Ministers want to maintain high security hospitals at Ashworth, Rampton and Broadmoor - but are planning legislation so they can become NHS trusts.

The move ends speculation that the hospitals could be closed and replaced with smaller units.

Ray Rowden, former director of commissioning at the High Security Psychiatric Services Commissioning Board, told HSJ that a comprehensive review had considered building six to eight 'state of the art new units'.

He accused junior health minister Paul Boateng, who wrote to the board last week saying future services would be based on 'existing locations', of 'relying on the recommendations of focus groups and readers of the Mail on Sunday .'

The government 'wants to satisfy middle England and it is a shame they do not have the balls to do something different', he added.

Mr Boateng's letter says secure hospitals - currently managed by special hospital authorities - should become trusts or be merged with existing trusts.

'This is an important step towards 'normalisation' of the management arrangements for high security services - a step which I believe is key to effective integration, ' the letter says.

Charles Kaye, former chief executive of the Special Hospitals Services Authority, said hospitals will be 'subsumed' into ex ist ing trusts .

He pointed to the appointment of Peter Clarke, chief executive of Mental Health Services of Salford trust, as acting head of Ashworth Hospital as evidence of an early trend.

Mr Boateng's letter promises a detailed strategy statement and the publication of 'emerging findings' from work on a national service framework for mental health this autumn.

Other announcements due soon include plans to separate the care of offenders with personality disorders from those suffering from mental illness.

At a Capita conference on secure psychiatric services last week, the governor of Grendon prison, Tim Newell, backed the idea.

'Patients with personality disorders find being in contact with mentally ill patients very irritating and find it very difficult to thrive in that situation, ' he said.

At the same conference, Mr Kaye put forward a raft of recommendations for long-term improvements to forensic psychiatric services.

He urged the government to replace 'sporadic, erratic practices of highlighting by inquiry' with a 'national body for scrutiny, ' with the power to withdraw an establishment's licence.

He also suggested the establishment of national centres to assess patients suffering from mental illness or personality disorders to eliminate what he described as 'assessment hopscotch'.

'Every time there is the thought of a patient moving from one facility to another or from one clinician to another there is another assessment, ' he said.

'And if we don't like what the assessment says there is another one.'

But Mr Kaye admitted: 'I don't think it is a popular idea - the losers would be the clinicians who would have to surrender some of their control.'