Bill Presented — Infrastructure (Financial Assistance) Bill
Robert Walter (North Dorset, Conservative)
I congratulate my hon. Friend Dr Wollaston on securing this debate. I also congratulate the Minister on her appointment, and all of us who are committed to the future of community hospitals look forward to her comments in a few moments. This is not a party-political debate—I hope—but the complete absence of Labour Back Benchers probably explains the difficulties that we had in promoting the case of community hospitals during the 13 years of a Labour Government.
In an age when large organisations seem to be swallowing up smaller ones, it is refreshing to find that in my county of Dorset we have 11 small hospitals, what we used to call cottage hospitals but now refer to as community hospitals. The term was coined in reaction to the hospital plan of 1962, which pressed for resources to be concentrated into hospitals of 300 beds or more, an inevitable consequence of which was the closure of smaller ones. Opposition to this came from the newly formed Association of General Practitioner Hospitals, now the Community Hospitals Association. It was the association’s chairman at the time, Sandy Cavenagh, who revealed that more
than half the patients treated in general hospital beds could be cared for equally well or better—and at lower cost—in a small hospital near their homes.
Community hospitals survived, especially in my area, the south-west, which has 80 of the 300 or so remaining such hospitals. Dorset’s 11 community hospitals compares favourably with larger and richer counties. Two of the jewels of this array of community hospitals are in my constituency in Shaftesbury and Blandford, and with the greatest respect to John Pugh, a little bit of history is important here.
In Shaftesbury there was no formal provision for the sick of the town until 1874. There had been an infirmary in the abbey, but that disappeared along with the abbey itself during the dissolution in 1539. After that there was nothing until the building of the workhouse in 1840, and its sick ward was only for the inmates. So when the Marquis of Westminster’s widow and daughter wanted to honour his memory, a cottage hospital for those in and around Shaftesbury seemed appropriate. The marquis had owned large estates in the area and had done much to improve the lot of his tenants, and this project was in keeping with his philanthropic attitude. His widow, the dowager marchioness, therefore gave the area the land. The foundation stone was laid in 1871, and the hospital was formally opened by the bishop of Salisbury three years later. It was originally designed for a mere six patients, the poor of the town, and it was anticipated that they would be attended by their own doctors. The hospital was run by the matron—as indeed it is today.
The building was enlarged in 1907. An operating theatre, donated by another dowager marchioness of Westminster, was opened. It is still there, but it is no longer an operating theatre. The hospital’s running costs increased, and the Shaftesbury carnival committee stepped in, and for many years the proceeds from the carnival were donated to the hospital. The committee was rather more powerful than would be expected of such a body nowadays. Indeed, in 1923, it disapproved so strongly of the matron that it refused to hold a carnival that year. The resulting loss of revenue meant that the hospital had to be closed, and the matron then resigned.
Similarly, before 1889 Blandford did not have anywhere to look after the sick and its hospital was funded by the Portman family, which generously donated the land and buildings for the hospital. The present site of the hospital was given by the second Viscount Portman.
About 1,500 patients pass through Shaftesbury hospital, and the friends organisation, which I commend, has estimated that what is done in that hospital saves more than 60,000 miles of travel that would otherwise be covered going to Salisbury district hospital. Such journeys are expensive, stressful and inconvenient to patients, and of course involve unnecessary car use. In its present role, that hospital serves 18,000 patients a year, and the other hospital in my constituency, at Blandford, is thought to serve about 20,000 every year.
The key issue I would like to address is the ownership of these hospitals. Currently, all Dorset’s hospitals are run by Dorset HealthCare University NHS Foundation Trust, which was originally a mental health trust. When the clinical commissioning groups are up and running,
the GPs, who are key to the development of today’s community hospitals, should be recognised again as part of the community, and the community hospitals should be owned by the communities they serve. The friends organisations are key to equipping our local hospitals and at the core of that community interest. I believe that we should harness their enthusiasm and expertise, along with that of GPs, in returning ownership of our community hospitals to the communities they serve.