The Cheshire and Merseyside Public Health Network has brought partners together to take action on public health.

Health does not happen in isolation. Nor is it something health services can simply conjure up.

Keeping people in good health requires collaboration, partnerships and an acknowledgement that promoting and protecting public health must be part of everyday life.

The public health community have known this since at least the time Dr William Duncan was appointed Britain's first medical officer of health in Liverpool in 1847.

Much more recently, the Department of Health's March document Commissioning framework for health and well-being emphasised that health providers must think outside the NHS when considering health and well-being.

The context for this is a climate in which improving health and reducing inequalities have a higher profile than at any other time in the past 30 years, and expectations for delivery are high.

Public health resources are being both enhanced and challenged: enhanced by the recognition of the public health role of a wide range of practitioners and partners; challenged by the 'relative deficit in public health capacity' noted by chief medical officer Professor Sir Liam Donaldson.in his 2005 annual report.

That means we need to make the most effective use of our collective skills, resources and connections in order to achieve a healthier society. That's why public health networks work - partnership is built into their DNA.

Taken root

Cheshire and Merseyside Public Health Network, or ChaMPs, was set up in 2003 to develop capacity and capability following the dispersal of the public health workforce into the newly created primary care trusts.

Nearly four years and another reorganisation later, ChaMPs has taken root, grown and established itself as a first-class network.

Its success is in no small way thanks to the leadership of the ChaMPs directors of public health group, and a steering group that calls on the wisdom of local authorities, academics and health protection among others.

Their network strategy and business plans reflect a business approach to ChaMPs that harnesses the 'softer' strengths of a network, and delivers the 'richer' solutions that come from partnership working.

In the past year alone, the network has hosted 200 delegates at its second annual conference. ChaMPs also inspired a North West public health event for provider trusts with the Healthcare Commission and NHS North West, backed by an accompanying public health guide for acute trusts. It published numerous other guides and toolkits, including a nationally acclaimed paper Making Joint Directors of Public Health Posts Work.

The challenge ahead is to ensure the network develops to meet rising expectations. These include the involvement of the third sector, public health's role in commissioning and the use of social marketing. It is of central value and importance if PCTs are to deliver their core purpose - to improve health.

Leigh Griffin is co-chair of the ChaMPs steering group and chief executive of Sefton Primary Care Trust and Fiona Johnstone is chair of the ChaMPs directors of public health group and director of public health at Halton and St Helens PCT.