Action must replace talking to fulfil Leeds children’s hospital dream

PRESSURE: A delegation from Leeds meets Health Minister Melanie Johnson in 2004.
PRESSURE: A delegation from Leeds meets Health Minister Melanie Johnson in 2004.
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PARENTS of poorly children, doctors at the cutting edge of healthcare, MPs of various political persuasions – they have all agreed, at one time or another, on the huge difference that a new children’s hospital would make to the lives of families in Leeds.

So why, today, is the city still merely talking about plans for such a facility, rather than reaping its benefits?

The answer lies in a sorry tale of stops, starts and – perhaps predictably – funding problems that stretches back more than two decades.

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It was 1994 when, during a review of Leeds’s acute health arrangements, Prof Sir David Hull concluded that the city’s medical and surgical paediatric services should be brought under one roof.

His recommendation was rejected on feasibility grounds – and although health chiefs later applied to join the Government’s Private Finance Initiative programme in the hope of securing funds to centralise children’s services at St James’s Hospital, their bid was unsuccessful.

In pictures: The changing face of hospitals in Leeds over the years

Another proposed centralisation of paediatric care, this time at Leeds General Infirmary, was dropped in 2001, with priority instead being given to the development of a £160m cancer wing at Jimmy’s.

So far, so frustrating. But, by 2003, the tide appeared to be turning, with plans on the table for a children’s and maternity centre at Jimmy’s.

The Yorkshire Evening Post took up the cause, launching its Give The Kids A Hospital campaign and urging Ministers to approve the scheme.

We highlighted how services were spread over 17 different sites in Leeds, with seriously-ill children regularly having to be ferried across the city to see specialists or attend clinics.

Supporters of the campaign included Jonathan Abbott, whose seven-year-old son, Joshua, died from cancer in 2002 and spent five of his last 10 months at St James’s.

In a moving letter to Health Secretary John Reid, Mr Abbott said: “I firmly believe that had Joshua survived his illness, he would have been severely traumatised in later life due to the environment in which he was treated. I have nothing but praise for the staff that were involved in Josh’s care.

“These professionals also deserve to have the best possible conditions in which to provide care for our sick children.”

Mr Abbott’s words seemed to have been heeded when, in the summer of 2004, Mr Reid gave the green light to the new 350-bed hospital at Jimmy’s.

Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust chief executive Neil McKay hailed the decision as a chance to better meet the “glaring” needs of local children, with construction work due to start in 2008.

But then, in 2007, the scheme was shelved amid concerns that its original £230m price tag had spiralled to an estimated £650m.

The bombshell news came against a backdrop of wider money worries for Leeds’s hospitals, which were on course to end the financial year millions of pounds in the red.

A cheaper fall-back option was revealed, namely the relocation of all the city’s in-patient services for children to existing buildings at the LGI at a cost of £25m.

A three-year centralisation project was launched, with health bosses announcing in 2010 that the new set-up would be called Leeds Children’s Hospital.

Today it offers one of the most comprehensive ranges of paediatric services in the country, including cancer treatment and congenital heart surgery.

The as-yet-unfulfilled dream for the city, though, remains a purpose-built children’s hospital. New proposals for one have been in the pipeline for around a year now, with the Trust this week releasing images of the “world class” facility it wants to bring to a site near Millennium Square.

Those hoping the plans come to fruition include Paul Truswell, the former Labour MP for Pudsey and a key backer of the YEP’s campaign in the 2000s.

Reflecting on the changes to health provision in Leeds during that period, Mr Truswell, now a councillor representing the city’s Middleton Park ward, said today: “While we obtained excellent 21st century facilities like the Bexley Wing cancer centre [at St James’s] and the rebuilding of Wharfedale Hospital, not getting a new children’s hospital was a massive disappointment for our campaign of parents, staff and the community.

“The 2004 plan unfortunately didn’t stack up financially, but this new one apparently draws on existing assets to help fund the building.

“The brilliant people working with children devised alternatives that tackled many of the issues [after the 2004 scheme was shelved], but the case for a new hospital still remains overwhelming.”