One of the most controversial figures from the era of the Conservative NHS reforms has staged a surprise comeback by winning a seat on a trust board.

Catherine Hawkins, who was South Western regional general manager from 1984 to 1992, has been appointed as a non-executive director of North Bristol trust.

Though acknowledged as an extremely effective manger, her abrasive style made her enemies and earned her the nickname 'Hatchet Hawkins' in Private Eye.

The regional office's endorsement of her application, and ministerial approval, have surprised local observers, who assumed she would be unpalatable to New Labour.

Unison south west regional head of bargaining Ian Ducat said: 'She is certainly a very controversial figure, and one that I would associate with the 1980s.

'She has vast experience in the health service and I can only think that is what those who have appointed her feel she will bring to North Bristol trust.

'We will wait to see how she performs and whether she proves herself a friend to staff.'

Ann Lloyd, chief executive of North Bristol trust, denied rumours that she had complained to regional office about the appointment. 'The role of RGM is completely different from that of non-executive director.

'She is not managing this trust, we are managing this trust. Her role is to advise and test us, which is what we expect of all our non-executive directors.'

Asked if she got on with Ms Hawkins, Ms Lloyd replied: 'I've only seen her once in the last six years so I don't think I can say. We think she will be a very valuable member of the board.'

Ms Hawkins told HSJ that her return to the Bristol health scene would not be generally unpopular.

'We had a board meeting on 4 June and it went very well. Believe it or not, nine people came up and said: 'We are glad you have joined the trust.' Three board members came up and shook my hand.

'A lot of people on the outside made comments about my management style. They do not know what the targets set for me were. The style may have been a sign of the times and the task to be achieved.'

North Bristol trust was established following a reorganisation that makes it the biggest in Avon.

South West regional office declined to comment on the appointment.