New Watford General called a ‘monstrosity’ as campaigners vow to keep fighting

Campaigners and lobby groups have insisted that they will continue to fight after plans for a rebuild of Watford General Hospital were submitted to the Council.

One resident feared they could be left with a “monstrosity” in the wrong place until the end of the century if plans are approved.

However, the NHS Trust have described it as a ‘once in a generation’ opportunity to upgrade the hospital and have stressed it will benefit people from across Hemel Hempstead, Watford and St Albans.

Few residents doubt that Watford General’s facilities are in need of upgrading, but a dispute about how best to future-proof the hospital services, including calls for a brand new hospital on a new site.

The new Watford General will be built on land freed up immediately next to the current hospital on Vicarage Road, with a new multi-storey car park opening up land for up to 1,000 new beds.

The new hospital would also offer emergency, specialist and complex care, with further improvements across the Watford General site.

In addition to the plans, St Albans and Hemel Hempstead hospitals would be given more specific roles within the Trust.

‘The plans are completely unnecessary’

West Hertfordshire NHS Trust has maintained that a three-site system will benefit everyone from across West Herts.

However, campaigners believe the proposals highlight the constraints of the site and are stressing that it’s not too late to build a new central site.

Ron Glatter of the New Hospital Campaign has questioned the need for the tower blocks – with one potentially as high as 17-storeys, with other blocks around 11 storeys – in Watford.

He said: “It’s something that would be suitable somewhere like central London, where you’ve got no other land – or Liverpool or Leeds, somewhere like that – but we’re basically suburban and rural.

“We’ve got plenty of land available, so why do you have to have that kind of inner city approach. Watford has less than 100,000 residents, it’s a mid to small sized town, so what’s the point of it all?”

What is an ‘outline planning application’?

The planning application submitted last month is an outline application, which will be used to bid for more funding from central government and the Department of Health and Social Care.

This assesses whether the project is feasible and acceptable, and differs from full planning permission which would greenlight the project for construction.

It’s a vital stage in assessing local support for the plan, as well as outlining how the hospitals would connect to existing infrastructure.

As it is not for full planning permission, it means the plans could change slightly before getting full approval.

So while it is not the final step before foundations are laid, it remains an important step in the Trust’s proposals and indicates what the new hospital will likely look like for the first time.

The campaign has compared West Hertfordshire NHS Trust’s approach to the approach taken by nearby Princess Alexandra Hospital NHS Trust.

The Harlow hospital, which is also funded through the Government’s New Hospital Programme, which proposes 40 hospital projects to be completed by 2030, is being built on green belt land near to its current location and doesn’t include any high-rises.

For Ron, that has raised questions about why West Hertfordshire are opting for their proposals.

He said: “As far as I understand it, none of the other hospitals in this new programme are doing anything like this, so why are they doing it in an area like this? It’s completely unnecessary.”

‘We’ll be stuck with this monstrosity until the end of the decade’

Steve Day from Herts Valley Hospital, a lobbying group also advocating for a new central hospital, insisted despite some reports they are not “dead in the water”, adding “[The Trust] are well aware their designs are not a slam dunk and they are not already agreed.”

It’s hoped the hospital would be opened in 2026, however the New Hospital Campaign have commissioned their own consultant, who believes completion around the end of the decade is more likely.

It’s why Ron believes residents need to be made aware of the impact the proposals might have.

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He said: “Our advice is what they’re planning – particularly if they don’t get the money that they’re asking for – is going to take until the end of the decade. Then because they’re now saying that it’s a 60-year [life-cycle], it means we’ll be stuck with this monstrosity until maybe the end of the century in completely the wrong place – it’s as serious as that.”

However, the Trust notes that the timetable is being laid out at a national level, and being ahead of schedule is a promising step.

A spokesperson for the Trust said: “We are delighted to be one of eight trusts who are moving at pace to deliver new hospital facilities under the New Hospital Programme. The timetable will be led nationally and we will work hard to bring benefits to local people as close to 2026 as possible.”

How will Hemel Hempstead and St Albans City hospitals change?

The Trust has insisted that the proposals will see a future for all three hospitals within the area.

The Trust has said St Albans will focus on planned surgery and cancer care, whilst Hemel Hempstead will have a focus on planned medical care and long term conditions. All three sites will have urgent care services and some outpatient facilities.

However, concerns were raised during a recent stakeholder meeting, in which deputy chief executive Helen Brown said expectations are that there will be no inpatient beds in Hemel Hempstead Hospital, with the only wards operating at the moment rented to Central London Community Hospital (CLCH), who are reviewing the use of the hospital.

Ms Brown said: “Our assumption at the moment however is there will be not be beds on the Hemel Hempstead site but we are open to reviewing that position, subject to outcome of the work CLCH do and look at options – if it was a view that they needed to provide beds on the Hemel Hempstead site, and work with them on that issue.”

One of the new buildings could be 17 storeys high
One of the new buildings could be 17 storeys high
(Image: BDP/Watford Borough Council)

The Trust is an acute hospital trust, which means that community trusts such as the CLCH offer rehabilitation, which can also be carried out at smaller clinics rather than hospitals.

Hemel Hempstead hospital will focus on outpatient care, and the Trust say they have taken inspiration from successful healthcare models in the UK and abroad.

The Trust’s chief medical officer Dr Mike van Der Watt said: “Our vision is to create a ‘multi-specialty’ hospital which will provide planned medical care and care for patients with long term conditions. There will be upgraded diagnostic equipment and an increased number of services which will be based at Hemel Hempstead Hospital.

