Published: 24/04/2003, Volume II3, No. 5825 Page 5

Workforce development confederations are to be integrated into strategic health authorities, HSJ has learned.

The 28 SHA chief executives received a letter from Department of Health director of human resources Andrew Foster before the Easter break asking them to develop plans to integrate WDCs by 1 July. The plans will then be reviewed by Mr Foster and the yet to be appointed DoH director of delivery. The letter sets a deadline for integration of April 2004.

Mr Foster said the decision to integrate now followed moves to decentralise power from Whitehall and to confirm SHAs in the role as 'the local headquarters of the NHS'.

'It was felt that we needed absolute clarity, ' said Mr Foster, adding it was 'confusing' to have WDCs working alongside SHAs.

Mr Foster said he believed the moves would mean workforce issues being better integrated into SHA strategies and he hoped it would make workforce issues a higher priority for SHAs.

The 27 WDCs were established in April 2001. Twenty-six are coterminous with SHAs and one - Kent, Surrey and Sussex - covers two authorities. Between them, the confederations manage education and training for the entire NHS workforce ('Strong-arm tactics', pages 24-27, 21 November 2002). Late last year, they were also given the task of performance managing individual trusts within their area on workforce issues.

SHAs will be allowed considerable flexibility in how they develop their integration plans.

Mr Foster said he was insisting on only three things: that the money for workforce development was protected; that the coalition of stakeholders built up by WDCs in each area - which includes representatives from the private sector, education, local government, social services, as well as the NHS - was maintained; and that the focus on modernising the employment terms and conditions of NHS staff was continued.

Mr Foster said he expected to see a wide range of solutions from 'purely nominal change' to SHAs taking a 'more directive approach'.

One senior SHA chief executive said the 28 SHAs could be divided into three roughly equal groups:

those where WDCs were already effectively operating as part of the SHA; those where the SHAs and WDCs were working successfully alongside each other; and those where SHA chief executives were unhappy with the relationship.

'The Foster letter will legitimate doing something about that unhappiness, ' he said.

North East London SHA chief executive Carolyn Regan said: 'We are already well on the road to integrating our WDC and developing a strategic workforce arm of the SHA looking at commissioning and strategic planning.'

Neil Goodwin, chief executive of Greater Manchester SHA, said it made sense to integrate the two organisations, but as yet no detailed plans had been developed.

The response to the news from WDCs was mixed. Graham Saunders, chief executive of West Yorkshire WDC, said: 'One of my own concerns is that we are again thinking about structural change at a time when we also need to be focusing on the job in hand.'

He stressed the plans were at an early stage and there was still 'a lack of clarity' about how the functions of the WDCs would be retained within SHAs.

Denis Gibson, chief executive of Hampshire and Isle of Wight WDC, said 'relationships vary across the country', but added: 'We work closely with the SHA and for us It is a logical step forward.'

However, he warned that local stakeholders may be concerned about the loss of the WDC board.

Alastair Henderson, director of policy at the NHS Confederation, said: 'It will clearly be an advantage to have SHAs champion workforce issues, but there is a worry that the focus might be diluted and that funding could be diverted.'