The hon. Lady is absolutely right. Indeed, members of the community in Congleton are speaking out about the importance to them of their community hospital. I shall say more about that shortly.
On behalf of my constituents, I am pressing Ministers to consider resourcing Congleton Hospital as a community hub going forward. It has a very special place in local people’s hearts, as I have said, not least because of the manner in which it was funded many decades ago by local people’s contributions from wage packet deductions. It was founded in 1924 by public subscription as a memorial to those locally who gave their lives in the first world war, hence its full name: Congleton War Memorial Hospital. I spoke at greater length about this here in this place in 2014, when I raised concerns about the future sustainability of the hospital, so this is by no means a new issue. Indeed, in 1962 when there was a suggestion that the hospital be closed, it resulted in a mass meeting in the town hall with an overflow of some 2,000 residents, presided over by the then mayor leading a petition of 24,000 signatures. Plans were quickly dropped. More recently, the £20 billion additional funding announced by the Prime Minister for investment in the NHS surely offers an opportunity for the future of the hospital to be secured, or even augmented as a community hub for the long term.
I have been in continuing dialogue for some months now with—and have met, together with local councillors—John Wilbraham, chief executive of the local NHS trust responsible for the management of the hospital, the East Cheshire NHS Trust. I am grateful to Mr Wilbraham for that open dialogue. We spoke again recently when he confirmed that, in his words, the sustainability of the site is on the agenda for the transformation programme to be discussed by the trust shortly. So also on the agenda is the future of the minor injuries unit, which is, as I have mentioned, causing particular concern to residents, as the trust is aware from recent public demonstrations which involved people from right across the community and political divides, including me and Congleton town mayor Suzie Akers Smith, who was in full mayoral regalia and chain.
I am grateful that Mr. Wilbraham has agreed to meet a cross-party group in the town shortly to discuss the hospital’s future further and look forward to that meeting. In the meantime, for the record I note that in his most recent letter to me of late December 2018 he confirmed, and I welcome this, that
“the Trust has no plans to change the service provision at the Congleton Hospital site and this remains the case. I continue to discuss with health and social care partners about the service offer from the hospital site and I understand the desire of you and the local population to maintain the facility. We await the publication of the NHS 10-Year Plan in early 2019 which provides the basis for the local health partners, including the town’s GPs, to set out its plans for the next 5-10 years. I am certain this will provide the opportunity to be clear on future service provision across the local health economy including Congleton.”
I am optimistic that both Mr. Wilbraham, as its chief executive, and the trust itself have listening ears. We need only witness the furore that arose in Congleton three years ago when there was a suggestion that car-parking charges be introduced at the hospital. The trust clearly registered the indignation of local residents, not least through a petition I presented here in Parliament at that time. That they could be asked to pay to park at their own hospital—a hospital they and their forebears had paid for by both wage packet deduction and subsequent fundraising and donations over the decades—aroused considerable consternation. The trust subsequently discounted the suggestion of car park charges outright; it listened to local people’s concerns.
I was pleased to note the chief executive’s reconfirmation of this in his most recent letter to me, with the words:
“I note the suggestion of car parking charges being introduced to supplement the income for the hospital site but this is not something the Board will be considering.”
Now that the 10-year plan has been published, and in the light of the Secretary of State’s indication of his support for community hospitals, I am today asking the Minister what more can be done to ensure that vital services provided by community hospitals in the heart of our local communities, like Congleton, are not swallowed up by larger hospitals at a distance. What the Congleton community seeks is reassurance that the future of Congleton hospital is put on a firm, clear and sustainable footing going forward, so that the periodic recurring concerns over the years about its future can be fully and finally put to rest.