Royal Hospital Haslar

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:31 pm on 20th March 2009.

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Photo of Peter Viggers Peter Viggers Conservative, Gosport 2:31 pm, 20th March 2009

I am grateful for this opportunity to raise in the House the issue of the Royal Hospital Haslar. It has been raised before. I have maintained to colleagues that it is the best-known hospital in the House of Commons, and the file on the subject is 1 ft high.

The Haslar site was bought in 1745. It is a glorious 55-acre site overlooking the mouth of Portsmouth harbour, and it became the first purpose-built hospital for the Royal Navy. It was opened in 1754 and took some 1,800 patients. Its distinctive high walls were there to prevent the patients from escaping should they wish to do so, having been press-ganged into the Navy initially. It is historically very interesting. The expression "up the creek" refers to Haslar creek, which is not a good place to be. It was for years the main home of the Royal Naval Medical Service, but following changes it eventually became the only military hospital in the United Kingdom, and was renamed the Royal Hospital Haslar. That was the position on 10 December 1998. On that date, the Government announced they were proposing that the military forces withdraw from Haslar, and it was stated that the hospital would close in about two years. In fact, some 10 years later the Royal Hospital Haslar is still there.

The decision at the time caused anger, distress and even outrage. A march in January 1999 was attended by 22,000 people, which was thought to be the largest number of people ever to protest about the closure of a hospital. We had every kind of demonstration. We had Save Haslar—hundreds of people holding torches pointing upwards, which was broadcast live on television. We also had every kind of rally and petition. Local feeling was extremely strong; there was a church vigil, I remember.

The concern was over two issues: the military aspect and the civilian aspect. In respect of the military aspect, the hospital was the home of the Defence Medical Services, and it was losing its home. The proposal was to build a new £200 million facility at Selly Oak in Birmingham, but that was scrapped for budget reasons. For many years, there had been shortfalls in the armed forces in a number of faculties, including general medicine, general surgery, orthopaedic surgery and anaesthetics. There has for many years been a problem in the medical forces, not so much with recruitment, because the armed forces pay for the training of young doctors and nurses, but with retention, which remains extremely poor. Were it not for the reserves, it would not be possible for the armed forces to have the medical back-up they so badly need.

The situation remains unresolved. There is a proposal to move some facilities to Lichfield, which is not convenient—to park the other facilities the other side of Birmingham. We maintain that the facilities at Fort Blockhouse should remain. The Ministry of Defence hospital units where military personnel work alongside civilians have much to say for them, because they give the military experience across a wide range of medicine and surgery. However, there is a problem, because the military personnel work alongside civilians, who, in many cases, earn more than they do and do not have to go to Afghanistan from time to time. That does not help the retention of personnel in the armed forces medical services.

I come to the civilian aspects of the loss of Haslar. We did warn, in what, I thought, were dramatic terms, that lives would be lost in the ambulance between Gosport and the Queen Alexandra hospital in Cosham as a result of the closure of the accident and emergency unit at Haslar, but what we did not know was that one of the first lives to be lost would be that of the local mayor. The situation is tragic, because there is a trade-off between the sophistication of the medical services and the speed of treatment. Although survey after survey shows that medical staff favour larger, sophisticated hospitals, survey after survey also shows that patients prefer to be treated fairly close to them, in their local facilities.

The affection for Haslar is not simply nostalgia; it is firmly rooted in decades of excellent surgery and medicine provided locally in a spotlessly clean and smart environment. There is little or no affection for the huge Queen Alexandra hospital in Cosham, which is inconvenient, from a transport point of view, for my constituents and has been built at a private finance initiative cost, over 30 years, of £1 billion. The journey to it is difficult and the hospital has inadequate car parking facilities. I know and respect the staff at Queen Alexandra hospital, but there is a long way to go before they have one fraction of the affection that Haslar hospital has in people's minds.

