Most primary care trust provider arms will be expected to integrate with acute or mental health trusts by the end of March 2011, HSJ has learned.

PCTs will be set the deadline to implement new organisation structures in guidance on transforming community services expected imminently from the Department of Health.

If the aim is to move more [services] into the community, this is diametrically opposite

HSJ understands it will give PCTs a clear steer towards vertical integration with acute trusts and horizontal integration with mental health trusts - but not rule out social enterprise or community foundation trust models.

PCTs will be expected to agree proposals with their strategic health authorities for the structure of their provider arms by mid March this year, as outlined in the operating framework.

NHS Alliance chair Michael Dixon said his organisation was “vehemently opposed” to the guidance, which he said was contrary to real transformation in community services.

“If the aim is to move more [services] into the community, this is diametrically opposite,” he said.

PCT Network director David Stout said the impact of the guidance for PCTs would depend on their planning.

He said: “Some PCTs will welcome this and find it adds clarity. Others may well find the timetable hard to deliver.”

For example, NHS Newham is in the process of merging its provider arm with East London Foundation Trust and NHS Lewisham agreed to merge its community health services with Lewisham Hospital Trust in August. But a PCT that had opted for another model would be left with little time to complete the process, he said.

A Department of Health spokeswoman said there had been a delay in the production of the final guidance to allow a further round of engagement with Social Partnership Forum national partners.

She said: “The future organisation of community services is an important issue for many staff and therefore it is essential that the DH understands and addresses any concerns or issues raised by social partners. Subject to the outcome of these discussions, we hope to publish the guidance shortly.”