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Isolation Hospital, Wimbledon

Volume 478: debated on Wednesday 13 September 1950

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Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."— [ Mr. Sparks.]

10.0 p.m.

I desire on the Adjournment tonight to draw the attention of the House to what may be regarded as a comparatively small and certainly a local matter, but one which, I think I can persuade the House, is of some importance, and of which a serious view is taken by the people in my constituency.

I want to speak about the future use of the Isolation Hospital in Gap Road, Wimbledon. May I say a little about the history of this hospital. For a great many years it was a local authority hospital, used for isolation cases from the Borough of Wimbledon, and owned and administered by the Wimbledon Borough Council, as the local authority for the area. I think that it must be admitted that the buildings of this hospital are now of some substantial age. In many ways they may be regarded as old-fashioned in the light of present requirements, but, for all that, the buildings are thoroughly sound and have a very considerable life of usefulness before them.

During the past five years, I suggest that the Minister of Health has dealt with the future use of this hospital both with indecision and vacillation, and it will perhaps not be out of place for me to indicate the main events of the past five years. In July, 1945, a survey, initiated by the Minister of Health, of the hospital services in London and the adjoining areas reported in regard to this hospital that it was an old hospital which might be closed. In October, 1946, a scheme prepared by the Surrey County Council and approved by the Minister of Health contained a proposal that Wimbledon Infectious Diseases Hospital should be made available for the Boroughs of Kingston and Wimbledon. In October, 1947, there was talk of the hospital being used as a blood transfusion centre, and in that month the Minister of Health asked the local authority whether they had any views on the question whether he should disclaim the hospital under Section 6 (3) of the National Health Service Act, 1946.

After due consideration by the local authority, the local authority replied to the Minister of Health that they would be glad if he could see his way to disclaim the hospital so that the buildings might be adapted by the local authority to provide housing accommodation for 36 families. That was at a time when the number of families on the local authority housing list was between 2,000 and 3,000. In April, 1948, the Minister replied to the local authority that he had decided that it was not possible for him to disclaim the hospital because it would be required for providing hospital services.

That is an outline of the main proposals for the use of this hospital which were made and considered over a period of five years. On 17th November, 1949, the hospital was closed for the reception of further cases, and for very nearly 10 months past the buildings have been substantially empty, although I believe that a very small part of the property has been used for storage purposes. It is probably hardly necessary for me to make the point that during that period of 10 months the buildings have suffered that inevitable deterioration which overtakes buildings that are left unoccupied for any considerable length of time.

We are now told that the hospital is required for aged sick cases, and this is a purpose which is most highly approved of by the local authority and by opinion in the constituency. Therefore, the only question of substance which seems to me to arise is when these buildings are to be used for this altogether desirable purpose. I understand that the Minister has been advised and is of opinion that a substantial amount of repair work and adaptation is required before the hospital can be used for the reception of aged sick cases. I have been told, although I am not quite certain whether the information is correct, that an estimate has been made of the expenditure required, and that that estimate is in the neighbourhood of £10,000. Knowing the premises very well, I should have thought that that estimate was more than ample for the cost of repairing and adapting the buildings for the reception of aged sick cases. I think it will not be in dispute that a fair amount of the repair work required arises as a result of war damage, and therefore that part of the expense would presumably be defrayed by the War Damage Commission. If that be the case, it is only taking public money out of one pocket for a particular purpose instead of taking money out of another pocket.

The fact remains that here is a property which, I am advised, is capable of receiving something like 100 aged sick cases and which has been empty for 10 months past, and no estimate has been given by the Minister as to when this property can be brought back into use. It seems to be quite indefinite when the work will be carried out and the patients received. This is a matter which causes very acute indignation and feeling in the neighbourhood in view of the very great demands that exist on the part of many aged sick cases.

