Health ministers have been asked to confirm that a bid to add fluoride to tap water in Hampshire is over – because of a legal botch-up.
Council chiefs believe crucial contractual agreements were not signed before the abolition of the former South Central Strategic Health Authority (SHA), last year. If they were not signed, the fluoridation decision will rest with the local authorities – which are expected to kill it stone dead.
However, amid confusion about the legal status of the scheme, the department of health (DH) has been asked to settle the controversy. The leaders of Southampton City Council and Hampshire County Council have penned a joint letter, after Public Health England failed to provide satisfactory answers.
County council leader Roy Perry told a local newspaper: 'We have a legal argument which suggests that the appropriate contractual arrangements were not in place. People are generally against it, and we don’t think Public Health England actually finally determined the scheme, so the whole issue could just be dead.'
City council leader Simon Letts said: 'We think that the Cabinet here, and the county council, will be the decision making bodies, but we are making sure we have got confirmation before we move forward.'
Under the original plan, fluoridation was expected to be up and running for 200,000 people in parts of Southampton, Eastleigh, Totton, Netley and Rownhams in 2014. When the SHA was scrapped, in April, Public Health England announced that the scheme would go ahead as previously agreed.
But the legal advice to the two councils is that contractual agreements between the SHA and Southern Water were not completed before the quango’s demise.
A spokesman said: 'The legal agreement was not signed by that date and the relevant functions of SHAs passed to the Secretary of State, which includes entering into fluoridation arrangements. PHE is continuing to review its position in relation to the scheme and we cannot therefore, at this stage, provide a view.'
By parliamentary correspondent Rob Merrick