Development plans for West Herts hospitals have been approved at a meeting yesterday – in what the West Hertfordshire Teaching Hospitals Trust (WHTH) is calling another step forward in its path towards new and better buildings.
Board members approved preferred options for a large new emergency hospital on land next to Watford General Hospital and some new hospital buildings and significant refurbishment at Hemel Hempstead Hospital and St Albans City Hospital.
The plans have faced criticism from campaigners and Hemel Hempstead MP Sir Mike Penning, who had called for a ‘fresh eyes’ approach.
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And the MP has today (June 1) tabled an Early Day Motion in the new Parliament calling for a new hospital to be built on a greenfield site in West Hertfordshire.
Sir Mike said: “I will continue to use every avenue open to me to highlight the madness that the Trust is proposing to spend huge amounts of money redeveloping on a wholly unsuitable site.
“Anyone who knows anything about construction will tell you that building on a greenfield site is easier than redeveloping an existing site whilst keeping the current premises open for business.
“There are good sites out there – that are convenient for Watford, as well as being accessible for Hemel Hempstead and St Albans. We want a new hospital on a new site accessible to all areas of West Hertfordshire. All we need is some common sense.”
The Trust’s board has approved Option 6 for Watford General Hospital – which includes replacing the Princess Michael of Kent building – and Option 3 for the Hemel Hempstead and St Albans hospitals, which it says would result in a wide range of improvements.
The Trust will now complete an outline business case setting out detailed costs and implementation plans, which will be available to the public.
This will then be submitted to the New Hospital Programme (NHP) and the Treasury for a funding decision, with the Trust hoping that construction will start in 2024 with the new and refurbished buildings opening in the following few years.
Board members re-confirmed their 2020 decision to rule out the possibility of new, non-Watford site.
The board papers state: "The trust’s view to date has been that pursuing options on its current three sites is the quickest and lowest risk route to securing urgently needed improvements to its hospital facilities."
As well as cost implications linked to changes at a national level to the timeline, the requirement to achieve lower hospital occupancy rates to improve patient experience means that more beds must be provided, which the Trust says affects design and subsequently cost.
Lessons learned from the Covid-19 pandemic, together with the increased emphasis on net zero carbon and standardised approaches to construction have also had an impact.
Deputy chief executive Helen Brown explained: “In light of some recent changes and also acknowledging the weight of the decisions being made today, we wanted to ensure that the board could make an informed decision.
“Our papers set out new external factors as well as one issue that has remained the same – the speed with which new and improved buildings are needed. This steered our thinking in 2020 and has been the overriding factor again today.
“We ruled out a new site option previously because it would add delay at best and at worst could fail to deliver altogether. That reasoning is even more compelling now because our buildings have deteriorated further. At the same time, our plans to solve this situation have progressed thanks to the huge contribution of our senior clinicians to our proposals and the support we’ve had so far from planning authorities.
"In other words, the need for new and improved buildings in the shortest time possible has grown, as has our ability to do something about it by pressing ahead with our approved options.”
Philip Aylett, co-ordinator of New Hospital Campaign, had criticised the Trust for not giving people enough time to consider the options, saying: “The Trust mounted a rushed engagement exercise with the public based on giving people just two weeks to look at 130 pages of voluminous papers.”
But the Trust says the papers were made available for longer than usual so that interested stakeholders had additional time to look at the information the board was considering.
A feedback form was created to gather views on the papers and there was also the opportunity to submit written representations.
The papers show there were 64 responses to the feedback form, with 53 being unsupportive and 11 showing support.
Of that, support came from partner organisations including South and West Hertfordshire Health and Care Partnership and Central London Community Healthcare NHS trust, the MPS for St Albans and Watford, the St Albans and Harpenden Patients Group and a number of WHTH staff groups.
Meanwhile, campaign groups including New Hospital Campaign, Hemel's MP Sir Mike Penning and a number of local residents voiced their opposition.
WHTH chairman Phil Townsend said: “We understand that some dissatisfaction remains. We do listen to local people who oppose our plans but we have to weigh those views against a vast amount of clinical, technical and financial information.
"The question of where to locate emergency hospital services draws such a wide range of views that it is impossible to please everyone. Our hope is that in time, people will understand that we are acting in the best interests of patient safety. And there simply isn’t any higher priority than that.
“With every passing month our buildings become harder and more costly to maintain. This would be a worry for any organisation but when you consider that we are in the business of caring for unwell and vulnerable people of all ages and for women giving birth, the responsibility to deliver a solution quickly is huge.
“It was clear from the discussion today that we cannot and will not accept the delay that re-opening the search for a new site would present.
“Our board takes its accountability seriously and is not prepared to prolong the risk posed to patients and staff by working from ageing buildings. We are more determined than ever to secure the investment needed to make the options we have approved today a reality.”
A spokesman for the Trust said: “The engagement exercise around our board papers is part of a continued process of engagement spanning many years, during which we have seen broad support for our proposals, both for our buildings and also the way that we plan to organise our services.
"We very much value the support of our staff and our wider NHS partners. They know our services and are driven by the desire to provide high quality hospital care. Plus, the vast majority of our staff are local residents too so having their endorsement is doubly delightful!”
They added: “We will continue to listen to local people and, where we can, we will implement their ideas to improve and develop our care.”
Sir Mike Penning had also criticised the Trust for pressing ahead with the decision ahead of changes to the senior staff at the highest level with the CEO, Deputy CEO and Director of Acute Redevelopment all about to leave their posts.
Mr Townsend responded: “Decisions on the strategic future of the trust do not rest with individuals, they are taken by the board with the best interests of patients at the forefront of our minds.
"Whilst some of the faces around the board table may have changed or may be about to change, the stated and collective intention of our board to deliver new and better buildings in the shortest time possible remains the same.”
Speaking after the meeting, Philip Aylett said: “This is just not good enough. West Herts residents deserve much better and we will carry on fighting for that.
“The importance of this decision cannot be overestimated: it affects the healthcare of all West Herts residents, and their children and grandchildren.”