JAMES KILLDARE, our health correspondent (recently successfully put out to tender), reports on a growing row in Sutton over the Conservatives’ opaque plans for one of the area’s largest NHS hospitalsIt started so casually, with Sutton’s two MPs together in a television studio. The Tories in Sutton had been having such a good time in the previous three weeks at the expense of the FibDems who run the local council, and who – together with waste contractors Veolia – had made such a mess of the borough’s streets through what has become known by the hashtag #SuttonBinShame. And all just in time for an election campaign, too!
But then Paul Scully, the Conservative who has been MP for Sutton and Cheam since 2015, made a throwaway comment on the BBC’s Sunday Politics regional slot about how he wanted to spend £75million on a “new hospital facility” in the borough.
It took a few days, but the penny dropped with local politicians and campaign groups this week: wouldn’t having a “new hospital facility” as Scully suggests also require the closure of St Helier Hospital, with its A&E department and maternity wards?
After all, under Tory health secretary Jeremy Hunt, the government has worked up what they like to call a “consultant-led” report (as if any medical professional working within the NHS is seriously in favour of providing less rather than more health services), which recommends the closure of at least one, if not two, hospitals within the St Helier and Epsom grouping.
And what, campaigners began to ask, would £75million actually manage to pay for in terms of health provision, when some modern NHS hospitals with a full range of acute services have been built for five or six times as much? In Croydon, the Mayday’s new A&E department alone is costing close to £20million.
What Scully said last Sunday was this: “We’ve heard a quarter of a century of ‘Save St Helier’, ‘Save St Helier, it’s gonna close’, with no sort of viewpoint of how to take this off the table.
“What I’ve been keen to do is to work with the chief exec of the hospital locally to see what we can do to build a new hospital facility in Sutton that is actually going to provide all those services and not have to move to Tooting.”
The good people at Keep Our St Helier Hospital have carefully recorded a video of the TV programme, and provided some helpful captioning, as you can see below.
It was as this video went viral at the end of the week, and the more uncomfortable conclusions which might be drawn from Scully’s remarks became apparent, that the first-term MP began to get more than a little agitated, throwing out threats of legal action against some who dared to suggest that what he was saying could lead to the closure of one of south London’s biggest and most important NHS acute hospitals.
The problem Scully, and all Tories, have is that the time has long passed since anyone with a scintilla of sense would trust a word that they have to say about the NHS. Daily under this government, the NHS is being chipped away at, with the juicy, more profitable services being parcelled off to private medicine companies, many of which have been generous donors to the Conservatives.
And Scully’s position on health service provision in Sutton has been further undermined by the blatherings of one of his local party colleagues, Cameron Penny, who is to be a Tory candidate in Carshalton at next year’s council elections.
“It’s high time we demolished St Helier,” Penny posted unequivocally about the only NHS hospital in London which actually achieved its government-set targets for A&E waiting times in February.
“I’ve never been in such a shabby, dirty, crumbling hospital in my life.”
Penny’s post was soon removed in a damage-limitation exercise which failed to limit the damage.
At stake for Scully and his party is Tom Brake’s Carshalton and Wallington seat, with its modest 1,500-vote majority from the last election.
Just as Scully managed to beat Paul Burstow in Sutton and Cheam in 2015, the Tories in a strongly pro-Brexit borough think they have a chance on June 8 against Remainer Brake. Unseat Brake, the theory goes, and the local council, which has been a bastion of the FibDems since 1990, loses its figurehead and much of its political funding, and for the first time in a while Ruth Dombey’s 30-plus seat majority on Sutton Council looks vulnerable.Taking on the challenge of beating Brake is the Old Etonian heir presumptive to a baronetcy, Matthew Maxwell Scott, who in recent weeks has been undergoing a crash course in rubbish collection, thanks to council mismanagement and the sort of short-comings of Veolia that have long been familiar to Croydon residents who endure the same contractor.
