Health authorities have welcomed a water industry climbdown on adding fluoride to water supplies.

Water companies have agreed to end a row which has lasted since the industry was privatised a decade ago, by giving the NHS the final say on fluoridation.

Water UK, which represents operators across the country, has drawn up a package of measures, including handing over decision-making power to health authorities. A Department of Health spokeswoman said the changes could be included in the public health white paper due early this year.

'We don't see any problem with the proposals as long as the public is consulted widely before any decision is taken in each area,' she said. The industry's move coincides with the end of a legal battle between Newcastle and North Tyneside HA and Northumbrian Water.

The HA challenged the water company's refusal to extend fluoridation, but a High Court judge said the water operator had the right to agree or disagree with new schemes.

Newcastle consultant in public health medicine Ray Lowry called for a change in the law. 'The judge was clear that the law as it stands is inadequate,' he said, arguing that legislation would be 'far better than good intentions' from the water companies.

Extending fluoridation schemes, which cover about 10 per cent of the UK population, could reduce tooth decay by up to 50 per cent, Dr Lowry added. Fluoridation received influential support last month when former chief medical officer Sir Donald Acheson backed the measure in his report on health inequalities.

A British Medical Association spokesperson said 'dental health inequalities are widening' and called for a 'firm statement' backing fluoridation in the public health white paper .

The industry is calling for public consultation in each HA area on any changes. It also wants the NHS to indemnify water businesses against any legal action as a result of fluoridation.

NHS Confederation chief executive Stephen Thornton welcomed the change of heart, but warned the cost would 'represent another demand on limited HA resources'.