HC Deb 12 December 1995 vol 268 cc907-12

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

8.22 pm
Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk)

I am delighted to have this opportunity to raise the question of the redevelopment of the hospitals in Sudbury, which is the main town in my constituency. I am especially delighted to welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam) to his new responsibilities at the Department of Health, and by our ability to debate this important subject on the evening of the day when Cambridge university had such a wonderful victory at Twickenham, in the closing moments of an extremely exciting game.

As we have a fair amount of time on our hands, I dare say that we could spend some moments usefully exploring the reasons for that victory, but you, Madam Deputy Speaker, might consider that that was going beyond the bounds of the debate.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

Do not push your luck.

Mr. Yeo

This is the first Adjournment debate that I have had the chance of opening for a number of years, although I have had the pleasure of answering a fair number in the meantime. The purpose of the debate is relatively unusual, in that I am not here to ask my hon. Friend the Minister for any extra money or to ask him for extra facilities for my constituency. I am not criticising his Department or complaining about its policies.

The purpose of the debate is to air the very intense frustration that is felt in Sudbury and the surrounding villages at the seemingly endless delay in getting the new hospital built which has been agreed. That delay is caused solely and entirely by the determined opposition of David and Colin Steed, farmers in my constituency, who own land on which they believe a new hospital should more properly be sited. I shall briefly trace the history and background to the proposal.

The West Suffolk Hospitals trust already operates two hospitals in Sudbury: the Walnuttree hospital and St. Leonard's. Walnuttree has 97 beds for rehabilitation, continuing care, and for the care of older people with severe mental illness. It also has a number of day places. St. Leonard's provides out-patient services.

Neither of those hospitals is on a site that could be redeveloped to provide the facilities that are now needed. Both of them are in poor condition. Both would require significant additional expenditure if their lives were to be extended beyond a relatively short period. Indeed, the main part of the Walnuttree hospital dates from 1836, when it was originally constructed as a workhouse.

Having said all that, the staff do an excellent job, and provide a good quality of service in what are quite difficult conditions, but nobody—not even the Steed brothers—disputes the urgent need for both those hospitals to be replaced. That was recognised more than a decade ago.

At that time, 10 possible sites were appraised. The site that was chosen, after considerable local debate, was Harps Close meadow, which is popularly known locally as the People's park. It is close to the centre of Sudbury, and is widely regarded as a suitable site. The regional health authority purchased it in 1987, and by 1992 considerable infrastructure work on the site had been carried out. By that stage, more than £1 million of taxpayers' money had been spent on the scheme.

Sudbury and the surrounding communities were well on the way to having their new hospital, a hospital that would provide 56 rehabilitation beds for elderly patients, and there is a rapidly growing number of elderly people in my constituency. The hospital would provide out-patient clinics capable of seeing 12,000 patients a year.

In a sparsely populated area such as south Suffolk, that out-patient facility is of particular importance. Most of those out-patients would be forced to travel a considerable distance to Bury St. Edmunds, to the West Suffolk hospital, where alternative facilities exist. That would be a considerable inconvenience to them, and often to their relatives. The new hospital would also provide 15 day care places and other facilities.

Alas, while the plans for the new hospital were gradually coming to fruition, the determination of the Steed brothers to block the progress of the scheme was also growing. In 1990, they unsuccessfully attempted to persuade the regional health authority to buy their land as an alternative site for the hospital. In 1992, they unsuccessfully attempted to have People's park registered as a village green. That application was rejected by Suffolk county council—rightly, in my judgment. At the end of 1992, the Steed brothers were given leave to seek judicial review of the county council's decision.

I am not a lawyer by training, and I certainly make no comment about the specific decision to allow the Steeds to seek judicial review, but I observe in passing that the enormous increase in judicial review does not seem to me always to promote good and efficient administration, or even to promote the public interest, although no doubt it is good for the incomes of certain members of the legal profession. At any rate, by that time, the actions of the Steed brothers had created such doubt over the whole project that work on the People's park site was halted.

In May this year, the Steed brothers lost their judicial review, but, alas, in June they launched an appeal, which is not likely to be heard before next summer. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will confirm that the existence of the appeal makes it well nigh impossible for the scheme to proceed, at least for the time being.