He added: “Reorganising our services and investing in Hemel Hempstead Hospital will result in more ‘one stop’ appointments where many different stages of diagnosis and treatment are combined in a single appointment. The hospital will be home to a wide range of specialised imaging services, a dedicated frailty assessment and treatment centre and a new hub for specialist diabetes and endocrinology. This is good news for patients.”

However, Steve has said the decline of Hemel Hempstead hospital, which had its own A&E department until 2009, should worry St Albans residents as well.

He added: “St Albans are, shall we say, less aware of how they do these things than the people of Hemel Hempstead because they’ve seen things gradually been taken away.

“They don’t realize what is actually happening is death by a thousand cuts. At Hemel we’ve seen the A&E go, the maternity unit go.”

That point was repeated by Hemel Hempstead MP Sir Mike Penning, who has been a vocal critic of the proposals.

Penning said: “We have a clinic at Hemel, we don’t have a hospital anymore. We haven’t had one since they took the A&E facilities over to Watford. Three quarters of my hospital is derelict and boarded up, probably more than three quarters.”

The MP argued that following Government reforms of how local NHS organisations operate, the Trusts have been able to avoid “ministerial and parliamentary scrutiny” which has made it difficult to oppose the plans.

Penning added: “With the HIP1 [Hospital Infrastructure Plan] six new hospitals is what was announced, we have 600 million to build a new hospital. We haven’t got a new hospital, we’ve got a refurbished tower block that they’re going to build in Watford, and refurbish the Victorian part of the hospital and next to a football stadium which doesn’t look after Watford, and doesn’t look after us or St Albans or the growing area.”

‘Fantastic news for St Albans’

Potential designs have been included in the planning document
Potential designs have been included in the planning document
(Image: BPD/Watford Borough Council)

Penning tabled an Early Day Motion in Parliament last month to try to win support from other MPs in the area, however other politicians across the area have supported the new proposals.

That includes St Albans MP Daisy Cooper, who has said that the new investment is “fantastic news” for local residents.

Cooper said: “I continue to support the decision of the hospital trust to deliver significantly improved facilities as soon as possible. As I’ve said all along, there’s a real risk that by spending more time looking at other options and sites, our local Trust could lose access to funding completely, and that would be a disaster for all of us in West Herts.

“I’ve also been reassured that the existing buildings at Watford General, which are in a poor state of repair, will not be retained for clinical use.

“St Albans City Hospital already has a new cutting-edge orthopaedic centre and in time, it will also be home to a new rapid cancer diagnostic centre, and improved operating theatre capacity too. It is fantastic news that St Albans residents will finally have these state-of-the-art services on their doorstep.”

Watford MP Dean Russell has also been a strong supporter of the plans, as has the directly elected Mayor of Watford, Peter Taylor.

Taylor said: “It is great to hear that the planning application has now been submitted for the redevelopment of Watford General Hospital (21/00765/OUTM).

“The Council has consistently supported the Hospital Trust to ensure that hospital facilities are improved for everyone. From providing council land for new buildings, to constructing a new multi-storey car park, we have repeatedly shown our commitment to securing the best health services for our community.

“Our hospital staff have worked tremendously hard over the last 18 months and deserve buildings and resources that can support the great work that they do every day. These plans will ensure that 90% of Watford General is made up of new buildings and will also provide significant refurbishment to St Albans and Hemel Hempstead Hospitals.

“It is vital that we invest in better health services for everyone. I am excited that these improvements are progressing and looking forward to seeing this project being completed over the next few years.”

What has the NHS Trust said?

Traffic outside Watford General Hospital
Watford General Hospital

As previously reported, there have been concerns about the cost of the project.

The trust has conceded that they may need to look for “efficiencies” to reduce the cost, with the current estimate now exceeding the £540 million being budgeted for.

This may mean some plans are adjusted before a full planning application, including a smaller rebuild and more refurbishment.

However, Helen Brown has said other trusts going through the process are also being asked to take similar steps while preparing their business case, and the Trust are striking a balance between value for money and care for local people.

The second phase of the Trust’s public engagement process is currently ongoing, with the chance for residents to give their opinions to the Trust.

The outline business plan is expected to be complete by the end of the year, with building work expected to get underway in 2023, subject to approvals.

Ms Brown said: “We take the responsibility of spending public money very seriously and so, as we press on with our plans, we will also look for efficiencies. We are working hard to strike the balance between having fabulous new and refurbished buildings whilst pursuing good value.

“This is a once in a generation opportunity to transform the way we provide care and our hospital sites and so we are driven to make sure that we ‘right size’ our buildings and leave ourselves room to grow.”

She added: “We are continuing to work with the New Hospital Programme on our plans and how these impact on our costs, which we will share towards the end of this year when they are more fully developed.”

“Our plans for our hospitals in Hemel Hempstead, Watford and St Albans will bring significant improvements for patients in west Hertfordshire. The proposals at Watford will completely transform the Watford General Hospital site and provide a far better experience for all the communities we serve than we can at present. Whilst the plans are less significant in terms of construction at our other sites, they are never-the-less geared towards a better experience for our patients.

Ms Brown added: “We know that there are some who still favour a new hospital on a different site but we would urge people to see the amazing opportunities we have, now that we are in line for significant investment as part of the New Hospital Programme. This is a once in a generation opportunity to transform our hospitals and deliver enormous benefits for our patients and staff and we must seize it.”

More information on the NHS Trust’s consultation process can be found on website https://www.westhertshospitals.nhs.uk/about/redevelopment/

The planning application – 21/00765/OUTM – can be viewed in full on the Watford Borough Council website.

HertsLive – Hemel Hempstead