NHS director of finance and performance management Colin Reeves is to leave the service after 16 years, seven of which were on its top board. His departure in spring 2001 will follow a shake-up of the NHS Executive's finance function.

Mr Reeves is due to take up post leading the review board of the newly created Accountancy Foundation, a private company set up under the auspices of the Department of Trade and Industry to oversee the UK's six accountancy regulatory bodies.

In an exclusive interview with HSJ, Mr Reeves said he had 'every reason to believe' that his departure would coincide with the NHS achieving financial balance 'for the first time in 10 years or so'.

He said he had spent enough time working for the NHS - 'twice as long as my predecessor' - and was looking forward to the 'exciting challenges' running the new body. He said his new job would mean 'substantially more' money but admitted it would be 'a real heart-wrench to leave the public sector after 27 years'.

His departure will follow changes to the structure of the finance function of the Executive. Mr Reeves is due to integrate the financial functions and capital management into a single finance directorate by the end of next month.

The new role of finance director will include accountability for social care and public health and relinquish responsibility for performance management - which will fall to NHS chief operating officer Neil McKay.

Mr Reeves said Quarry House was this week following Richmond House in studying its financial role and functions, and this would be extended in the new year to examine the 'extent to which functions duplicate each other'. But Mr Reeves said it would be 'premature' to comment on whether the finance function was likely to be lost entirely from either the London or Leeds office.

Looking back at his career on the NHS Executive, Mr Reeves said he was proud to have been 'associated with substantial public expenditure settlements, in particular the last spending review up to 2003-04'.

Finance directors paid tribute to Mr Reeves' contribution to the NHS. Former Healthcare Financial Management Association chair Eric Morton described Mr Reeves as 'a champion of the profession' and 'an almost impossible act to follow'.

He said Mr Reeves had done a 'very difficult job through a time of considerable turbulence'.

Current HFMA chair Barry Elliott said Mr Reeves 'always recognised the pressures that finance directors and their staff worked under and dealt sensitively with the issues'.

Mr Morton also pointed out that under Mr Reeves 'the accounts of every trust and health authority in the country had been returned unqualified for five successive years'.

Helen Chalmers, director of finance for University College London Hospitals trust, described him as 'a clever and respected leader it would be difficult to replace'.