Feeling in the town is now extremely strong, and there is an impressive degree of unanimity. The issue transcends party politics: my political opponents and I are at one. Many of us have attempted, privately and publicly, to persuade the Steeds to drop their opposition. Mrs. Sylvia Byham, a former councillor, former mayor and indefatigable worker for many local causes and charitable organisations, has tried.

Last weekend, a petition was handed to me hearing nearly 700 signatures that had been gathered quickly in the inclement weather that prevailed on Friday and Saturday, requesting my continued support for the building of the hospital on People's park as planned. Among those involved in gathering the signatures were the Rev. David Parkes, representing the local clergy; Mr. Ray White, secretary of the Friends of the Sudbury Hospitals; and Sylvia Cann, a former mayor who now represents the local pensioners association. Many others, too numerous to mention, were also involved. Hardly anyone in the town or the surrounding neighbourhood who is familiar with the shortcomings of the existing hospital facilities in Sudbury would now try to argue against immediate implementation of the plan. The situation is extraordinary: a protracted legal process is being exploited by opponents of the scheme—opponents who are now very few in number.

On this issue, the people of Sudbury have no quarrel with my hon. Friend the Minister or his Department; they have no quarrel with the regional health authority; they have no quarrel with the Suffolk health authority, whose excellent chairman Mrs. Joanna Spicer has been as supportive as she could have been; they have no quarrel with the West Suffolk hospital trust, whose board and management have done all that they could to implement the proposal as originally planned; they have no quarrel with Suffolk county council, which rejected the Steeds' attempt to prevent the hospital from being built on People's park; they have no quarrel with Babergh district council, which, as the planning authority, has co-operated with the various NHS agencies to facilitate completion of the whole scheme. I urge my hon. Friend to note that remarkable unanimity of purpose.

If the Steed brothers now agreed to abandon their opposition to the scheme, even at this late stage, they would have my full support. They would earn the respect that is due to honest people who acknowledge honest error, and they would certainly earn the gratitude of people in Sudbury, who are anxious for the project to be completed as soon as possible. I hope that my hon. Friend will join me in appealing to the Steeds to do just that, and to end their resistance—a resistance that is surely doomed to eventual failure in any event, and which serves only to delay the provision of much-needed facilities.

Finally I ask my hon. Friend, through me, to reassure the people of Sudbury that, even if we are all forced to wait a few more months for work on the scheme to be restarted, his Department and the regional health authority will continue to back the scheme, and that the funds allocated for it will still be available. That reassurance may be all that my hon. Friend can offer this evening, but it would be greatly appreciated.

8.33 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Mr. John Horam)

I am glad to be able to respond to my hon Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) on an issue that, as he says, is of considerable local importance. I know that he takes a keen interest in health care matters—he is a former Health Minister—at both national and local levels. He is a tireless champion of health services in Suffolk, and I am well aware of his efforts to resolve the unique difficulties surrounding the development of a new hospital in Sudbury.

I understand that my hon Friend recently wrote to Sir Stuart Burgess, chairman of Anglia and Oxford regional health authority, regarding the matter, and that Sir Stuart plans to reply shortly with an offer to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the subject. The scheme has clearly enjoyed general support for a long time, and I hope that my hon. Friend and his constituents are in no doubt about the extent to which it is regarded as a sensible and necessary step for Sudbury.

Although I have not visited Sudbury in my ministerial capacity, I understand that Walnuttree hospital is one of two small community-style hospitals serving the people of Sudbury, the other being St Leonard's. Both form part of the West Suffolk Hospitals NHS trust, which is largely based in Bury St. Edmunds. Walnuttree hospital is a former workhouse, and St Leonard's probably dates back to a similar era.

There is no doubt that both buildings have passed their prime, as my hon. Friend pointed out, and the residents of Sudbury plainly deserve new, updated medical care facilities. That need has been long recognised by Anglia and Oxford regional health authority—and, since its inception in 1993, by West Suffolk Hospitals NHS trust, which now has management responsibility for Walnuttree and St Leonard's hospitals. As I have just repeated in response to my hon. Friend's request, that support remains as strong as ever.

As my hon. Friend pointed out, work on developing a new hospital for Sudbury began in the mid-1980s, when the regional health authority purchased some land in the town known as Harps Close meadow. The aim was to build a new 120-bed hospital on part of that land, with work beginning in 1991. Problems to which my hon. Friend referred meant that by 1993, when West Suffolk Hospitals NHS trust was established, no progress had been made on the development. As the problem continues to be unresolved, work on the new hospital remains at a standstill.

