Hemel MP condemns West Herts Hospital Trust’s flawed plans in open letter to National Audit Office

The trust says the aim is to secure investment to improve the hospitals as quickly as possible

By Holly Patel
Monday, 6th September 2021, 3:30 pm
Updated Monday, 6th September 2021, 3:47 pm

The MP for Hemel Hempstead has criticised West Hertfordshire Hospitals NHS Trust's plans in an open letter to the Comptroller and Auditor General at the National Audit Office.

Sir Mike Penning, who is a long-time campaigner for a new hospital on a new site, also sent copies of the letter to the Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Secretary of State for Health and Social Care.

He says the Trust has ignored the Prime Minister’s vision for a new hospital and instead is intent on rebuilding the existing Watford General Hospital.

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Sir Mike Penning condemns West Herts Hospital Trust’s flawed plans in open letter to National Audit Office

The scale of the Trust’s proposals at Watford has grown significantly in the past year from 80,000 square metres floor space to 120,000, culminating in plans for three tower blocks of up to 18 storeys. This would make Watford the fourth tallest NHS structure in the UK and the tallest outside London.

West Hertfordshire Hospitals NHS Trust (WHHT) manages hospitals in Watford, Hemel Hempstead and St Albans.

As one of eight pathfinders within the national New Hospital Programme, the need for investment in WHHT’s estate is recognised.

The Trust says the aim is to secure investment to improve the hospitals as quickly as possible, and a new hospital on a new site might not be cheaper and quicker.

Campaigners from the New Hospital Campaign, which Sir Mike fully supports, have estimated that this would cost in excess of £900 million – which excludes the minimum works that the Trust plans to do in Hemel Hempstead and St Albans. This is more than the Trust’s annual turnover and exceeds the £540 million limit set by the Government.

The recent Outline Planning Application submitted to Watford Borough Council shows a timeline well into 2027 or 2028, and now according to their own email update, they expect the completion to be 2030.

Mr Penning says the Trust has ignored the principles set out in the Treasury’s guidance on how to appraise and evaluate projects, the ‘Green Book’. The Green Book sets out Critical Success Factors that large public investment projects need to meet.

He says the Trust’s plans fail on affordability, value for money and timeline.

Sir Mike said: “It is well known that I support local campaigners who are campaigning for a new hospital on a new site to serve all three local towns – Watford, Hemel Hempstead and St Albans.

"Not only is this common sense and fair from an access point of view, but it is also the only option that could satisfy the Prime Minister’s objective of a new hospital delivered by 2026.

“We know it can be done; other areas have done it.

“I am very concerned that, the Trust is proposing to overspend public money on a three-tower block monstrosity, in order to fulfil some obligation that they refuse to divulge. This is our money they are spending, and they need to put the interests of the people of the whole of West Hertfordshire first and foremost.

“In my view, both effective healthcare and value for money are seriously at risk. That is why I have asked the National Audit Office to investigate.”

To secure the funding, the WHHT must produce an outline business case that sets out detailed plans for new and/or improved buildings for future care delivery.

The business case, which will meet the Treasury’s ‘Green Book’ guidance, will look at a range of options, up to and including a full new hospital on the current Watford General/Watford Riverwell site as well as major investment into Hemel Hempstead and St Albans City hospitals.

This option will cost more than the £400m already pledged by the government but the trust believes it can make a strong case for additional investment above this level, to deliver the best possible solution for our patients.

In the trust's preferred option they do expect to retain and reuse some of the existing buildings on the Watford site, largely for non-clinical support services, reducing the overall cost of the scheme compared to a full new build.

Helen Brown, deputy chief executive, said: “The trust’s open and clear aim is to secure much needed investment to improve our hospitals as quickly as possible.

"Redeveloping our existing hospital sites is the best and quickest way to do this.

"Just because the New Hospital Campaign say that a new hospital on a new site would be cheaper and quicker, doesn’t make it so!

"Our independent, expert site feasibility report estimated that a new hospital on a new site would take around two years longer than developing on the Watford site, and there would be a much higher risk of long delays or even failure.

“Whilst there have been some delays at a national level, we are aiming to complete our outline business case in 2022.

"If this is approved, then we should be able to start construction in 2024 and complete this within approximately three years.

"We would hope that this is something that everyone could support.”