New Hospital Campaign group criticises nine month delay for Watford's high-rise hospital that will serve Dacorum patients

The delay affects all trusts in the pipeline for investment in new hospital buildings

Wednesday, 14th July 2021, 3:56 pm

A campaign group has criticised the news that plans for a multi-storey triple tower block facility at Watford General Hospital have been delayed as the local NHS Trust admitted the start of construction will be held up for at least nine months.

The New Hospital Campaign (NHC), which for several years has been making the case for a new hospital on a clear new site, says the Government’s New Hospital Programme has confirmed that building work on the first wave of new facilities, including Watford General, will not start until spring 2023.

The delay affects all trusts that are in the pipeline for investment in new hospital buildings - but the national programme remains on track for 2030.

As it is a national programme it is important for all trusts to be working to the same standards.

In May, West Herts Hospitals NHS Trust said that it planned to start redevelopment, including a 17-storey block, on the Watford site in the summer of 2022.

The campaign group says the delay and rising costs mean that no new hospital can be completed at Watford General until 2028, and that very little money will be available to make substantial and much-needed improvements to St Albans and Hemel Hempstead Hospitals.

But West Herts Hospitals NHS Trust says it remains committed to securing the best facilities for patients and staff as quickly as possible.

Following a meeting between NHC members and the Trust’s Deputy Chief Executive Helen Brown, Jean Ritchie said on behalf of the campaign group: "The plans for redeveloping Watford Hospital being pushed by the Trust have finally run into the sand.

"It was clear from our meeting that the extravagant proposals for three huge and inhuman towers are not affordable – a message that has already come loud and clear from the Government’s New Hospital Programme, who would have to give the go-ahead.

“The Watford sums are eye-watering – the likely final cost of the Trust’s planned high-rise hospital will be about £900m, more than twice the Trust’s turnover.

“But the alternatives to the tower blocks are equally unacceptable.

"As the Deputy Chief Executive admitted to us, options involving refurbishing the main clinical block, the Princess Michael of Kent building, ‘will be really challenging and not get us a terribly good solution’. This is an under- statement to say the least.

"The alternatives to the tower blocks would surely involve redeveloping the main clinical building at Watford.

"This will mean even more hold-ups and cause serious upset and disruption for patient care, families, staff and the local area.

"The Trust also admitted that relatively little new money will be spent on St Albans and Hemel Hempstead Hospitals.

"The Trust has come to the end of the road with its plans for Watford and should now acknowledge this reality.

"They have opposed the only sensible alternative – a new hospital on a clear site that is accessible to all in West Herts – on the grounds that it would take too long to build.

"But, as their own spurious plans are now heavily delayed, this reasoning no longer holds water - if it ever did.”

Helen Brown, deputy chief executive at West Herts Hospitals NHS Trust, said: “We remain absolutely committed to securing the best facilities for our patients and staff as quickly as possible and that’s what the Watford option allows us to do.

“We are continuing our close collaboration with New Hospital Programme team to ensure our plans fully incorporate the opportunities afforded by a standardised approach to design, which includes things like room sizes, building techniques and the ratio of single occupancy rooms.

“We will incorporate the outputs of this work into our outline business case, which we expect to complete by the end of this year.

“Our decision to retain our three sites was largely – but not wholly – based on our strong belief that this option provides the quickest route to new buildings.

"This still holds true – the complexity of identifying a suitable new site and then beginning the purchasing and planning could add lengthy delays. And that’s before we address big issues like road access and utilities.

“The Watford option is well developed; an outline planning application has been made and our plans are well advanced for how our three hospitals will work together.

“It’s important to remember that our proposals, which have the support of our senior clinicians, include investment at our hospitals in Hemel Hempstead and St Albans also.

"Our vision is for each hospital to have a clearly defined purpose and to maintain a range of local services.

“It’s hard to see how our hospitals in Watford, Hemel Hempstead and St Albans could remain open if the option of a new hospital on a new site went forward.”

“Modern methods of construction and land costs in this area mean that this option is cost-effective and has some very real advantages in being able to site key clinical services close together.

"Plus, our plans – which are in the public domain – have green spaces and garden areas.”

“All hospitals have to present a set of options as part of the business case process that range from a ‘do minimum’ to having all clinical services in new buildings.

"We remain keen to have the highest percentage of new buildings possible and will pursue this whilst acknowledging that we must use public money responsibly.”

Other major concerns about the redevelopment of the Watford site surfaced in this meeting between the Trust representatives and the campaign group.

The meeting heard that:

> The Trust faces a financially rocky future if it presses ahead with high-rise development on the Watford site, with costs spiralling. The New Hospital Programme has asked the Trust to cut back spending on the project

> Access to Watford General will remain a big problem for people in other parts of West Herts. While we need to cut down on car use, many people who are unwell, or who have mobility problems, have little or no alternative. But also many people don’t have a car and have to rely on public transport. However, the very poor bus access is unlikely to improve significantly. The Trust said that access needed to get better but admitted it could make ‘limited impact’ on bus companies who are, in any case, currently cutting services in the county

> For those who have to rely on their car to get there, parking spaces will be cut as the Trust tries to encourage patients to reach the Hospital on foot or bike – not a realistic proposition for many patients and relatives. The Trust accepted that the problem of queuing traffic on access roads to the hospital was out of their control.

Ms Ritchie also questioned plans to relocate the Mount Vernon Cancer Centre from Northwood to a spot between the existing hospital and the Sir Elton John Stand of Watford Football Club.

This could take place at the same time as the three towers are constructed, according to the Trust.

Ms Ritchie said: “This is beyond bizarre: squeezing Mount Vernon in very close to the football ground will hardly create an appropriate therapeutic environment for such vital treatment.

"And surely the Trust cannot seriously be planning to subject patients at the existing Watford General site to several years of simultaneous building noise and dust from two directions?

“Women will be giving birth in the Women and Children’s Services building while diggers and dumper trucks do their work a few metres away.

"The Trust’s proposals are both highly insensitive and impractical.”

“Urgent and honest consideration must now be given to building a new West Herts Hospital on a suitable clear central site.

"The Trust needs to act. There has been enough uncertainty, delay and false promises. We need good hospital services, accessible to all in West Herts, and we need the right decisions now.”