South East Coast and South West ambulance services have become the first ambulance trusts to achieve foundation status.

The trusts, which between them cover a population of around 7.4m, were authorised by Monitor yesterday, bringing the total number of foundation trusts to 136.

Under the terms of the health bill all NHS trusts must become foundation trusts by 2014 and England’s other nine ambulance services are at various stages of the application process.

North East Ambulance Service, West Midlands and South Central told HSJ they were hoping to become FTs by the end of the year. The rest have not yet replied to HSJ’s queries.

South East Coast Ambulance Service chief executive Paul Sutton told HSJ it was good for the ambulance service nationally to have a “couple of guinea pigs” to explore the benefits that FT status could bring.

“So many parts of the NHS still see the ambulance service as a transport service and we are so much more than that,” he said.

The trust plans to reduce the number of patients taken to hospital from the current rate of between 55 and 75 per cent to 55 per cent or less over the next five years, by working with GPs and linking with community services.

Mr Sutton admitted the geographical area covered by the trust, some 3,600 square miles, poses a unique set of challenges in terms of making board meetings accessible to foundation trust members.

But he said, despite this, the trust had not struggled to recruit the public.  It has 5,000 members and hopes to increase that by 10 per cent a year.

Mr Sutton said the lifting of the private patient income cap, expected to be enacted when the health bill is passed, could provide opportunities, but increasing private work was “not really on our agenda”.

Sue Slipman, director of the Foundation Trust Network, said the achievement demonstrated the “plurality and flexibility of the foundation trust model”.