Canterbury residents are understandably concerned about the impact of new housing developments in Sturry and south Canterbury on roads, schools and our hospital. Saving the Kent and Canterbury was a major plank of last year’s general election. Each candidate claimed only they could safeguard its future as the local population increases year on year.
The NHS in Kent and Medway needs to save £488 million per year by 2020, and it isn’t just about austerity. The hospitals face annual cost increases of 8-10%. Thanks to inflation, increasing staff costs, price hikes in electricity, and new medicines becoming available, we face a simple truth: if nothing changes, the NHS will be bankrupt – and soon.
So how do we save that kind of money without closing hospitals? The local NHS Trust (EKHUFT) would prefer to keep accident and emergency services at two of the three hospitals in east Kent (probably Margate and Ashford) and reduce the third (probably Canterbury) to a care and rehabilitation centre. Bad news for Canterbury, good news for Margate and Ashford – but maybe just for the moment, as EKHUFT is only looking five years into the future.
Experts suspect that eventually one major hospital will serve the whole of east Kent. Between the two remaining hospitals, Ashford would be the logical choice as Margate sits on the coast. A short-term victory for Thanet residents and MP Roger Gale today may well cost them a few years from now.
If Canterbury is downgraded, services will never return. Hundreds of thousands of east Kent residents face travelling times of well over an hour if Ashford becomes their nearest major hospital. This won’t be much fun if you live on a state pension and need to make weekly visits.
There are services I want from my local hospital and services I’m prepared to travel for. If you break your leg, have a heart attack, need regular treatment, or are having a baby, you want to be able to go to your local hospital. If you happen to contract a rare and life-threatening tropical illness that only a specialist can cure, you’ll have more to worry about than the extra journey.
The campaign group CHEK believes all three hospitals could continue to provide the core services people want from a local hospital while still making the necessary savings if Canterbury became a specialist hub. Canterbury is easily accessible by car, bus and train for people coming in from the surrounding area. Working with the universities, a medical school could be set up alongside the teaching hospital, putting an end to recruitment issues that have dogged the service for more than twenty years.
The inevitable catch is that Canterbury’s existing facilities are inadequate and the cost of building a new state-of-the-art hospital could be in the region of £600 million – not exactly the cost savings EKHUFT is looking for.
As a rule of thumb, one major hospital is needed per million residents. The population of east Kent is already more than 760,000 and will reach one million in 10-15 years based on Kent County Council projections. That might sound a long way off, but a new hospital will take ten years to construct. A recent offer by developers to build just the shell would take four years alone.
Research carried out by CHEK predicts a new hospital would pay for itself through savings in the first ten years of operation. £600 million is a lot of cash up front, but the money could be found with the right political will. So why hasn’t it happened already?
When the sums in question are this large, final approval needs a ministerial decision. In the past, former MP, Julian Brazier, was unwilling or unable to apply a sufficient level of influence to secure the necessary funds. Our current MP, Rosie Duffield, is in opposition, and the government isn’t going to hand a victory of this magnitude to Labour. One thing we can be certain of is the Conservatives will pull out all the stops to win back this seat.
Today’s political landscape is unprecedented and it’s an exciting place to be. Politicians on all sides will fight for your votes like never before. With a Conservative successor to Julian Brazier still undecided, frontrunners including council leader Simon Cook and Faversham MP Helen Whately will be eager to exhibit their political prowess.
If you don’t know the lengths parties will go to win a seat, it’s because you’ve never lived in a marginal constituency before. The battle for the Kent and Canterbury will be won or lost by how vociferously the public demand it.