The struggle of England’s smallest acute trust to recruit consultants played a major role in the decision to ditch its search for an independent sector management franchise to take it over, HSJ has been told.

Weston Area Health Trust could instead be taken over by one of three foundation trusts that have been shortlisted after an NHS only tender ran earlier this month, it announced yesterday.

The three FTs in the running are acute trusts University Hospitals Bristol and Taunton and Somerset, and community and mental health provider Somerset Partnership.

They all now have until the middle of August to submit their bids to run Weston, a £97m turnover trust which was declared unviable in its current form by the trust board in 2011.

Weston’s original plans to become an integrated care organisation were abandoned in late 2012.

It was also initially agreed that a twin track procurement process would be run, seeking either an NHS partner or an independent sector management franchise to take over the trust.

The business case was understood to have sat with the Treasury for more than a year.

However, earlier this month it was announced that the trust would run a procurement process open only to NHS organisations within a 50 mile radius.

Weston chief executive Nick Wood told HSJ this change in direction was due to “dramatic” improvements in quality at the trust, and that its biggest outstanding issue was recruiting enough consultants to run its commissioned services.

“It was felt that the best solution was an NHS solution because if you look at the clinical needs, we need networks which you can only really provide from the local area because of travel times for consultants,” he said.

“I don’t think it was necessarily a desire not to have the private sector involved or to exclude certain solutions: 15-18 months ago we needed innovative solutions and massive improvement that the procurement would have provided.

“Because of the delay we were able to provide 70 per cent of those solutions as a management team here.”

Mr Wood, who began his career in retail, joined the trust as operations director in 2011 and became chief executive in March last year, just as the Care Quality Commission published a highly critical report into the trust.

The trust is now meeting all CQC standards and has also consistently met the four-hour accident and emergency over the past year, following poor performance during 2012-13.

Mr Wood said bids would be evaluated against their ability to address gaps in the consultant workforce to enable the trust to provide high quality safe services, as well as how they would close the financial gap.

The trust is forecasting a £5m deficit in 2014-15.

There has been speculation that there may need to be a reduction in acute services at Weston, including in A&E opening hours, in order to make it viable.

Mr Wood said bids would be to run services on an “as is” basis, with the intention the preferred bidder would be in place by the autumn in time to have discussions with commissioners about 2015-16.

He added: “Any reconfiguration of services would be commissioner led and subject to public consultation.”