Water UK, which represents the country's water utility companies, delighted campaigners and medical bodies by suggesting the decision on whether to add fluoride should no longer be made by the water firms and instead be taken on medical, not commercial grounds, after public consultation.
Such a move would almost certainly increase the number of people drinking fluoridated water, which has been shown to cut the incidence of tooth decay. About 10 per cent of the population, 5.5 million people, currently have fluoride added to their water, mainly in the West Midlands and the North East.
Fluoride occurs naturally in all water supplies and in some places, such as Hartlepool, the level is high enough to provide protection. In other areas, where the natural level has been topped up artificially, decay rates have fallen.
Over the past decade, 55 requests have been made by health authorities to water companies to add fluoride but all have been turned down due to fears of legal action by anti-fluoride groups, who have claimed that fluoridation amounts to mass medication and is in breach of civil liberties.
Last week a judicial review ruled that Northumbrian Water had the right to refuse to extend fluoridation of its supplies under current legislation. The Government indicated its backing for fluoridation in a Green Paper on public health in February, which is to be followed by a White Paper in the new year.
Last month, the Acheson report into health inequalities, commissioned by the Government, also called for wider fluoridation. Yesterday, Pamela Taylor, chief executive of Water UK, said the law was a "mess" and reform was overdue.
The 1985 Water Fluoridation Act left responsibility with the water companies. That should be switched to health authorities, who should be required to carry out full public consultation, she said.
She said she had written to Tessa Jowell, the Health minister, seeking an urgent meeting in the new year. "The next step rests with the Government," she said.
The proposal was welcomed by the British Medical Association and the NHS Confederation. Sheila Jones of The National Alliance against Dental Health Inequalities, representing 31 medical, dental and voluntary organisations, said: "The water companies are facing up to the reality that this Government is not going to put up with the industry in the way the previous one did.
"They have seen the writing is on the wall."
Opponents warned that fluoridation can cause discolouration of tooth enamel and have long-term consequences for health. John Graham of the National Pure Water Association said: "I think Water UK will effectively be facilitating the aims of the pro- fluoride lobby in government."
He added: "What we want is an independent public inquiry into the effects of fluoride in tap water. No one has anything to fear from that."