The three strategic health authorities in the West Midlands are to be merged into one body covering the entire region.

Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt said the re-organisation would cut down on bureaucracy and improve services for patients. Opposition MPs also supported the changes, but warned of a creeping move towards regional government.

Worcestershire MP Peter Luff (Con Mid Worcestershire) said: "In this case the Govern-ment may be doing the right thing, but it comes on top of plans to create regional police, fire and ambulance services which are unnecessary and unpopular."

The three existing SHAs are Birmingham and the Black Country; Shropshire and Staffordshire, and West Midlands South.

They will merge to merged to form one authority, called West Midlands SHA from July 1, Ms Hewitt said yesterday. She said: "These improvements to the local NHS will mean more money for frontline services and better care for patients."

Elisabeth Buggins, chair of Birmingham and The Black Country Strategic Health Authority, said: "The merger will release £7.5 million savings to be reinvested into front line services.

"The new strategic health authority will ensure that health services in the region deliver on national policy and improve health and patient centred care, efficiently and effectively, to each resident within the West Midlands.

"One body covering the West Midlands will benefit from shared boundaries with local government agencies, which will offer significant advantages in influencing and decision making to enhance health improvement and reduce inequalities."

Under the changes, there will be ten authorities across England, corresponding to the official government regions.