HC Deb 17 March 1994 vol 239 cc1225-32

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Patnick.]

5.59 am
Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

This debate is about national health service property and how it is disposed of. Since I applied for it, Hartley hospital, which is in my constituency, has been sold, after lying empty for five years. News of the sale came as a complete bombshell to me and, indeed, to everyone else in the constituency. Apparently, an offer has been made and has been accepted by the chairman of the North Western regional health authority, Sir Bruce Martin, who made the decision a few days ago, acting under delegated powers.

I am told that the buyers are a three-person partnership—presumably builders and developers—based in Simonstone, which is just outside my constituency. The regional health authority will not tell me any more than this as contracts have not been exchanged. I do not want contracts to be exchanged as I am totally opposed to the sale, as, indeed, is my local authority, Pendle borough council. In due course, I shall explain why.

I do not know how much the mystery buyers paid for Hartley hospital, and I do not know what they intend to do with it. But Mr. Richard Strickland, who deals with property matters for the regional health authority, hinted today that the main block of the hospital would be retained and converted into "quality private residential flats".

I want to say a few words about the background to the whole affair. Hartley hospital occupies a very special place in the affections of the people of Colne. There are two people who are famous benefactors of the town and are held in the highest regard. One is Peter Birtwistle, whose trust still benefits the residents of the town; the other is Sir William Pickles Hartley, made famous and wealthy by his jams. Sir William—Mr. Hartley, as he then was—was the driving force behind the new cottage hospital for Colne, which opened in 1900 to commemorate the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria. He put up half the money required, with the people of Colne making up the difference.

But soon the hospital became too small for the town. Sir William and his wife, Lady Hartley, this time generously agreed to pay the entire cost of the new hospital, which opened its doors to patients in June 1924. It was given to the people of Colne in perpetuity, but transferred to the national health service as a result of the National Health Service Act 1946, free of the trust, and it continued to serve the needs of the people of Colne, Trawden, Foulridge and beyond until 1989, when it was closed for good.

In fact, there had been creeping closure before then, as various aspects of the hospital's work were progressively moved to other hospitals in the area. But the closure and the lead-up to it sparked a public outcry, and the town saw candlelight vigils, packed public meetings, petitions attracting thousands and thousands of signatures and, indeed, visits by Ministers. The current Leader of the House, who was then a junior health Minister, descended on the town, which was in great turmoil. The newspaper files of the period bulge with coverage of the closure, which was very extensive indeed.

I want to say a word about Dr. Tony Pickles—one of the many people in Colne who deserve special mention. He is a councillor in the Waterside ward, and he was very active in the campaign to save the hospital. But his efforts and those of thousands like him could not prevent the closure.

Of course, time has moved on. We have seen the opening of the Pendle community hospital in Nelson, and we are all thankful for that new facility in the town next door to Colne. We have seen also the reorganisation of the health service and the creation of the new national health service trusts. But throughout this period of great change, upheaval and flux in the health service there was one constant: Hartley hospital was still there—boarded up, empty and, year after year, slowly and majestically decaying.

The regional health authority took over responsibility for the building and attempted to market the old hospital on three separate occasions, but with no success. On 13 September last year, I received a letter from the chairman of the regional health authority, Sir Bruce Martin, in response to an earlier letter of mine. He told me that planning consultants had been appointed with the aim of seeking a residential planning consent.

If one looks through the minutes of meetings way back into the 1980s, one discovers that that has been a recurring theme. Consultants were to be appointed to consider how the hospital could best be marketed. Sir Bruce told me that that action had not been taken before September 1993 because of the need to demonstrate to the local planning authority that there was no suitable interest in the premises for use as a nursing home or similar institution". Sir Bruce said that discussions were taking place between the planning consultants and the local authority with a view to an outline planning application for housing being submitted shortly". Months passed, and I was becoming increasingly concerned about how long the plans were taking to bear fruit. Following a further prompt from me, I received another letter from Sir Bruce dated 22 February—only three weeks ago—which said: On the marketing of Hartley Hospital, the situation remains one of offers being received but which are either not at an acceptable level in valuation terms or the prospective purchaser has failed to secure the necessary finance … Consideration has been given to other ways of enhancing the marketability of the premises. One possible option under discussion is to submit an outline planning application for the redevelopment of the Hospital for residential purposes. No formal decision has however been taken. That was three weeks ago.

The letter continues: Although the Authority has no plans to demolish the Hospital, I would advise you that the cost of maintenance and security has risen by a further £23,300 since I last wrote to you on the matter in March 1993. That is another aspect of the tale which needs highlighting. The cost of keeping the building safe and secure has been increasing every year—from £14,600 in 1993 to £37,900 earlier this year. Yet, despite that expenditure, the buildings were rotting away.

I have wandered round the old hospital several times, and it always amazes me that it has not been subject to more vandalism and theft. In December last year, my local authority felt obliged to write to the NHS management executive expressing concern about the lack of response from the regional health authority to concerns that the council had legitimately raised about the maintenance and security of the site and the buildings.

