Patient watchdogs have attacked repeated delays in launching a consultation on separating community and mental health services in east London.

Three community health councils have demanded that health secretary Frank Dobson acts swiftly to approve the consultation exercise, originally due this spring. The proposals were sent to him last month.

But they have also called for proposals to change community services to be dropped until primary care trusts are set up. The first PCTs go live next April.

Community trusts would be stripped of their mental health services under the plans drawn up by East London and the City health authority. A single mental health trust would be set up for the area.

The consultation would also include proposals to merge three community trusts into a single organisation for east London.

Alternative plans to merge any two of City and Hackney Community Services trust, Newham Community Services trust and Tower Hamlets Healthcare trust would also be included.

A London region spokesperson said the plans were part of a wider trend to create separate mental health trusts in the capital.

In south London, Bethlem and Maudsley trust was set up earlier this year and in north-east London similar plans are being drawn up by HAs including Redbridge and Waltham Forest, and Barking and Havering.

Newham CHC chief officer Jean Lowe said: 'We are extremely concerned about the impact of changing the configuration of community services leading up to the formation of PCTs.

'Creating a new community trust now, when PCTs would take over providing community care within the next two years, would be disruptive and damage staff morale.'

Joy Vallmer, deputy chief officer of City and Hackney CHC, said the delays were 'causing serious uncertainty for staff and for the population of east London'.

She said CHCs were 'resigned' to the proposals for mental health services, but were 'very concerned' about 'having yet another change' in community services before the creation of primary care trusts'.

Dr Bhupinder Kohli, chair of Newham primary care group, confirmed that the board was 'committed to working towards becoming a PCT by April 2001'.

All three east London CHCs have written jointly to London regional office to protest at the delays.

'The longer it takes to make a decision the less time there is to set up a consultation process and get new management structures in place before next April,' said Ms Vallmer.

A spokesperson for London region said plans to reconfigure community services were necessary if mental health services were to be taken out and moved into a single trust.

The consultation could start 'as soon as possible once we get the green light'.