Local involvement networks significantly stepped up activity in their second year of existence, but will still be replaced, the Department of Health has said.

A DH analysis of LINKs’ 2009-10 annual reports showed there were about 70,300 members, with about 489 in each local organisation.

The report said that is three times the average membership in 2008-09, the first year of LINKs replacing patient and public involvement forums.

LINKs made 3,980 requests for information from health and social care commissioners in 2009-10, seven times the requests of the previous year; and published about 1,300 report and recommendations – 16 times the number in 2008-09.

The DH report, published last week, said LINKs “activity has led to an estimated 460 plus service changes and over 520 service reviews in 2009-10”.

It said its analysis of “case studies [had] shown LINks activity to be cost effective. Using four of the case studies, a gross annual benefit of £126m can be estimated, a return of £4.10 for every £1 spent [on LINKs]”.

The DH confirmed it would still replace LINKs with local HealthWatch organisations, but stressed it wanted existing members to stay involved. In the past the government has emphasised the new organisations should develop from LINKs. There have been several reorganisations of NHS public involvement structures in recent years.

Health minister Simon Burns said: “This enthusiasm [demonstrated in the report] is something that can grow and develop with the introduction of more effective local HealthWatch organisations.

“I hope this report will act as a call to action for members of the public and LINks volunteers to lead the way in this reform and to become the first Healthwatch pathfinders in England.”

Sally Brearley, public and patient involvement expert and visiting fellow at King’s College London, said, while there was commitment to build on LINKs, some current members were concerned about HealthWatch being dominated by local authorities, which may have a conflict of interest. HealthWatch is meant to scrutinise councils’ social care and health work, while also being funded and held to account by them.

She said: “A lot of LINKs are worried local authorities are going to become more heavy handed.” However, Ms Brearley said, it was also important the HealthWatch England national group did not become “top down” and have the ability to dominate local organisations.