The old hospital has been boarded up for years, neglected and rotting away. Throughout that entire period, no planning applications were submitted to the local authority; it was a period of indecision and vacillation, with nothing much happening. Then at the eleventh hour, just before I managed to secure an Adjournment debate, I was told that the hospital had been sold.

I shall say a few words about the planning context. Hartley hospital is set in attractive grounds and, as the House has heard, it has a special history. The stone building is also very attractive and in scale with its surroundings, and the local authority has a policy for the site which goes back many years.

The council's planning policy states that any redevelopment or conversion scheme for the former Hartley hospital should have due regard for the national green belt policy since it is the Council's intention to include the site in a Green Belt". The council's policy refers to the Department cif the Environment circular on redundant hospital sites in green belts, and it goes on to list the acceptable uses. These uses include agriculture or forestry-related uses, outdoor sport and recreation, or institutional use such as day care, nursing home, residential college and such like; but the local authority recognises that, should these uses not be practicable, the buildings could have a tourism or leisure use such as a conference centre or perhaps a youth hostel. Housing is in the list of uses that are specifically declared unacceptable, yet it has apparently been sold by the regional health authority for housing, which is in direct conflict with the council's draft local plan.

I want to know why a planning application was not submitted by the regional health authority to test what might or might not be acceptable to the planning authority. As I have shown, in September 1993 that was promised by Sir Bruce Martin, but six months passed and nothing very much happened.

The Department of Health publishes an estate code which is supposed to govern these matters. It is called "Property Transactions in the NHS". It looks at the disposal of surplus property and, in paragraph 4.2, under the heading "Consideration of optimum return", it says: Where there are no alternative health service uses, Health Authorities must consider with their professional advisers how to achieve the optimum return from the property. Paragraph 4.3 says: To secure the best price possible, property which has potential for development should normally be sold with the benefit of planning permission. Health authorities or their agents must therefore establish the most favourable planning potential by making an application under the Town and Country Planning Act 1984 unless there are overriding reasons in terms of best marketing practice for not doing so and the District Valuer concurs. I want to know why that was not done.

Advice paper 2 amplifies the advice from the Department of Health and discusses the options available for the disposal of surplus land and property. It says that a critical phase of a disposal is that of obtaining the best planning consent and a full discussion with professional advisers and the DV must take place on the type of consent to be sought and any other material marketing considerations. I asked Mr. Richard Strickland of the regional health authority earlier today why no planning application was submitted, and he referred me to an undertaking that had allegedly been made by the Minister for Health in the 1980s—presumably, the present Leader of the House—that every effort would be made to secure a health service or allied health use. Mr. Strickland could not point me to where I might find evidence of this commitment, but he recalled its having been made. He also told me that the district valuer had approved the sale to the mystery buyers on the ground that the value of the site with existing use or with housing permission would be the same, something which I find difficult to grasp. If there were a housing development, Mr. Strickland said, it would not be a high-density one.

It seems to me that the regional health authority and the district valuer have made a lot of assumptions. Any planning application that the new buyer submits will have to be considered by the council, and the new buyer should not necessarily assume that planning permission will follow for any housing development. In one sense, the new buyers may be buying a pig in a poke because there is no outstanding planning permission for housing use.

The local planning authority will have to consider several matters. It will take into account its policy for a green-belt development, its own policy specifically for the development of the Hartley hospital site, and the Government guidelines. I am thinking of the 1991 guidelines on the use of redundant hospitals in green-belt areas. I believe that the Government are currently examining those guidelines and will shortly reissue them in a modified form. My contention is that what is acceptable and what is not acceptable can be tested only by submitting a planning application. The regional health authority did not do so, even though the guidance from the Department of Health specifically advises it to do so in order to obtain the best price.

My preference has always been for the hospital to be used as a hospice. However, one must be realistic. In the absence of such a proposal, I wanted to see it put to some community use. A proposal has been made for community use. An offer has been made by a Buddhist group, the Losang Dragpa centre. It has several established centres across the country. One is at Conishead priory, which was restored by the group in 1976. Another, at Kilnwich Percy hall in Pocklington, York, was opened in 1986. Another is in a former hotel in Buxton in Derbyshire. The group thinks that the old Hartley hospital would be a perfect setting for one of its centres.

The proposal has widespread all-party support locally. The local authority has looked at the application and supports it energetically. It will retain the buildings that Sir William gave to the people of Colne. It would allow some community use. The Buddhist group proposes that there will be some serviced residential accommodation. There will be a lecture theatre for residential courses. There will be quality overnight accommodation for tourists. There will be teaching facilities and evening classes. The centre will not be exclusive to Buddhists. Anyone, whether Buddhist or not, could use the centre.

