The chairman of Shaftesbury’s Hospital League of Friends hopes our town will have a new or enhanced hospital within the next decade. Julian Prichard explains how the charity’s recent property purchase should safeguard the treasured hospital facility.
Julian Prichard celebrates his first anniversary as chairman of the Westminster Memorial Hospital League of Friends in the spring. And when I met him, the kitchen table of his Bleke Street house was stacked with paperwork, reports and documents sporting the familiar NHS logo.
He led me into a small, makeshift office, leading off his kitchen, to print a healthcare document for me to read later. Julian’s role has clearly taken over his home, and his workload is about to become even greater in 2020. “I’ll be exceptionally busy,” he said.
Julian’s vision for the League broadly involves splitting their campaigns and activities into three parts. Their long-established role, buying items that improve a patient’s quality of stay, is affectionately known as ‘Matron’s shopping trolley’. The name suggests the close working relationship between the League and hospital manager, Helen Lawes.
Julian says the League remains committed to paying for those important purchases. “That might be equipment for the hospital or for the staff and things that the patients need, or training for the hospital staff,” explained Julian. “The beds used to be the old fashioned, pump-up with the foot type. They are now electric. Whether it means having newspapers delivered around the hospital, activities for the patients, even down to getting some decent kitchen knives, we make the hospital work smoothly.”
Justine Elmendorff is now overseeing the second fundraising strand, for schemes that cost in the region of £50,000. Julian offers the League’s recently launched campaign to buy two electric vehicles as an example.
And as chairman, Julian will spearhead a third, high-level drive to secure financing for significant infrastructure projects. It’s new, it’s big and it has started with the League’s purchase of a house. “The Friends had a large pot of money. We’ve reinvested over half of that in the property,” said Julian.
In buying a three-bedroomed detached house, the League hopes to offer solutions which reduce threats to the hospital’s future operation – car parking spaces, a drive-through car park from Magdalene Lane to Abbey Walk, emergency vehicle access and expansion space.
“We bought 2 Abbey Walk, adjacent to the staff entrance of the hospital. It’s something that was highlighted to me when I first met someone from the Friends, that it would be a key property in the hospital portfolio. It would allow access across the two sides, between Abbey Walk and Magdalene Lane. We missed our chance to buy it two years ago. It came back on the market. It took a lot of negotiation and it was around £500,000,” said Julian.
He understands that people may question why the League is buying property for the NHS to use, but he says it’s not a new practice. “If you look at the history of the Friends from their inception in the 1920s, they’ve always supported the hospital, whether it’s through subscriptions or providing new buildings. I think that’s a fairly normal thing for the Friends to do. We just felt that it was a chance that really couldn’t be missed.”
Julian stresses that the Friends are not giving the house away. “We have invested the money. There aren’t that many options at the moment for making money work that I feel are safe and a good place to put legacies and donations. Property is just one of them. Rather than having cash in the bank, we’ve now got something that will mitigate a number of the challenges, potentially improve parking, slightly increase the access across the hospital and we can then bring new clinical services to the hospital. But at the same time (we will) get rent by providing Dorset Healthcare with a reduced commercial rate and at the same time, getting a good return on our investment.”
Julian says negotiations are underway with Dorset Healthcare over placing a clinical service in the property. “We are working to bring an existing service to the hospital, but increasing the provision and increasing the number of consultation rooms and providing training rooms,” he said.
Julian can’t name the service that might be based there but he says the patient experience could be enhanced. “I think it’s going to bring greater access to that service. The hours of operation can increase without disturbing the community. It’s also going to increase the offering of that service.”
In the new year, Shaftesbury Town Council and Dorset Council planners will debate the planning applications, requesting the changed use of the house and the planned car park and driveway in the garden. If the plans are approved, the League will gain an outdoor wooden office in the Garden of 2 Abbey View, up to five additional parking spaces and the creation of new roadway linking the patient and staff car parks.
“At some point, we will look at redirecting the flow so there’s one way in and one way out,” said Julian. “We won’t enforce that so people can come and go as they want, but I think people will find the easiest way in and out of the hospital, naturally. The biggest thing for us is it allows 4.5m access for fire engines and ambulances to easily come and go to the hospital.”
Julian says the through route for cars using the car park could improve the experience of nearby residents. “It won’t increase the traffic to Magdalene Lane, but it certainly will reduce it and I think part of the problem is that people try to turn around at the corner. There was an incident where a nurse had a car hit – someone didn’t stop and leave a note. Hopefully, that’ll improve that.”
Parking and access were issues that the local NHS body, the Clinical Commissioning Group or CCG had identified. If planners approve the creation of the new car parking spaces, there will be a site total of 49 across both sides of the hospital. “Parking has been one of the highlighted challenges and I don’t think we need the CCG to tell us that most people who visit the hospital will find that parking is limited there. Any extra parking spaces we can find will help,” he said.
Julian has tried to address concerns, such as parking, that were raised during the discussions at the time of the League’s ‘Save Our Beds’ campaign two years ago.
“I’ve taken the strategic outline case for a community hub in Shaftesbury and Gillingham that came out of the strategic clinical services review back then and looked at the challenges that the CCG felt the hospital had. And we’re trying to address those. In the long term, it would be great to see a new hospital or parts of it rebuilt, but that’s obviously a long term vision. For now, we’re trying to address the challenges that the CCG have highlighted so they can’t come after us again,” he said.
He wants to try and remove any potential challenges to the smooth operation of the hospital so that any arguments for closure are weakened. But ultimately, Julian’s biggest project will be realising the League’s greatest wish for a new, purpose-built facility. “We would like to see a new hospital, whether on the existing site or elsewhere. Ideally that will come from the NHS and Dorset Healthcare, but they don’t have the funding at the moment. We’ll be looking to outside funders to do that. That’s a long-term vision,” Julian said, as he outlined current healthcare thinking. “The idea is to have a nursing home and GP services all together. They call it a health campus. I think it is about £26m to do that.”
It’s quite a stretch for a group of volunteers to move from raising thousands for electric vehicles to convincing the NHS to fund a multi-million pound new facility. Julian is confident the necessary investment will be forthcoming within the next decade or so. “In that time, the services required will be changing. It has to be led in conjunction with the CCG and Dorset Healthcare. I may use slightly strong language regarding CCG, but what they’re doing is a great job. We’ve got to make sure they understand that in North Dorset, the provision is limited. I think they do now. Early next year we are expecting a final decision on the beds. Dorset Healthcare recommended they were kept. Once the CCG agree with that, accept that and make that public, then we can disband the ‘Save Our Beds’ campaign,” he said.
Soon, Julian will start talking with MPs and decision-makers to achieve the League’s ultimate goal. “I think if we say a new hospital or rebuild the existing hospital, we can achieve it in the next five to ten years.”
Julian is keen to drum up more League membership. It has almost doubled in strength from around 70 to 140 people in the last year. Active supporters will be needed to deliver current and future fundraising targets and Julian says that neighbouring towns that rely on our hospital will be encouraged to support campaigns. “It’s very much (used by) Gillingham. People come in from Mere, Salisbury and of course tourists as well,” he said.
You can find out more and join the League at friendsofwmh.org.uk.