Providers and commissioners that cannot resolve contract disputes by the end of the year face “intervention” by the NHS England and NHS Improvement chief executives and may see funding withheld.

The robust approach to local disagreements is part of an ambitious timetable (see box below), which sees sustainability and transformation plans submitted by 21 October; turned into operational plans by 24 November; and contracts for the delivery of those plans signed by 23 December.

To encourage a more collaborative approach to agreeing contracts, NHS England will offer both parties increased access to technical advice on contract and tariff issues.

Planning guidance published today says: “The earlier timetable for operational planning should give commissioners and providers greater scope for constructive engagement over contracts.”

It adds that “access to formal arbitration must be a last resort” and taking that route will be seen as a “clear failure of collaboration and good governance”.

Where contracts are not agreed within “the national timetable” the disputes will be escalated to NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens and his NHS Improvement counterpart Jim Mackey.

If a provider fails to follow the NHS arbitration process, they may forfeit some of their sustainability and transformation fund money.

If a clinical commissioning group fails to comply with the process, quality premium and transformation monies may be forfeited.

Despite the tight deadline being imposed on providers and commissioners, NHS England says there must be no “short cuts” in agreeing plans.

Reaching an agreement is “more than a technical process” and requires “genuine commitment for local leaders to run a shared, open-book process”, the guidance says.

Partnerships will be judged on their ability to deliver performance and improvement “within the growing, but fixed funding envelope available to that local area”.

Allocating finite and stretched NHS resources between competing demands will never be easy, NHS England acknowledges, and “the task will get harder over the next three years.”

Autumn/winter deadlines for the NHS

  • 30 September: provider control totals published
  • 21 October: STPs submitted
  • 1 November: submission from commissioners of summary level 2017-18 to 2018-19 operational financial plans
  • 11 November: final NHS standard contract published and providers respond to initial offers to commissioners
  • 24 November: STPs turned into operational plans
  • 5 December: contract mediation begins
  • 20 December: national tariff published
  • 23 December: contracts for delivering operational plans signed
  • 9 January: arbitration of contract disputes