Published: 08/12/2005 Volume 115 No. 5985 Page 9

The number of primary care trusts will be cut to between 120 and 156 under plans to be consulted on over the next three months.

Strategic health authorities will start the public consultation process next Wednesday and final decisions will take place after the 14-week consultation period.

The options, seen by HSJ, show that the external review panel has accepted most of the submissions from SHAs, but has insisted that a greater range of options be consulted on. These extra alternatives usually involve a greater number of PCTs than the SHAs' preferred option.

For example, the panel insisted that Avon, Gloucestershire and Wiltshire SHA consult on an option for seven PCTs even though its preferred option was three. And both Northumberland, Tyne and Wear and Durham and Tees Valley SHAs have been told to consult on six PCTs - retaining cotermnosity - even though they had both submitted plans for two.

The DoH rejected a proposal from Thames Valley SHA for the number of PCTs to be slashed from 15 to three. Instead it must consult on four or five.

The panel has accepted London's submission that the PCTs should remain coterminous with the local authorities - meaning there will be no consultation in the capital.

The DoH will also consult on a reduction in the number of SHAs from 28 to between nine and 11. The SHAs will correspond to the nine government office regions.

However, there is a proposal to divide the south-east region into one SHA for Thames Valley and Hampshire, and another for Kent, Surrey and Sussex.

Health minister Lord Warner told an HSJ conference on Tuesday that all options must be given equal weight during the public consultation, and that he has written to all MPs in the hope that they will scrutinise the process.

'I am resonably confident that after the recent months, if nothing else, the MPs will keep a very close eye on that issue and I confidently predict that if it is not even-handed Patricia Hewitt and I will be among the first to learn about it, ' he said.