The chief executive of much-criticised Basildon and Thurrock University Hospitals Foundation Trust is to step down.

Alan Whittle has led the trust since 2003, through a period when it has come under attack for high mortality rates, poor standards of care and a series of deaths related to Legionnaire’s Disease.

In 2009 Monitor found it in breach of its terms of authorisation and demanded a quicker response to concerns raised by the Care Quality Commission.  It remains in breach and is red-rated for governance.

Mr Whittle’s departure was announced to staff on Monday - but no leaving date has been set and he is expected to stay in post until a successor is found. It is not known whether Mr Whittle - who is in his mid-50s - will take early retirement or whether he will seek another NHS job.

No reason has been given for Mr Whittle’s departure but it comes at a time of impending board changes. Interim chair Sir Peter Dixon took over in April last year for a period expected to be six to 12 months, although a replacement has yet to be appointed. In a Christmas message to staff Sir Peter urged them not to settle for second best and referred to “pockets of old habits within the trust that do need to be dealt with”.

The trust is also recruiting four new non-executive directors, to fill an existing vacancy and to replace others coming to the end of their term.

It is also awaiting the outcome of a CQC follow up visit at the end of last year, which is expected to be released soon, and of a Health and Safety Executive investigation into a legionella-related death in August last year. An inquest in November into an earlier legionella-related death was critical of the trust, which has spent £2m over the last few years on maintenance of its water systems.