Councils’ public health grants are to be ringfenced for a third year, Public Health England chief executive Duncan Selbie has revealed.

When the Department of Health grants were first announced they came with a two-year ringfence, for 2013-14 and 2014-15, but there had been concern cash-strapped councils would be allowed to spend the £2.6bn annual funding on non-public health projects.

Stephen Watkins, director of public health at Stockport Council and a member of the British Medical Association public health medicine committee, said the extension of the ringfence to 2015-16 left the door open for talks about increasing the total value of the grant.

“There is no way the Department of Health would increase the grant if it removed the ringfence, because if that happened it’s inconceivable that local government would avoid using the extra money to address its financial problems,” he told HSJ’s sister title Local Government Chronicle.

Duncan Selbie

Duncan Selbie: grants to be ringfenced for third year

The BMA is lobbying for public health grants to be boosted by £1.5bn over three years from 2015-16.

The decision to extend the ringfence was backed by Fiona Johnstone, director of public health at Wirral Council.

“I think the concern generally in public health is that councils are going through so much in terms of making budget cuts that, if this budget is not protected, it could be cut or just lost in the system,” she said.

However, others were less convinced. One senior local government officer said: “It’s very difficult for me to get excited about the money for 2015-16 being ringfenced when I have no idea how much money there will be.”

Dominic Harrison, director of public health at Blackburn with Darwen Council, said in principle he wanted the ringfence to be removed because “local authorities and elected members are perfectly capable of prioritising public health spending”.

He said a ringfence could restrict councils’ ability to invest, preventing them from “taking a wider approach and looking at what can be described as the ‘causes of the causes’ of ill health”.