I want to make two or three very simple submissions, with which I do not imagine the Parliamentary Secretary will actively disagree. The first submission is that no eligible building should be left vacant at a time like this when there is such a scarcity of accommodation of every kind. That point, I think, hardly needs labouring. The need for accommodation of every kind is so well known that this point only requires to be stated and does not stand in any need of further argument.

Secondly, I submit that in the Borough of Wimbledon—and I do not imagine that conditions generally are very different in other parts of the country— there is a most desperate and insistent need for aged sick cases. I have not been able to ascertain from the Minister the number of aged sick cases in the district awaiting admission to a hospital, because I was told in reply to a Question that the information was not available for the local authority area. I can understand that precise figures might not be available, although I should have thought that a fairly accurate estimate could have been made without very much difficulty.

From a fairly long and close contact with the problem of old people in the constituency, I can say without fear of contradiction that there are aged sick cases in the borough of most desperate need, which I am quite sure would far exceed in number the accommodation that can be provided in this hospital. It is literally the case that there are scores of old people, frail through declining health, who have reached the eventide of life and are living in conditions of grave discomfort and in many cases great overcrowding, and are without the necessary care and attention which their condition requires, owing to the fact that there is no member of their family able to give them the care and attention that they need. Many of these old people are lingering on and dying in those conditions before the long-delayed day comes when it is possible for them to be admitted to hospital.

The third and the last submission I desire to make to the Minister is that in this particular case it is a bad policy not to spend at once money that is needed to bring this hospital into a state in which it may serve a useful purpose. If the hospital is to be used for aged sick cases, the repairs and adaptations have to be carried out sooner or later. If they are carried out later they will cost more, as the buildings will further deteriorate during a further period of vacancy. The public will be denied the use of the hospital for the further period if the execution of the works is delayed.

If the reply which the Parliamentary Secretary is to make tonight will justify the delay in repairing and adapting this hospital on the grounds of financial stringency, and particularly because the provision of the money is not contained in the current Estimate, with the result that the work cannot be carried out at once and the hospital turned to a useful purpose, it will not be irrelevant for me to draw his attention now to a development which is about to take place at the other end of my constituency, namely, the erection in the Borough of Maiden of homes for old people. These homes will provide accommodation for about 100 people, at a cost in new buildings of more than £100,000. That figure works out at about £1,000 per person per place provided.

I do not want for one moment to criticise the scheme for the building of these old people's homes in Maiden, because I warmly applaud the scheme, which is much appreciated in the district, and I am only sorry that it has been so long delayed. I am bound to say that there is no sense in contending that we cannot provide £10,000 to bring into use an existing building to provide places for 100 aged sick cases at a cost of about £100 per place when money is to be found to the tune of £100,000 to put up new buildings in the same constituency at a cost of about £1,000 per place to provide the same amount of accommodation for old people.

The erection of the new buildings will presumably occupy 15 or 18 months at least, based upon experience of the time involved in such new building operations. I imagine that the repairs and adaptations to the isolation hospital in Gap Road, at a cost of about £10,000, could be carried out in about three months and the hospital be brought back into use at an early date, providing accommodation for 100 aged sick cases.

I do not want to overstate this case. The keeping of this building empty for nearly a year now, and the uncertainty as to when it will be brought back to serve some useful purpose, has been a subject of continual protest by the local authority and by social organisations concerned with the welfare of old people in the neighbourhood. It has been a cause of great local discontent. I very much hope that the Parliamentary Secretary's reply will indicate that this work will be undertaken now without further delay and will be carried out with expedition so that the hospital will be made available for these old people at the earliest possible moment.

10.20 p.m.

We have all listened with interest to the case put by the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Mr. Black) about the use of these hospital premises. I can perfectly well understand the anxiety of the people locally that these buildings should be put to some useful purpose. As the hon. Member said, they are old buildings. They were erected in 1901, and the original intention of the regional hospital board was that they should continue to be used as an infectious diseases hospital. That was the intention when they were transferred to the Minister, on the advice of his medical advisers at that time. They continued to be so used until the latter end of last year, when it was found that the number of cases requiring treatment there was so small as to make it quite uneconomical to continue using the premises. I believe it was generally agreed that it was desirable that the small number of cases left should be transferred to other hospitals.

