anglia - we've got Barbara Follett,” he said. “This is tokenism and I regard it as ludicrous,” he said. “It shows that Gordon Brown isn't really interested in the regions. For people in Norfolk it might have been acceptable if it was someone from East Anglia.

“If we are lobbying on the A47 this is something on the Norfolk agenda and we go to Barbara Follett, she represents an area in Hertfordshire which will be arguing for its own roads.

But Brian Stewart, chief executive of the East of England regional assembly welcomed the move and last night invited the new minister to the assembly's annual meeting on her home turf in Hertfordshire on July 20.

“The idea of a minister for the regions is something we put in our submission to the comprehensive spending review,” he said. “She is one of our MPs

“Stevenage is a major urban settlement in the region where major growth is going to take place. She will understand the growth issues and some of the sensitivities about where development goes

Richard Ellis, chair of the East of England Development Agency, supported the initiative.

“We welcome the appointment of Barbara Follett MP as Minister for the East of England and we look forward to working with her to understand the opportunities and the challenges that we face in our region”.

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