The 10-year battle for the retention of Haslar is still not over, although, in theory, the hospital will close in July 2009. There are huge planning problems in relation to the development of Haslar: it has 815,000 sq ft of buildings, 13 of which are grade II or grade II* listed; there are 60,000 graves on the site; the whole of the park and gardens has been identified by English Heritage as a site of national historical interest; and the local authority, Gosport borough council, has designated the area for health and community use.

Where do we go from here? The plan is to move on, and Defence Estates has commissioned the Prince's Regeneration Trust to carry out an inquiry by design report. Perhaps the best way for me to proceed is by reading a letter that I received recently from the private secretary to the Prince of Wales. It stated:

"The approach we are taking is for the Enquiry by Design report to be included in the marketing pack for the site so that developers can see and appreciate the site's potential and His Royal Highness' involvement."

The Prince's Regeneration Trust report is, indeed, an extremely useful starting point, which goes into great detail. Most local people feel that it is an extremely helpful starting point when considering what should happen to the site.

The good news is that very many people and institutions wish to be involved in the Haslar site, including a business syndicate that I have met, which is a leading developer with a fine record of making use of historical buildings, other companies with health-related interests, and a number of service charities, including Help for Heroes and the Royal Naval Benevolent Trust. Many people feel that the site can usefully be used to continue the armed forces' existing role.

I know the way in which government works: when a decision has been taken, people cannot turn it round, because the Government have made a decision and do not wish to go back on it. If one tries to say, as I tried to say to the Minister's ministerial colleague two days ago, when he was good enough to see me at the Ministry of Defence, that there is a future role for Haslar in an armed forces connection, people's eyes glaze over, because, as the French would say, it is a route barrée—one does not go that way.

I believe that if sufficient support can come forward for the evolution and development of Haslar, in due course the armed forces, having made their decision to close Haslar, will see that there are facilities there that are useful to them. Many of those connected with the service charities believe that too. There is a need for facilities for the armed forces to supplement those at Selly Oak, which are now widely regarded as excellent in their field, and the outstanding facilities at Headley court. There is an acceptance that post-traumatic stress disorder is manifested some 15 years after the event, and those suffering from it need further support in a services environment. There is also a need for convalescent and rehabilitation facilities to lie alongside those at Selly Oak and Headley court. Haslar could play a role in such provision.

My plea to the Minister today is to respect the traditions of Haslar and take a positive attitude to its continued use by encouraging local authorities and the Prince's Regeneration Trust to continue their work to find a role for Haslar, and not to allow it to close in July. If we work hard together, we could bring forward plans that would allow the gates to remain open after that date.

There is a sort of precedent. When Greenwich hospital became surplus to requirements, the proposal was that it should be sold and it was intended that very few restrictions would be put on its future use. The issue was put to the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill, which I happened to chair, and we consulted local people—we visited Greenwich and took evidence from them—and service personnel who took the view that the future use of Greenwich should be consistent with its traditions and historical record. The Committee passed that into legislation and that is why Greenwich is now used by Westminster university for purposes consistent with its historical tradition. It would be the right approach for Haslar to be treated similarly.

The best way to steer through the difficult planning problems—because the site is not a push-over for a developer, and it will be very difficult to extract development value from it—will be co-operation, and I ask for the Minister's good will. When Defence Estates has property surplus to its requirements, the rule is that it must seek to obtain the best price for it on behalf of the taxpayer. That is a reasonable view in most circumstances. However, special provisions must apply in the case of Haslar. Until recently, the MOD owned about one third of my constituency, and has only recently begun to dispose of land in the area. It is still a very large landowner there. My constituents feel strongly—I share their view—that when the MOD has had such a big footprint in an area, it owes that area a special responsibility when it disposes of the site. Indeed, the Minister will know that payment was made so that the Chatham dockyard could continue as a legacy site, and I maintain that the same situation applies at Haslar.

The only way round the best price rule is if a government body, such as a local authority, steps in and offers to take over the site and be responsible for it. If local authorities were to recognise the unique opportunity of the site as well as its needs, and step in this point—with the good will of Government—and bring to the table those who wish to use and operate the site, that would be a solution that would be welcomed by all. I look forward to hearing the Minister's response.

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