The Losang Dragpa centre put in an offer last year of £245,000. It was apparently turned down. I have here a letter from the Buddhist group which tells me that it was shown round the hospital, it put in a bid and it was told by a Mr. Soloman of the estates department that the property was not on the market. I find that inexplicable because someone somewhere looked at the proposal and decided to reject it. Presumably it was the chairman, Sir Bruce Martin, under the delegated powers to which I have referred.

An offer of £245,000 was put to the regional health authority by the Buddhist group. That proposal falls full square within the planning policy agreed by the local planning authority. It was rejected. A mystery buyer based in Simonstone has made an offer—I do not know for how much—which has apparently just been accepted by the regional health authority. That proposal falls directly outside the planning policy of the local authority. The people who have bought the hospital should not expect to obtain planning permission to redevelop it.

What is the charge? It is that the regional health authority has, throughout the saga, moved at a snail's pace. The lovely hospital was gifted to the people of Colne in my constituency; it has been boarded up for five years and has been slowly decaying while the regional health authority has been biting its finger nails wondering what to do with it.

The regional health authority has totally disregarded the planning context, and has sold the property to a buyer—although the contract has not yet been exchanged—who apparently intends to put it to housing use. That is directly contrary to the publicly expressed policies of the local planning authority. I want the Minister to consider the history and background to the affair to see whether he can satisfy himself that the regional health authority has acted properly, because I do not think that it has.

I shall urge Pendle borough council, the local planning authority, to stick to its guns and to insist that any development of Hartley hospital falls full square within its planning policies. For that hospital of all hospitals to be turned into luxury flats would be an insult to the memory of Sir William Hartley. The people of Colne deserve much better.

6.21 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Mr. Tom Sackville)

In the short time that remains, I should like to make a few comments on the subject raised by the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice).

As the hon. Gentleman will know, there have been repeated efforts to sell Hartley hospital over a number of years. There has been a difficult property market in that area and, in common with many other districts, it has been difficult to sell property, whether commercial or domestic. The various offers and negotiations that have taken place over the years have not come to fruition, either because a buyer who made an offer was unable to come up with the finance or because offers were made that were unacceptably low.

The hon. Gentleman made a connection between the offer that has recently been accepted from a commercial concern and his successful application for a debate in the House. I have to disappoint him: there is no connection between those two matters. It could be said that the property market is recovering and we are fortunate that the regional health authority has apparently obtained an offer from a concern of good standing. I hope that it will come to fruition because we do not want the Hartley hospital to be lying empty and decaying any longer.

We want the health service in the north-west to receive the proceeds of such a sale. In the past year or so, the region has been successful in disposing of property, and the proceeds of all such disposals go back into the health service.

Although the hon. Gentleman appeared to wish to take the credit for the latest transaction, he also said that he disapproved of the nature of the transaction because he believed that the property was to be used for an unsuitable purpose. Our remit in the NHS is to dispose of surplus property for the price, or as close to it, that professional advisers and the district valuer advise us is suitable. We are not in the planning business, which is for others. Our responsibility is to obtain a good price. I am advised that the offer that has been made is close to the asking price, although that is much lower than it was a few years ago—in common with commercial property everywhere. Therefore, I hope that the deal will go through, but it is for others to decide whether to allow any specific use to which the property is put or to which the new buyers wish to put it.

The hon. Member for Pendle mentioned other possible uses. Obviously it would be a very good thing if the hospice movement in the north-west could be further extended. I understand however, that no proposal was made by any voluntary or other organisation to use the Hartley hospital as a hospice. I opened a new hospice only yesterday in another part of the country and I am well aware of the wonderful work that hospices do, but, although I gather that the hospice movement may be seeking further hospices or day centres around the north-west, there is no specific proposal in the hon. Gentleman's area.

I am not aware of any prejudice by Sir Bruce Martin against Buddhists. I am sure that if that organisation had made an offer that was, according to the region's advisers and the district valuer, a good offer and at, or close to, the asking price, there would have been no problem in selling the property to the Buddhists. I think that that is, if not a red herring, simply a matter of commercial reality. We have to dispose of health service property at a proper price and we have not, in spite of repeated efforts in the past three years, received a suitable offer from a concern that appeared able to complete until now.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that we want extra funds for the health service. We dispose of property in a way that provides extra funds for the health service and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join me therefore—

Mr. Gordon Prentice

Before the Minister concludes, I wonder whether he would address the point that lies at the heart of the matter—that the regional health authority disregarded the planning context, and at no stage submitted a planning application to the planning authority to find out what might or might not be acceptable.

Mr. Sackville

As I said, our remit is to dispose of property at the price that professional advisers tell us it is worth. The question of planning is for other people. If professional advisers in the region believe that the buyer is good for a sum which is said to be the proper price for the property, that is our main consideration. The question whether the buyer obtains planning permission is one for the planning authority and for the new owners. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join me in saying that if the price that has been offered is a good one, the NHS will achieve that price.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes past Six o'clock.