Councils’ public health plans will have to be signed off by directors of the services under a tougher new checking regime aimed at preserving the £2.6bn budget for health purposes.

The move has been unveiled by Public Health England in a letter circulated last month to both the service directors and council chief executives, whose formal approval of plans had previously been considered sufficient.

It comes amid concern that some local authorities were using the £2.6bn national public health income they inherited from primary care trusts to plug gaps in their budgets, according to HSJ’s sister title Local Government Chronicle.

The letter, by PHE chief executive Duncan Selbie, points out the public health grant distributed to local authorities by his body should be protected by a “ringfence”.

“I therefore have a responsibility to demonstrate that the grant has been spent on the purposes intended by Parliament,” it added.

The letter said that councils’ official statements on public health spending - the revenue outturn form - must now be signed by the public health director, as well as either the chief executive or the section 151 officer.

This move aimed to “strengthen the professional public health assurance that the grant has been spent in line with the grant conditions”, the letter said.

Stephen Watkins, director of public health at Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council and a member of the British Medical Association’s public health medicine committee, told LGC there had been concern about the way some councils had been spending their money.

“I imagine those concerns are correct in the case of a very small number of councils,” he said.

“This is a professional certificate that DPHs are being required to provide.

“Those providing it falsely would be guilty of professional misconduct.

“I expect that in a few places DPHs will refuse to sign it, and in those cases PHE will investigate. But in the overwhelming majority of councils DPHs will have no difficulty in signing the document.”

He said the BMA was concerned about “the small number of councils who’ve taken a large amount of money [from the public health grant] and spent it on services they would have been providing anyway with no justification of why that’s the right thing to do.”

He added that this was only happening in a “single figure” number of councils.

“The small number that are misusing it are spoiling it for the rest because they’re giving the impression of widespread abuse,” Mr Watkins said.

The move comes after communities secretary Eric Pickles told Parliament in January that a proposal by Enfield London Borough Council to use the public health grant for gritting was “frankly ridiculous, and it brings local government into disrepute”.

Asked about the reasons for the letter, Richard Gleave, deputy chief executive of PHE, said: “We know that local authorities are working hard to meet their new statutory public health responsibilities and are utilising their ringfenced grant allocation appropriately to do so.

“As PHE is accountable for the totality of this spend, we have a responsibility to demonstrate that the grant has been spent on the purposes intended by Parliament.

“In order to have a direct link between the spend and the improvement in public health outcomes, we have requested that the assurance statement be signed by both directors of public health and either the chief executive or the section 151 officer.”