I’ll say straight away that the history and recent history of the NHS and local services in the Forest of Dean is not my specialist subject. I was not living round here when the last major battle to stop the Dilke (and Lydney) hospitals being closed – the successful S.O.S. (Save Our Services) campaign – more than 10 years ago took place.
Nevertheless, it is obvious the Dilke and the publicly-owned site on which it stands, is now under threat from being sold off. And as someone who has campaigned for the past seven years to prevent us being alienated from our public land, I feel I have to stick my oar in. There is a comments facility below – feel free to correct me on anything, or fill in more details, if you the reader are more embroiled in this issue and current goings-on in the NHS than me.
Others will know far more than me about the needs and requirements of a contemporary efficient health service and about the state of the current hospital buildings and their insulation and heating systems. I’m sure there are plenty of arguments that the Dilke and Lydney hospitals ARE no longer fit for purpose, and are in the wrong place.
THIS LAND IS OUR LAND
But here’s the nub of the situation, and for me it’s not about the bricks and mortar or even essentially the site’s current use and purpose, it’s about retaining our public land and stopping the chipping away of our Forest – which for so many reasons (environmental and economical) should be extended not fragmented.
The Dilke sits in the heart of gorgeous woodland, and coupled with the lunar-like Lightmoor colliery site just across the road, would make a very high-value piece of real estate. Lightmoor is one of a number of sites already earmarked or allocated for development in what is known as the “Statutory Forest”, which along with “its contiguous woodlands” is somewhat but not wholly protected from sell-off in the Forestry Act 1981. The land on which the Dilke was built was transferred from the Forestry Commissioners early in the 20th century to the consortium of public subscribers (many miners and other locals). It seems from Land Registry documents that only in 2013 did the Dilke become the property, by means of a Parliamentary Order, of the Gloucestershire NHS Primary Care Trust. I guess this automatically shifts ownership to the new NHS Property Board, which is – according to the terms of the Government’s Naylor Review – charged, with the help of newly established Sustainability and Transformation Partnerships, of saving the NHS £22bn in its annual budget by selling off facilities and land to fund new-build (or be trousered by City financiers). In Bristol, campaigners say STP plans to close and sell off existing facilities and build shiny new “super-hospitals” will result in a loss of hundreds of beds.
It’s all very well being sold a new pup, but don’t neglect or put your faithful old dog down, at least until you know whether the pup’s ok… I was quite shocked to hear the campaign for a “super-hospital” and the consignment of Lydney Hospital to the dustbin of history was launched at the Friends of Lydney Hospital fete – the same platform which fought its closure a dozen years ago. The speech almost seemed to be a fait accompli, before any visible public consultation is launched. Will the consultation, I wonder, offer an option for the Dilke site not to be sold off?
The hospitals are not “fit for purpose”, we’re told, but the “stakeholders” (whomever they may be) have a bold vision (no doubt soon to be backed up with space-age fantasy artists’ impressions) for a new one of a new, super-deluxe, ultra-modern facility… location unconfirmed, but current hospital locations presumably to be sold on the open market.
JUST ONE SUPER-HOSPITAL?
Just as the planned replacement for Five Acres college at the “Cinderford Northern Quarter” is designed to educate less people (despite a mooted population increase), it seems the drive is for a single health facility to serve the whole Forest.
By the time it is built, the population of the Forest of Dean District will be 80,000+. If we take away those that may come under the Chepstow and Gloucester catchment areas, it’s still a population of 50 to 60,000 people.
However, the stated aim of NHS reorganisation is to create “urgent care hubs”, each serving 30,000 people. So surely we need TWO or THREE super-hospitals, not just one in the Forest? The wrangle should not be between Lydney, Cinderford and Coleford about who gets the prize hospital, but demanding one each!
And so it seems the narrative has already been written for the future – but with scarcely a thought to what happens to the existing facilities, quietly disposed of to the highest bidder while everyone is focused on the squabble as to where the new hospital is.
