DISAPPOINTED campaigners admitted last night they have reached the “end of the road” in their legal bid to stop controversial plans to add fluoride to Hampshire’s tap water.
A High Court judge rejected a final appeal against the decision not to allow a judicial review of claims health bosses failed to properly assess key arguments against the proposals before giving them their unanimous backing.
Now South Central Strategic Health Authority (SHA) finally has the all-clear to move ahead with the scheme, which will affect nearly 200,000 people living and working in parts of Southampton, Eastleigh, Totton, Netley and Rownhams.
The authority last night said the chemical could be added to the water supplies within “several” months.
It is more than two years since the SHA’s 12-strong board voted to approve the scheme, despite overwhelming opposition from residents during a public consultation.
The plans had to be put on hold until after an earlier court ruling in favour of the SHA in February.
It faces a race against time to ensure the scheme is up and running, with the Government planning to axe all strategic health authorities by next spring as part of its sweeping reforms of the NHS.
Powers over the fluoridation scheme will then fall to Southampton City and Hampshire County councils, although the Department for Health says it is not yet known what process they would have to go through to reverse the decision.
The legal challenge brought by Southampton mum-of-three Gerri Milner suffered its final defeat in a short hearing at London’s Royal Courts of Justice yesterday.
She was appealing after the High Court had thrown out her bid for a judicial review into the fluoride decision in February.
Ms Milner’s lawyers tried to argue that key points raised during the consultation by the county council and campaign group Hampshire Against Fluoridation (HAF) were not properly analysed.
They included claims that children’s dental health in Southampton – a major reason for the scheme being proposed in the first place – was not as bad as health bosses had suggested, and that there would be a significant environmental impact of adding fluoride to water supplies.
It was also argued that the benefits of fluoride had been wildly overstated and the costs dramatically underestimated, meaning the true cost of saving each decayed tooth could be 1,000 times higher than the SHA stated in its consultation literature.
Although the SHA board had to assess the “cogency” of responses to the consultation – assessing whether they are good points based on sound scientific evidence – they were not included in presentations given to members.
David Wolfe, representing Ms Milner, said: “These arguments did not even, as it seems, get to the board, let alone was there a model that allowed them to evaluate them.
“They cannot in any way be dismissed as trivial points – they go to the heart of the case.
They were not dealt with.”
The SHA argued the original documents from both the council and HAF were on a table for board members to read before the vote was made, and several had given evidence to insist they had seen them.
Judge Sir Henry Brooke is the fourth judge to reject the application for a judicial review.
He said he believed the authority had gone far enough in assessing submissions, because the sheer weight of responses made it impossible for it to conduct detailed evaluation of every single argument.
He said: “It was engaged in a colossal consultation process. It did a significantly prescriptive job in analysing responses and in obtaining scientific evidence on thesematters. In my judgement it would not be appropriate to grant permission for a judicial review.”
Speaking afterwards, Ms Milner’s solicitor Sean Humber said he and his client were “disappointed” with the ruling.
He said: “Our fundamental point was that to assess the cogency there were some really very important issues that we were raising. We still don’t believe that they were considered.
“The judge seems to be taking a more relaxed attitude than we consider appropriate in relation to the extent to which they need to assess these major issues. But we’ve probably reached the end of the road on legal arguments now.
There’s nothing more to do.”
A spokesman for the SHA said last night the authority was “pleased” the legal process was finished.
He said: “Throughout this time the SHA board has remained satisfied that water fluoridation at one part per million is a safe and effective way to tackle tooth decay in the Southampton area, and that the health benefits outweighed all other arguments against water fluoridation, including the level of support and opposition.”
He added that it would likely be “several months” before the fluoridation process could begin.
What happens now?
SOUTH Central Strategic Health Authority is now working on getting the infrastructure in place to allow fluoride to be added to Hampshire water supplies.
The authority is in talks with Southern Water to decide what machinery needs to be built and the details of how the chemical will be put into tap water.
But it last night admitted it will be “several months” before the scheme is up and running.
Although the SHA approved fluoridation in February 2009, it was put on hold just four months later because of the legal challenge. Before it was postponed, the authority had said it hoped to have the process completed by the end of 2010.
That means it is now racing to beat a new deadline of next spring, when the Government has said it wants to axe all strategic health authorities.
A spokesman said a reassessment of the capital cost of the scheme, previously estimated at almost £500,000, is also now under way.
At the time of going to press, the SHA had not answered questions on how the programme could be affected if that evaluation reveals a large rise in costs, or whether the Department for Health is still providing designated funding for the capital expenditure.