More than £650m a year of public health funding will be withheld from local authorities until after next year’s general election, it has emerged.

The cash has been held back as NHS England struggles to hit a target set by the prime minister to increase health visitor numbers.

Figures due to be seen by NHS England’s board tomorrow revealed that the health service is lagging behind the target.

In terms of increasing workforce numbers, the body was 349 health visitors behind its trajectory, according to the latest figures recorded for January.

The biggest shortfall, of 225, was found in London.

The shortfalls are due to difficulties recruiting and retaining staff.

A senior NHS England source said its area teams were being strongly managed on their performance to increase numbers in order to meet prime minister David Cameron’s target.

“Increasing health visitor numbers is a good thing, but they don’t grow on trees,” the source said.

While most public health funding was transferred from the NHS to local authorities and Public Health England last year, the budget for children’s public health commissioning for 0-5 year-olds, which covers health visitors, was transferred to NHS England. The transfer aimed to address concerns that local authorities would not meet the prime minister’s pre-2010 election commitment to boost health visitor numbers by 4,200, more than doubling the workforce.

The target date was later set to April 2015.

Although local authorities were previously promised the budget sometime in the future they had not been given a date.

The withheld budget would swell their current public health income by some 30 per cent.

They have now been informed that the funds will not be released until October 2015, five months after the May general election.

An email from the Local Government Association, seen by HSJ, said this date had been “officially confirmed” by the children’s health minister Dan Poulter. The LGA has called for the government to allocate the funding without dictating what it must be spent on.

Blackburn with Darwen Council public health director Dominic Harrison said: “We hope this is is transferred on the basis of  ‘outcomes to be achieved’ rather than transferred with an over-prescriptive list of staff or services for which it is to be used. This is one of the most important areas of public health investment, it is crucial we have maximum local flexibility to create services to meet the specific needs of communities. A one size fits all service specification will not enable us to make best use of the funding.”

A Department of Health spokesman said: “Huge progress has been made to increase numbers of health visitors. As the board papers show, we are within 3 per cent of our current target and have robust plans in place to make sure that we have an additional 4,200 health visitors by April 2015.”

Stevens: ‘Concerted action’ needed to hit 18 weeks

The NHS England chief executive is to call for urgent “concerted action” to meet its headline planned care target of treating at least 90 per cent of patients admitted within 18 weeks of referral.

Simon Stevens will say in a paper to his board tomorrow: “More concerted action is urgently now needed… to ensure the NHS continues to meet the public’s legitimate expectation of acceptable waiting times.”

HSJ reported last month that the target had been breached in February for the first time since 2011, in part because providers are choosing to treat patients who have waited a long time instead of those which would help meet the target.