FIVE ACRES AND THE BREAKING OF COVENANTS
Word has it, the leading favourite new super-hospital location is Five Acres, the college and playing fields site. Five Acres, like the Dilke Hospital, was transferred from the public forest estate with a covenant – in Five Acres’ case, that the land was granted for educational purposes only, and in the Dilke’s case, that the land was granted for a public-subscription hospital.
The covenant for Five Acres seemed to be overriden when, as soon as Gloucestershire Colleges reportedly bailed out the Royal Forest of Dean College from bankruptcy by taking on Five Acres as its new campus, it sold the site to the Governmental Homes & Communities Agency (HCA).
The deal then seemed to be that Five Acres could now be sold off for housing and that as long as an educational facility was included at the other HCA acquisition near Hawkwell and Steam Mills. But the local community kicked off then (FANS – Five Acres Not For Sale), until an eventual compromise brokered. The leisure facilities and other buildings would be transformed into a community facility by West Dean Parish Council, while just a bit of the site would be allocated for housing.
Is all this now up in the air? I’ve yet to hear whether West Dean PC welcomes or opposes its plans being gazumped by a super-hospital? What makes it more interesting is that four of the key West Dean parish and district councillors are now the Cabinet of the district council. The new council cabinet has already publicly reassured the Labour-Tory alliance that drives the £££million black hole Northern Quarter that they are fully in support of the Northern Quarter.
SUPER-HOSPITAL & SUPER-SURGERIES
And now does it seem that ALL our political players will succumb to “super-hospital” mania, that the dismantling of two public sites and their sell-off and possible futures as exclusive gated communities or private health facilities, or hotels will be shrugged off as necessary in order to fund a 21st-century replacement?
In the meantime, to get this new super-facility with everything in one place, we can expect our local GP practices to shut down and amalgamate. My own local satellite surgery is just five minutes’ walk away, and essential for the many elderly people nearby who don’t drive – there are only a few buses per day to and from Cinderford, the practice’s main hub. Now, before the super-hospital gets under way, as a second prize the Cinderford Northern Quarter looks like it will get instead a “super-surgery”, where the overcrowded (so they say, it’s always seemed ok to me) joint practices at Dockham Road will be relocated.
The Co-op (which will be gaining the space left by the departed doctors’ surgery) seems happy with the idea – it coincidentally (I’m sure) dropped its battle against the council for another supermarket as the news of the “super-surgery” was made public. So now, if I’m going on foot, to visit my GP would take me an hour on foot rather than five minutes… That’s progress, but doubt it’ll be accompanied by better public transport services to make up for the loss of village and town amenities.
SUGGESTED CAMPAIGN AIMS?
On my Facebook page recently I put out a feeler to see if people were thinking on the same lines as me – that while not opposed to new and better health facilities I do strongly oppose 1. Harder-to-access and less health facilities, and 2. The privatisation of the Dilke site.
Everyone seemed to agree on these two campaign aims. I’ve learned that to get a campaign off the ground the aims need to have consensus and be straightforward enough to get off the ground.
Plenty will agree the Dilke, in its current form, has had its day. Is it possible, however, to rebuild the Dilke on its current site, and perhaps extend it/ have car parking facilities across the road at Lightmoor (there is an existing former railway tunnel now cycle/walkway under the road connecting the two sites)?
Or, is it possible that we can re-establish the Dilke as a new maternity hospital, offering natural methods in the heart of the Forest?
Or, failing that, can the Dilke become a public environmental centre now that the public has lost the Wilderness Centre in Mitcheldean to a private Cambridge prep school concern?
Whatever happens, we cannot allow the Dilke to be stolen off us by privateers. The land is ours – on paper it is the NHS Trust but intrinsically it is ours.
AND SO WE MUST FIGHT FOR THE LAND ON WHICH THE DILKE STANDS, IF NOT THE DILKE HOSPITAL ITSELF… This is my suggested focus, what do people think? I put this on a blog as not everyone uses Facebook, but please feel free to share on all forms of social media.
Someone come up with a group name, someone set up a public meeting and time, someone pool all the research, someone find out when the “stakeholders” are next meeting and what their next moves are…
Most importantly right now, let’s get this out there: THE DILKE SITE WILL NOT BE SOLD UNDER OUR WATCH!