COMMENT: Why we must draw a line under the debate for a new hospital and move forward together

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By Christian Mitchell, Conservative Horsham District councillor for Holbrook West, Vice chairman elect

For some 15 years the people of Horsham have campaigned for a new acute hospital with full A&E facilities north of the town.

Our MP Francis Maude has worked tirelessly in pursuit of that goal and everyone in the district has enormous cause to be grateful to him for it - as well as to this newspaper which has steadfastly given wholehearted support throughout.

Horsham District Councillor Christian Mitchell - picture submitted by HDC

Horsham District Councillor Christian Mitchell - picture submitted by HDC

But sadly I do believe that the campaign has run its course and it is time to move on.

On Saturday, what was billed as a ‘make or break’ meeting was held at County Hall North by Mr Maude to assess the level of support from local GPs and their new commissioning group.

The message from the health secretary Jeremy Hunt was the basis for the meeting. Only with the GPs’ support and the financial subsidy of associated housing development could the project stand any chance of proceeding.

Although I was not present at the meeting, it is clear from reports of it along with the known position of many health professionals, that there is simply not the backing for a hospital.

We should respect their decision.

When the campaign was born, East Surrey Hospital at Redhill had an appalling reputation. The County Times’ pages were filled all too often with complaints from disenchanted patients and their families.

But there have been marked improvements, especially in the past couple of years.

Tellingly, in figures released on Tuesday April 16 by the Care Quality Commission, the vast majority of patients attending Redhill felt they were treated with dignity and respect and were happy with their experience.

The review also found that East Surrey Hospital’s performance had improved across many areas and that patient confidence in the doctors and nurses had grown.

Medical opinion on the best course of action in emergencies has also matured during the past two decades. As one GP pointed out at Saturday’s meeting, in many life-threatening emergencies the important factor is paramedics’ response times, not the distance to the nearest A&E ward.

With limited resources and shrinking budgets, they are reported as saying, that building a new hospital would simply divert funding away from every other facility.

In practice that would ultimately mean the closure of the rapidly developing Horsham Hospital in Hurst Road - increasingly a centre of excellence in its own right - as well as Crawley Hospital. And what of East Surrey - where would it be left? On a backward journey?

There are other crucial questions.

If new housing is to fund the new hospital how long will it take for that money and the consequent new facility take to manifest themselves? Ten years? Twenty years? And in the meantime, our existing local hospitals - under a death sentence - will be starved of investment and thoroughly undermined by uncertainty.

And what sort of private/public new hospital will emerge? True, it will be free at the point of use for NHS patients - but will it live up to public expectation or merely be a glorified medical centre? In fast changing times can we be certain it would include a full A&E which demands enormous annual subsidy to run?

With fellow Conservative district councillor Peter Burgess I wrote in the County Times three weeks’ ago that Horsham was now full for more housing.

I believe that to be the case. We do not have the infrastructure to absorb another 4,500 houses.

The truth is, I object entirely to massive concreting of the countryside and I believe our own district council should focus less on a meaningless 40 per cent ‘low cost housing’ element to every major development and encourage instead the types of dwellings that developers know they can sell.

This would re-energise the local economy and the housing ladder, freeing up less expensive properties already built for local, first time buyers.

If we must have more housing we need to look again at communities like Billingshurst which could use planning gain funds to create a village centre of real quality - with proper local parking.

Now that the GPs have indicated against a new hospital we need to look at the agenda of where we place housing in the cold light of day. Residents will no longer have to be torn in making the choice of taking a housing development in North Horsham that would have increased the size of the Town by a quarter in exchange for a hospital. The burden of that decision - and the debate as to whether or not the sheer enormity of the housing development from the council, in exchange for a hospital, would have been a bribe or not - has now been lifted from us.

It was a bold, brave vision.

My reading of the situation is that without the comprehensive and wholehearted support of the GPs and their new commissioning group the idea is now dead - and should be allowed to respectfully rest in peace.