MERGER plans between the Arts Council of England and Northern Arts have come under fire from a North-East theatre company boss.

Paul Harman, artistic director of Darlington's Cleveland Theatre Company, has called the proposal, which was announced yesterday, unacceptable, because it is not being submitted to public scrutiny.

Mr Harman said: "The arts council will continue to be entirely dependent upon government for its funding and its policies will be dictated, as now, by the government of the day, but no minister will be directly accountable to parliament."

He also stressed the danger of money and resources coming under the influence of a few major institutions and a small group of officers in Great Peter Street, the arts council headquarters.

Andrew Dixon, chief executive of Northern Arts, which distributes Arts Council cash to the North-East and Cumbria, agreed a rapid decision was required, butsaid: "We feel this is completing a programme of decentralisation to the regions.

"I will fight tooth and nail to protect our regional voice and identity within the new organisation."

The timetable for the Northern Arts board requires it to agree to the merger at a meeting on March 30.