Acute and mental health trusts are to be given the chance to acquire billions of pounds worth of property assets used to provide community services, with final decisions due by the end of the year.

The plans were detailed in a letter signed by deputy NHS chief executive David Flory and published by the Department of Health yesterday.

Mr Flory said acute trusts, mental health trusts and aspirant community foundation trusts would be able to take over the primary care trust estate where the trust is the majority occupant, and the buildings are integral to the community services provided.

DH guidance released in January indicated that community foundation trusts would be able to take over the buildings they use, but it is the first time a clear indication has been given for mental health and acute trusts.

According to the DH’s timetable, PCTs must review and provisionally agree lists of which properties will be transferred and which will be retained by 14 September.

Those lists will be approved by strategic health authorities by 30 October, and will be signed off by the DH on 15 December.

Mr Flory acknowledged that because the assets will be very diverse in their use and legal ownership status, and decisions will have to be made on a case-by-case basis.

Buildings paid for under the public-private partnership, private finance initiative or the Local Improvement Finance Trust schemes will remain with PCTs for the time being. No plan has yet been detailed for PCT assets where services have transferred to a social enterprise.

Assets that trusts decide to stop using must be offered to the secretary of state before they can be sold off. Where they are sold, Mr Flory’s letter says the disposal should be at market value. His letter appeared to indicate that the government would take half of any future receipts generated by the trust through the sale of assets.

It states: “Under these circumstances, 50 per cent of the gain achieved, based upon gross sale proceeds less the lower of the net book value at the date of acquisition or the net book value before any revaluation prior to sale, will be payable to the secretary of state.”

The secretary of state, “or a body nominated by him” will also have the option to re-acquire buildings if the provider trust loses a service contract, ceases to exist, becomes insolvent, or vacates the property.

The letter says the new arrangements should ensure that the assets are placed with the owner with the “best incentive” invest in them and make the most effective use of them.

Buildings should not be transferred to a provider if it is know that they will only occupy them for a short period. The letter adds that “surplus assets” with a “short-term operational life” should be identified so they can be disposed of.

An HSJ investigation last month calculated the value of assets now used by acute trusts to provide community services at £2.7bn. This accounts for around a third of community services in England, but included PPP/PFI and LIFT properties.

A DH spokeswoman said: “It is right that foundation trusts and NHS trusts that provide community services be given the opportunity to own the estate used to deliver those services.

“We have announced clear safeguards around this to ensure that future ownership of estate currently owned by PCTs is in the best interests of patients and taxpayers.”