James McEwen, the Faculty of Public Health's new president, believes local action is the key to making public health work. Barbara Millar reports

James McEwen is a fan of public health minister Tessa Jowell. And he is not alone. At a recent European conference, says the Faculty of Public Health's new president, delegates from across the continent were highly impressed.

Her appointment, various green and white papers, and the chief medical officer's review of public health (soon to be replicated in Scotland) have all contributed to a renewed interest in public health, he says.

Professor McEwen, who will head the faculty for three years from this week, is currently Henry Mechan professor of public health and head of Glasgow University's public health department.

'Our challenge is to seize the opportunities provided by this interest from politicians, health organisations and the public in general to develop public health and really make it work, ' he says.

'Public health has to be involved in all aspects of health services. We have to help shape the services of the future.

'With the green and white papers we now have the framework - we have to fill in the details, providing our traditional skills and working with colleagues in primary care and acute trusts.'

But despite moves towards merger among public health organisations, Professor McEwen warns: 'It would be impossible for one body to take on all the functions for the wide range of people who come under the umbrella of public health. And some diversity is not harmful.

'One huge organisation would have a very bland voice. We don't have identical views on everything. If everyone had to agree all the time, some of the richness the different perspectives bring to public health would be lost.'

He believes the faculty needs to be more proactive in commenting on policy issues. 'This is one of the things I will be concentrating on in my term as president.'

He also wants to ensure its voice is heard in post-devolution Scotland and Wales. OPHIS - the Office of Public Health in Scotland - was set up recently to provide a Scottish public health voice, although Professor McEwen stresses that it is not separate from the faculty.

'In the past we have had Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland affairs committees but they were set up to meet the needs of a different government system. We have to develop a meaningful, relevant, local presence.'

He likes the idea that local targets will be set through health improvement programmes. 'Local action is what is required. We have been well served by the World Health Organisation's Health for All targets, but local people working together, defining the problems and setting local targets is now the way to move.

'We used to be seen as out there and separate. Now our role has been strengthened and we are appreciated as an integral part of health services.'

Pocket Profi le Born: Stirling, 1940.

Educated: Dollar Academy and St Andrew's University medical school.

Career: Lecturer, department of social and occupational medicine at Dundee University, 1966-74; senior lecturer, Nottingham University department of community health, 1974-81; chief medical officer, Health Education Council, 1981-83; public health director, Camberwell health authority, and professor of community medicine, King's College school of medicine and dentistry, 1983-89; moved to his present post in 1989.

Also vice-chair, Glasgow Royal Infirmary University trust.