By Lewis Huxley
In June 2007, Professor Duane Passman was invited to Brighton for a tour of the new Royal Alexandra Children’s Hospital, part of the Royal Sussex County Hospital.
Photo used under creative commons from tomxcoady
Enjoying a glass of wine on the building’s balcony and discussing the ‘fantastic’ facilities with a member of Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals NHS Trust, Professor Passman’s eye was drawn to the sprawl of brick and portakabins directly in front.
“What’s all this tat down here?” he asked.
“It’s the hospital,” came the reply.
“No, I mean this stuff down here,” Professor Passman said. “I get that this is a hospital, and that white tower over there is a hospital, but what’s all this gumph down here? Is it residential?”
“No, it’s the hospital,” said the trust member.
The focal point was the Barry Building, the hospital’s original structure erected in 1828. Architect Charles Barry went on to design the Houses of Parliament but the Barry Building shared none of that structures’ grandiose flourishes. It hardly looked fit for purpose.
“Have you got any plans to redevelop it?” Professor Passman asked.
This time the reply was less definitive. The trust member explained the site was small. The hospital served Brighton and Hove as a district general and Sussex as a county hospital; any redevelopment would be an enormous undertaking. And besides, they had just finished the Royal Alexandra.
“Well,” said the professor. “I pity the poor so-and-so who does end up in charge of it.”
Four years later, that poor so-and-so is Professor Passman.
Eight feet apart
Plans for a wholesale redevelopment of Royal Sussex County Hospital were formally validated by Brighton and Hove City Council on October 17. The £420million project proposes to transform the Barry Building as well as the hospital’s Major Trauma Centre and the Sussex Cancer Centre. Hurstwood Park Neurosciences Centre, currently 20 miles from Brighton, will also be incorporated.
There is little doubt redevelopment is necessary. The Barry Building contains 200 medicine and care of the elderly beds. Few meet Florence Nightingale’s guidelines, from the late 19th century, of being eight feet apart. There are not enough toilets or single rooms.
“I think our staff do a fantastic job in treating people with dignity and compassion, as much as they possibly can,” said Professor Passman. “But the building doesn’t help them.”
Some local residents have objected to the redevelopment because construction work will have a huge impact on their daily lives from the beginning of the operation in spring 2012 to its completion in 2020.
Heritage societies may also object to the demolition of a building which contains several memorials and has a close link to the surrounding area.
Official objections were submitted on November 8. Now Brighton and Hove City Council will thumb through the 442 documents which support the application. A decision on whether to give planning consent is due before the end of January 2012.
Brighton and Hove City Council have supported Professor Passman and his team for the last three years. But even if planning consent is granted, funding from the Department of Health is not guaranteed.
“The only piece of support that matters to the Department of Health and the Treasury is a letter that says, ‘you’ve got planning consent’,” said Professor Passman.
“They’ve been quite patient with us. They understand that we need to get full planning consent. But all these commitments are always written in pencil. Whoever is sat there with the Department of Health’s capital program, which has this £420million phased over ten years, can take an eraser and just rub it out and get somebody else.
“I think if I was being honest, I would say we are terribly, dangerously close to that.”
A big challenge
With the government ramping up its proposal to reform the NHS, there are many distractions from long-term projects.
“When you’re trying to get the attention of the [relevant] Strategic Health Authority or the Department of Health to say, ‘I need you to look at my business case’, it’s no longer the highest priority,” Professor Passman explains.
“Individuals change. All the very carefully constructed discussions, agreements, understandings that you have with them, you’ve got to start again.”
So the next few months will be an anxious period for those who have worked hard to get the redevelopment started.
If the application is approved, in time, with the necessary measures to mitigate objections, Professor Passman can be optimistic of retaining support from the Department of Health.
“It’s a big challenge but it’s all doable,” he said.
“It seems like a complex project but, in terms of all the mechanics that go with it, we know how to do this. The design team knows how to do it; the constructor knows how to do it. We know what to expect.”
If the planning application is approved, the people of Sussex will also know what to expect: least of all, a better view from the balcony of the Royal Alexandra.
Find out more about the redevelopment of the Royal Sussex County Hospital here.