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Welsh secretary Alun Michael has unveiled a 'new, invigorated' structure for community health councils, overturning proposals to limit their number and powers.

Mr Michael announced on Monday that Wales' 22 CHCs will be increased to 27, but organised into nine 'federations' linked to local authority areas.

The plans are radically different from those set out in Involving the Public, a consultation document issued last September.

This accused CHCs of stretching resources 'unproductively' and suggested they should be given a health authority or trust focus.

Welsh Office officials appeared to favour focusing CHCs on Wales' five HAs, providing 'expert opinion' and representation at 'a strategic level'.

Concern had been growing about a lack of action on the plans. Half the members of Welsh CHCs were due to stand down in two weeks.

The Welsh Office said existing members will now be asked to stay on for 18 months. But there is no indication of when the new plans will be implemented.

'The new model will allow for more specialisation with a strengthened federal structure, and encourage co-operation on key local issues which affect more than one CHC,' Mr Michael said. 'It will also use existing resources to maximum effect.'

Welsh CHCs reacted positively to the proposals, while noting they lacked detail. Martin Thomas, chief officer of Cardiff CHC, said: 'This is a complete change-around from the original idea of one CHC representing all the people in one HA area. We were totally opposed to that and we are pleased that there seems to be a wider approach to CHCs in local areas in these plans.'

Mr Thomas added that extending the terms of CHCs members was 'the only way forward'.

'We are due to hold an annual general meeting to discuss next year's workload in April. Without members, we could not do that.'

Roger Coakham, chief officer of South Gwent CHC, also welcomed the move away from the plans for CHCs laid out in Involving the Public.

'Having 27 CHCs will keep their local links, but by forming into confederations they should be able to take a wider overview,' he said.

However, he warned that Mr Michael's announcement came with no news of extra resources, and questioned what the new organisations would be able to do.

'Mr Michael is talking about slimming down the support services that CHCs use,' he said. 'And that raises a question about what the remit of the new CHCs will be. If you increase the number of CHCs but slim down the support structure, something has to go.'

Sue Wilshere, chief officer of the Association of Welsh Community Health Councils, also warned recently that a reorganisation of Welsh CHCs without additional funding would make their finances worse.