South Central Strategic Health Authority continuing plans to fluoridate Southampton water months before being axed in NHS reforms
By Jon Reeves
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THE race has begun to put fluoride into Hampshire water – even though most people may not want it.
With less than three months to go before they are abolished, health bosses have told the Daily Echo they are still determined to pump the chemical into water supplies – much to the disgust of an MP who has branded them pigheaded.
Southampton City Council does not want fluoridation to go ahead, but has admitted it does not have the money to fight the scheme.
Critics have repeated their calls for the “pig-headed” South Central Strategic Health Authority – which is being axed by the Government on March 31 – to scrap its plans to fluoridate tap water in and around Southampton.
Despite campaigners’ claims of side effects and better alternatives, the health body said it still believes the controversial scheme is the best way to improve dental health in the city.
And even though the SHA admitted it still does not know how much it will cost or exactly which areas it will affect, it is hoping its national replacement will finish its work once it has gone.
The power to create or remove fluoride projects will pass to councils when SHAs are scrapped, as part of the coalition government’s NHS reforms.
Both Southampton City and Hampshire County councils have previously passed motions saying they disagree with the existing plans.
But even though fluoridation isn’t up and running, with an instruction to Southern Water in place, the Southampton scheme is deemed to have already begun and responsibility for administering it will fall to the new body Public Health England.
That is likely to mean if they want the scheme abandoned, councils would have to carry out an expensive public consultation similar to the 14-week one the SHA spent £166,440 running in 2008 before they could request the Secretary of State cancels fluoridation.
Nearly three-quarters of respondents told the SHA they were against the scheme.
Southampton council leader Richard Williams said there is no way the cash-strapped authority could spare money on a move to reject fluoride.
The Labour boss said although he believes a referendum would be the best way to judge whether the scheme should go ahead or not, the experience of attempts to have a public vote over the city docks biomass plant plans show that would be hugely expensive.
That poll, which would only have been of residents in two of Southampton’s 16 council wards, was scrapped after estimated costs rose from £5,000 to £75,000.
Cllr Williams, whose administration is currently attempting to find £20m of savings to balance this year’s budget, said: “We’re having to make such difficult choices that further expenditure is not an option. “The council has made its representations and we don’t have the money to get involved in this when we’re looking at such a terrible crisis.”
But Cllr Williams added he believes the new health body is unlikely to move forward with fluoridation in the face of public opposition.
“Is it going to be a priority for Public Health England? It’s my view that it won’t be.
“My view is that the SHA has kicked this into the long grass, and just because an agreement is there, they won’t want to do it because it’s not a popular scheme – there’s no dispute about that – so therefore is it something a new body is going to want to do and put people’s backs up? “The issue is with Public Health England – they’re going to have to negotiate and work with us, and that’s a time when we will be in a position to say actually the council position is opposed to this.”
Opponents of fluoridation said last night they believe the SHA should “admit defeat” and abandon its plans now.
Public health expert and former chairman of Hampshire Against Fluoridation Stephen Peckham said SHAs were told last October they needed to take on board the views of the bodies that are replacing them.
He said: “If you’re being abolished you don’t carry on as if you’re going to be around forever.
“It just seems to fly in the face of all good public service practice.
“We reckon they have spent half a million pounds – what could have been done with that money? It’s astonishing and it’s outrageous.”
New Forest East MP Julian Lewis said it would be absurd of health bosses to force councils to go through the formal process of having to reverse the decision.
He said: “It would be sheer pigheadedness on behalf of the SHA to force local authorities to waste money on another consultation after they have been abolished, when everyone knows what the outcome would be.
“The SHA should recognise that the game is up, they’ve lost it and they ought to be big enough to admit defeat.”
A spokesman for the SHA said the organisation is still working with Southern Water to finalise plans for the scheme, and intends for it to still cover parts of Southampton, Eastleigh, Totton, Netley and Rownhams.
He said: “The SHA board unanimously decided that the health benefits outweigh all of the arguments against water fluoridation for the population described in the consultation and remains confident with this decision.”