After a long courtship, the IHSM and the AMGP sealed the knot last week amid scenes of faded seaside glamour. Laura Donnelly wonders how long it will be before Relate's services are required

If it's stars you're after, look no further than Southport's Floral Hall - you'll be spoilt for choice.

If you're not a fan of Ken Dodd or Keith Harris and Orville - and hey, who is? - then why not settle down to an evening with Jean Alexander, best known, until 1987, as Coronation Street 's Hilda Ogden?

Perhaps it is little wonder that two slightly faltering stars fixed their hopes on the career-boosting powers of the seaside entertainment complex.

Yes, the Institute of Health Services Management and the Association of Management in General Practice were in good company as they kicked off Southport's season with the launch of the Institute of Healthcare Management at a conference on primary care.

IHSM chair Mike Lager hailed it as a marriage 'based on common respect' while AMGP chief executive Rosey Foster urged the new organisation to 'hit the ground running'.

But all that glitters is not Stuart Marples - IHM director and a man who professes his humility so often that it is tempting to take him up a peg or two.

And some delegates privately admitted to a lack of faith in the former chief executive of Royal Bournemouth and Christchurch Hospitals trust's attempts to 'reposition' the IHM with a central focus on education and training.

Mr Marples set out plans for a 'fitness to practice' certificate for managers based on competence, ethical behaviour and a commitment to keeping up to date. 'Those of you who believe it is possible to ask the troops to go over the top while sitting safely in the bunkers, untouched, do not fulfil my views of leaders, ' he said.

But delegates suggested they weren't too impressed with the repositioning strategy.

One said Mr Marples' 'obsession with continuous professional development' was 'way off course'.

An audience in which practice managers vastly outnumbered all others were more impressed by an enthusiastic exposition of the role of primary care in meeting technological developments in genetics, robotics and artificial organs.

Former IHSM director and York University visiting professor Ray Rowden told them: 'Solutions are not going to be found in palaces of illhealth called hospitals. The only solutions are in primary care. The future is brilliant.'

Proposing five principles of good management - to be fast, friendly, flexible, focused and fun, his presentation took on a quasievangelical zeal as he urged delegates to 'love each other - don't hate each other' and to be friendly within teams as well as externally.

Professor Rowden also rattled through a frank interpretation of the current issues dominating healthcare management. On clinical governance - and particularly the duty of quality imposed on trust and health authority boards - he warned, 'if people on the boards don't understand this they are bloody idiots'.

His take on the role of the Commission for Health Improvement was blunter still. 'If Dobson gets another Bristol he can say get your arse in here fast and sort it out, ' he told delegates, adding: 'This lot have got more powers than Customs & Excise.'

And he took issue with earlier claims by NHS Executive branch head of primary care general medical services Mike Farrar on restrictions on the number of primary care groups progressing to primary care trust status.

Mr Farrar had told delegates that reports of financial limits were 'inaccurate'. He added: 'There has been no cap imposed by the Treasury.'

But Professor Rowden insisted: 'I am telling you, the Treasury are worried sick about the bills coming up from Kosovo. I predict that 10 or at the most 20 (PCTs) will go live in April.'

Mr Farrar later told HSJ that between 12 and 15 PCTs were likely to launch next April. He said most groups were 'more interested in going live in October' - with about 40 PCTs looking to launch then.

Richard Mitchell, a practice manager from Devon, asked what would be done to address pay inequalities which left primary care managers as the 'poor relations' of counterparts in trusts and HAs.

Mr Farrar admitted that he had 'very limited powers' to address pay rates, which managers 'in a way negotiated for themselves in taking the jobs'.

But he suggested that 'the setting of reasonable salary levels' for managers of PCTs might prove 'one way of putting pressure in the system'.

Guidance due out by next month will detail financial regimes, human resources, and rates of pay for PCT members.

'A bit of conflict': primary care and the millennium Delegates at a workshop on primary care and the millennium flagged up concerns about conflicting advice on prescribing patterns.

Catherine Pallister, a member of the NHS London regional office Year 2000 team admitted 'there appeared to be a bit of a conflict' between advice to avoid prescribing between 20 December and 10 January and guidelines recommending that periods of prescribing should not be extended.

She said that between 7 and 10 per cent of practices were expected to be non-year 2000 compliant by 1 January.

Keith Clough, facilitating consultant for the IHSM telemedicine and telecare programme, asked whether NHSnet had contingency plans in place.

Ms Pallister's immediate response of 'Oh dear' was followed by assurances that NHSnet has 'quite a robust contingency plan in place'.

'That was not a personal view, ' she added.