Published: 22/08/2002, Volume II2, No. 5819 Page 4

'Significant' numbers of managers from the private, voluntary and public sectors have applied to take over the running of failing trusts under the government's franchising scheme, according to the head of the panel which will assess them.

A senior Department of Health source said the number of first stage applications to meet last week's deadline could be as high as 400.

Sir William Wells, chair of the NHS Appointments Commission, who is chairing the new specialist panel which will assess the applications, confirmed there had been a 'significant' number of applications.

Sir William's panel will spend the next three months assessing the applications from private firms, voluntary groups and public sector organisations. Those organisations and individuals deemed to have enough experience and talent to run poorly performing trusts will then be placed on the NHS franchising register of expertise.

The 68 trusts awarded three stars last month will automatically be placed on the register. But information packs sent out by the DoH to potential candidates also seek to widen the franchise concept, stating that in time, the register will 'identify those with the skills to offer coaching, mentoring, development, management consultancy, interim management and other specialised areas of support'.

Since the idea was first put forward by health secretary Alan Milburn, six trusts have been franchised. All followed last year's star ratings and all saw senior managers from within the NHS eventually take over.

Though the new register being drawn up will also allow managers from outside the NHS to take part, including from the private sector, the DoH warns those who succeed that they cannot be guaranteed work. And where trusts face 'very complex' problems, the DoH may 'widen the tender list to include experienced NHS managers whose expertise matches the management needs of a particular trust'.

However, one chief executive of a three-star trust told HSJ: 'They would have to pay£250,000 to get me involved in a failing trust as well as running the trust I am at now.'He said like many three-star chief executives, his focus would be on securing another year as a top trust 'rather than attempting to turn round a zero-star trust as well'.

Sir William will chair the sevenstrong panel which will include a chief executive from a strategic health authority, one from an acute trust, plus a number of nonexecutive members. He said the panel would look at the financial stability of the organisations applying to join the register and to closely examine the managerial talents of those leading them.

Sir William said: 'I do not know how many will end up on the list - It is going to be as long as a piece of string. It will depend on whether they are up to job.' And he said he did not have exact information on the number or the type of organisations who had applied to get on the register.

A senior DoH source told HSJ: 'It is certainly in the hundreds - probably between 300 and 400 and the applications come from across the board.'

Nigel Edwards, policy director at the NHS Confederation, welcomed the realistic approach the government was taking to managing failing organisations: 'You are moving away from this concept of heroic leadership, the idea that one person can transform an organisation into a success. The reality is whole management teams have to be involved in that process.'

The register of expertise is due to be published in October, around the same time that a decision is taken on which of the 10 current no-star trusts will be franchised out. The NHS will then invite bids from those on the register 'whose expertise matches the management needs of a particular trust', the DoH said. But the register will remain open to further applications.