The intention then was, as the hon. Member rightly mentioned, that we should convert the hospital into a hospital for the chronic sick. Had the regional hospital board found it possible to include this in their financial allocation for this year, no doubt the work would now have been in hand, if not completed. It is unfortunately true that they did not find it possible to include it within their financial allotment and that they would have had to seek extra capital sums in order to carry out the work. Therefore, it has had to be postponed.

The regional hospital board is concerned not only with the question of the capital sum involved, which the estimates show to be more than £10,000, but also with the probable running costs of a hospital of this age and type. Other hon. Members here will understand that infectious diseases hospitals are very difficult to use for other purposes. They are by no means ideal for use for the chronic sick or any other very desirable purpose of which we may think. There are very real problems about the site itself. It is by no means an ideal site.

It is no use our comparing the premises with the new buildings in another part of his division to which the hon. Member referred. No doubt those buildings, which I have not seen, offer very great advantages of all kinds which the existing premises at Gap Road could not offer, however much money we might try to spend on converting them. I have seen these latter buildings and there is no doubt that there is a great deal of repair work to be done to remedy damage caused largely during the war. During the latter years of the occupation of the premises as an infectious diseases hospital, it was found that it might be dangerous to continue using many of the buildings without fairly extensive alterations.

At the moment the scheme is still on the list to be carried out if possible this year, but I can certainly give no guarantee that it will prove financially possible. It will be considered by the regional hospital board when it submits its capital proposals for the following year. I am personally interested in this and I very much hope that the premises will be put to effective use, certainly next year. I cannot give any more definite guarantee about it. Clearly, one cannot both press, as hon. Members opposite have so often pressed, for a very careful and effective control over expenditure, both capital and running costs, in the Health Service, and at the same time complain about each individual case that arises. We have to consider very carefully the amounts involved, not only on capital, but also on running and maintenance, in which the regional hospital board would be involved.

A little more use is, of course, being made of the premises than the hon. Gentleman suggested. Not only are some of the buildings being used for storage, but the emergency bed bureau offices are there. I do not suggest that that is an adequate use of the premises, but am merely glad to say that some use is being made of them and that they are not wholly wasted.

The hon. Member seemed rather to be objecting to the consultations which the members of the Department had had with various bodies on the future use of the buildings before a decision was taken that they should remain within the National Health Service. Obviously, with many buildings of this sort many alternative uses may be considered and a great amount of consultation has, naturally, to take place; it is highly desirable that it should. In certain cases we have been very much subjected to criticism because a fairly substantial expenditure has been undertaken and the result has not, perhaps, been as satisfactory as we had originally hoped. Hon. Members opposite cannot have it both ways.

I fully agree that we do not want any buildings not to be put to effective use, but we must on each occasion consider them fully and be quite satisfied that when money is spent on a doubtful proposition, it will be of real value and will provide a proper minimum standard of accommodation and amenity. We all desire buildings to be put to proper use, but we cannot automatically say that because buildings are empty we must find some use for them, irrespective of whether they will be of real value to the potential patients. We must be satisfied that both the capital expenditure which is involved and the running costs are reasonable. I can assure the hon. Member for Wimbledon that I am very anxious that an effective use should be made of these premises as soon as ever possible and that we will certainly keep the matter well in mind.

If the regional board does not decide to include the conversion of these premises in their estimates next year, will the Parliamentary Secretary indicate to that board that the premises should be handed over to some other authority and not simply left empty?

I am expecting that we can make use of the premises, but if that should not be possible we certainly do not want to adopt a general dog-in-the-manger attitude about buildings with regards to any other suitable purpose for which it is desirable that they should be used.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-Nine Minutes past Ten o'Clock.