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District councils fear being ‘sidelined'

Tom Wall01/02/2012 - 13:00

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Oxford fears being 'sidelined'
Oxford fears being 'sidelined'

Political differences and a lack of co-operation between councils in two-tier areas may undermine the government’s public health reforms.

Oxford City Council told EHN that political tensions between councillors in county and district councils in some areas might skew funding and compromise efforts to improve public health.

Ian Wright, Oxford City Council health development service manager, told EHN that there was ‘possibility’ that under the Health and Social Care Bill, councils controlled by different political parties might fail to work together.

The bill will transfer public health functions from the NHS to local government and create a ring-fenced budget by April 2013.

‘In Oxfordshire we’ve got a Conservative-run county council and a Labour-run city council. We don’t always see eye to eye on things,’ he said. ‘There is a possibility that they might not want to engage with us’

Oxfordshire’s health and wellbeing board, he added, should focus on Oxford because it is ‘the place with highest need’. Other parts of the county are ‘very well off’.

‘There is not exactly much deprivation out there in David Cameron’s Whitney constituency,’ he said.

Mr Wright said that the government should create a duty for upper-tier councils, where health and wellbeing boards sit, to co-operate with lower-tier councils, where many EHOs are based.

‘The fact is that there is likely to be some politics going on and if we do not have a statutory requirement to be there I can see that we may well get sidelined,’ he added.

Oxford City Council is not represented on Oxfordshire’s shadow health and wellbeing board. Instead a director from one of Oxfordshire’s other district councils is on the board.

Harrogate Borough Council also backed a new duty. It warned the bill was a ‘lost opportunity’ for public health work to be delivered outside of health and social care agencies and for directors of public health ‘to be aware of what is happening on the ground’.

Harrogate said it was ‘not involved’ with North Yorkshire County Council shadow health and wellbeing board.

‘The district councils in North Yorkshire have one rep on the group working up the proposals,’ it said.

South Lakeland District council said the government’s plans to leave it up to county councils risked a ‘lack of co-ordination and duplication’.

Simon Rowley, South Lakeland assistant director community services, told EHN that the bill in its current form was a ‘lost opportunity’ to deliver effective interventions using highly skilled, knowledgeable and experienced district council staff.

South Lakeland’s chief executive officer is a member of the interim health and wellbeing board for Cumbria.

Phil Easteal, manager of environmental health and community safety at Basildon District Council, told EHN that a duty to co-operate would send ‘a strong message’.

But he said he was sure the Essex health and wellbeing board would ‘in any case involve or consult with lower-tier authorities’.

Basildon is not on the Essex shadow health and wellbeing board. Instead chief executives from Harlow District council and Tendring District Council sit on the board.

David Kidney, CIEH’s head of policy, said the CIEH has ‘pressed and pressed’ for the government to require all the public health partners, but especially the county and district councils in two-tier local government areas of England, to co-operate.

‘As a result, the case is well understood and the Department of Health has recognised the importance of county councils involving their district councils in the planning of their public health services. But what is clear is that no amount of fine words and exhortation is going to compensate for a broken or non-existent working relationship,’ he said.

EHN approached a random selection of six district councils across the country. Only one of the four councils that responded had a seat on a health and wellbeing board.

One out of four county councils approached reported it was allocating a chief EHO to its shadow health and wellbeing board. The remaining authorities said environmental health services would influence the board through managerial representation from district councils or via additional forums.

Two counties said they had invited all district councils in their area to attend the shadow board. Two counties chose to give a selection of districts a seat, and these councils were then expected to liaise with other second-tier authorities in the area.

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