A consortium of 19 NHS trusts in the South West has met for the first time and agreed to press ahead with plans to break away from Agenda for Change.

The decision comes despite warnings from unions who have threatened to walk away from national negotiations claiming they are being “derailed” by the local “cartels”.

Christina McAnea, head of health at Unison and chair of the NHS staff council of 16 unions, labelled the move “highly provocative”.

The consortium steering group met for the first time on 29 June and agreed to develop detailed plans in coming months as part of a full business case to identify options to reduce the pay bill in the South West.

The full business case is anticipated to be completed by the end of 2012. It will then be presented for consideration at each consortium member’s board. Among plans thought to be under consideration by the consortium are proposals to reduce pay costs such as sick pay.

Ms McAnea said: “We are negotiating nationally on terms and conditions in good faith, but a significant number of employers taking unilateral action such as this, at this time, is not only highly provocative but completely undermines the national negotiations.

“The trade unions are well aware of the challenging financial times and the pressures on the NHS. But ‘rogue’ employers like this are risking the chance of reaching a national agreement. They are also undermining staff morale, stable industrial relations, staff recruitment and retention, and ultimately patient care.”

She said the unions were in no doubt that the consortium was attempting introduce regional pay by stealth, adding: “Even if trusts save money in the short term, it will not be good news for patients in the long run. Staff who can vote with their feet will do so, finding jobs elsewhere.”

Chris Bown, chief executive of Poole Hospital Foundation Trust, said: “The consortium recognises the NHS faces a time of unprecedented challenge, both financially and in the provision of services to our patients.

“The consortium acknowledges the concerns expressed by some staff and unions at the establishment of this group, and as these plans take shape I would like to reiterate our commitment to continue to seek to work positively and constructively with staff as well as unions.”

He said the group of 19 hospital trusts, which have each paid £10,000 to join the consortium, was “full supportive” of national negotiations but he added: “The consortium believes rather than watch these negotiations from a distance, we can and should work in the background as these discussions take place to give us the best opportunity to be sustainable organisations in the years ahead.”

Savings on pay and terms and conditions would mean a reduced need for trusts to make redundancies, he said.