Over the time that elapsed, however, advances in medical technology—together with improved ways in which health care is provided—meant that the original plans for the hospital needed to be updated. In particular, clinicians and managers at the trust, supported by their colleagues in Suffolk health authority, felt that the proposals did not meet the changing pattern of elderly care and were not in line with local patient needs.

It was generally felt that the scheme offered no more than an exercise of replacing existing hospital beds with new ones. It did not reflect the moves that were taking place for the care of patients in the community and the provision of nursing home places for long-stay patients.

As a result, West Suffolk Hospitals NHS trust revisited the proposals. It sought the views of local purchasers in Suffolk, and also the view of those from the adjoining area of north Essex. The trust then prepared a new, revised business case that took account of the changing circumstances. It was submitted to the Anglia and Oxford NHS executive regional office, and in May 1995, outline approval was given for the new community hospital in Sudbury.

We are discussing the plans for that hospital. The hospital was intended to replace both Walnuttree and St. Leonard's hospitals, and—as my hon. Friend said—to include 40 elderly rehabilitation beds, 24 elderly mentally ill beds, 15 to 20 day case places, 20 interim placement/respite beds, and a community health base.

In addition, the trust outline business case proposed that the development should contain the opportunity for a potential GP surgery with a minor injuries suite staffed by trust nurses, a potential ambulance station, and a potential nursing home. We have no doubt about the need for the facilities that we hope to gain at the new Sudbury hospital, or about their scope and ambitiousness.

This new proposal clearly offers a considerable improvement in the level of services currently provided for the people of Sudbury—I am sure that my hon. Friend has no doubt about that—and in saying that, I mean no criticism against the staff working at Walnuttree and St. Leonard's, who, as my hon. Friend will confirm, are providing sterling efforts in what are obviously difficult, trying and outdated conditions.

I am therefore saddened to learn of the local problems that have delayed the building of the new facility. I understand that those focus around a claim that part of Harps Close meadow should be left as open space and designated as having village green status. That claim against Suffolk county council by two local farmers has already been the subject of a judicial review, when the courts ruled in the council's favour. I understand that the two farmers have appealed against that decision, and that the subsequent appeal is expected to be heard later next year.

I cannot, of course, comment on the merit or otherwise of the dispute. In this overcrowded world, I appreciate only too well the importance of open space and I know how much pleasure it provides for the community at large. I understand, however, local residents' acute impatience, graphically instanced by my hon. Friend, for work on the new hospital to begin as soon as possible.

I am informed by the Anglia and Oxford NHS executive regional office that, although the judicial review's outcome will not stop the trust from building the hospital—legal advice is that building a health facility will not be illegal—if the appeal is successful, any non-NHS use of the site may not be acceptable. As my hon. Friend has said, the trust's proposals envisage a degree of independent partnership.

I am told that the uncertainty over that land's future use is making the project unattractive to any private sector partners who may want to come forward to fund the proposed new development via the private finance initiative.

I am informed that, even following the judicial review appeal, the possibility exists that either party could refer the case to the House of Lords, and that that could delay a final decision for several more years to come. My hon. Friend and his constituents face a sad position, and obviously, I am genuinely sympathetic to the people of Sudbury's plight.

Apart from the support that, as I have said, exists at all levels for the building of the new hospital as early as possible, I intend writing to Sir Stuart Burgess, chairman of Anglia and Oxford regional health authority, drawing his attention to my hon. Friend's representations tonight, and asking him to consider what reassurances he can provide for local residents over their future new hospital. I shall do that as soon as possible.

The trust could do something for itself. It could instruct its lawyers to apply to the High Court to get the hearing on the appeal application expedited, so that it is heard as early as possible next year. That might resolve the problem, as there are clearly heavy costs for the litigants in this case. In any case, even if it does not quickly resolve the problem, it is a sensible next step to expedite the hearing as far as possible.

I add my words to my hon. Friend's in appealing to the family involved to recognise the people of Sudbury's needs and the wider health considerations. I therefore join him in making the appeal to that family to recognise the common sense of the position. As he says, they have fought for a particular point of view well and hard, but perhaps they should recognise that opinion has moved decisively in the hospital's favour.

Meanwhile, apart from writing to Sir Stuart Burgess in making my hon. Friend's case to him, I assure my hon. Friend that I will keep in close touch with the position on the ground.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seventeen minutes to Nine o'clock.

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