A primary care trust in Essex has shortlisted four foundation trusts to take over its provider arm in the first such service transfer of its type.

The board of NHS South West Essex decided in March it would transfer management of its community services division to a foundation trust for two years, starting in spring 2010.

In August it called for expressions of interest and has now announced a shortlist of four potential partners - Basildon and Thurrock University Foundation Trust, North East London Foundation Trust, South Essex Partnership University Foundation Trust and Southend University Hospital Foundation Trust.

The PCT has described the intended transfer as the first of its type, because the invitation to apply to manage its provider arm - which has contracts worth £70m a year - is limited to the “NHS family of foundation trusts”.

The PCT said it opted for this approach to ensure “a clear separation between the commissioning and provision of services and that the relationship between the commissioner and provider is based on performance and bound by contract”.

This will enable the PCT to “fully exploit the opportunities that the emerging market for NHS services presents”.

South West Essex was ranked joint 135 with six other PCTs in this year’s world class commissioning league table.

However, deputy chief executive Barbara Stuttle said: “As our ability as a world class commissioner grows, so will our expectations of the providers and services we commission, creating a virtuous circle with patients at the centre.”