But all the political capital the Tories might have gained on the bin collection swings might yet be lost on the NHS roundabout over even the merest hint of plans to close St Helier.
And Scully really ought to know better.
The former Parliamentary political aide set-up a public relations company based in Croydon, called the Nudge Factory (it handles some of the communications work connected with the Westfield development). One of the services that Scully’s company offers for corporations with more money than sense is, get this, crisis management consultancy.
“Nudge Factory can be relied upon to limit the damage and start the fightback,” the company’s website boasts.
“Our team has worked in some of the most challenging environments in government and knows how to turn today’s crisis into yesterday’s news.” Hahahaha. It is thought most unlikely that the Nudge Factory’s “expert advice” has ever included recommending that an MP should bandy about libel threats to constituents on social media, as Scully has done this week.
SCULLY’S COMMENTS on television suggested to some that he has already met with St Helier chief executive Daniel Elkeles and settled upon one of the four possible outcomes that Elkeles had proposed last year.
In an email, tweeted by Mitcham and Morden Labour MP Siobhain McDonagh, the hospital boss presented four scenarios for the future of the St Helier, Epsom and Sutton hospital sites:
“We believe that there are four potenial options, where we locate acute services on one site, whilst retaining most of our services on the Epsom and St Helier campuses. The optons that we believe may be viable are:
- A new build around the St Helier site for acute services with services remaining at Epsom.
- A rebuild of the Epsom site for the acute services with services remaining at St Helier
- A new build on our estate at Sutton Hospital with services remaining at both Epsom and St Helier
- A new build in partnership with the Royal Marsden on their site in Sutton for the acute services with services remaining at both Epsom and St Helier.”
Scully’s comments suggest that option (c) is what the people of south London might expect if the Tories form the next government. There’s a degree of confirmation from Scully himself, who took a break from snarling out threats to post on social media: “I’ve never said I want to close St Helier, and remain of that view. However, I would like to see the remaining parcel of land at the Sutton Hospital site used for a new hospital facility.”
This still raises further questions about the future of a full, acute hospital facility at St Helier.
These include: what has happened to the £219million renovation fund for St Helier, which was promised under the previous, Cameron-led Tory government?It also sets up a tug-of-war over the Sutton Hospital site, which the local council wants to turn into a world centre for cancer research.
But the council plans have all-but collapsed after neither Boris Johnson nor Sadiq Khan, as London Mayors, would fund the building of a Tramlink extension to Sutton from Wimbledon, and even the council’s partners, the Institute of Cancer Research, decided that they would not contribute towards the estimated £25million cost of buying up land around the site in Belmont.
In any case, does Scully really think he could get an entire acute hospital on what’s left of the Sutton Hospital site for just £75million? And how would a new facility be funded?
It is clear that Something Must Be Done. St Helier, built in 1939 and famous as the birthplace of future Prime Minister John Major, has been in various states of structural disrepair almost since it was completed. The £219million refurb that was promised was seen as a much needed lifeline.Serial petitioner Brake has gone on record favouring a comparable “replacement” hospital on the existing St Helier site, but that would cost around £500million. For his Tory rival to be openly talking about a £75million “hospital facility” strongly suggests that any replacement will be much scaled-down.
The uncertainty about the hospital’s future has created other problems, which Scully highlighted last weekend. “If you were a junior doctor just about to qualify, why would you want to go to St Helier, when everyone’s saying it’s gonna close down?” he said.
“You wanna go to St George’s, you wanna go where the action is according to the political waves. And so it’s a self-perpetuating cycle really.”
And one which, in the weeks before an election, the supposed PR guru Scully appears to have stirred into a political mess which even Veolia would struggle to create.
- Keep Our St Helier Hospital is staging a public meeting to discuss the latest twists and turns in the sad saga on May 22 at Bishopsford Road Social Club, Bishopsford Road (off A217), SM4 6BH. Click here for further information
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