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Yardley Green Hospital Site

Volume 462: debated on Wednesday 4 July 2007

I am grateful for the opportunity to have this debate on the future of the Yardley Green hospital site, and I am pleased to serve under your wise and experienced chairmanship, Mr. Conway. I welcome the late-arriving Minister and warmly congratulate her on her elevation to the position that she now holds.

The Yardley Green hospital site has generated huge concern and anger in the local community. The site is in my constituency which, notwithstanding the success of the British economy over the past decade or so, is still one of the most deprived in the country. Some areas still have unemployment of more than 15 per cent. and there is massive pressure on all public services in the Bordesley Green area. The primary and secondary schools in the area are full and the more popular ones are massively oversubscribed. The pressure on social housing is enormous, and there is ever-growing need for health and recreational facilities. There is also a high birth rate.

Against that background, the local population saw the closure of the Yardley Green hospital as an opportunity to address some of those issues. The hospital site is close to Heartlands hospital, which has expanded recently to take in Solihull hospital. There has also been expansion on the existing Heartlands hospital site. I had no issue with the health authority when it judged that, with the growth of Heartlands hospital, Yardley Green hospital was surplus to requirements, but there was a clear expectation in the community that the site would be used for much-needed affordable housing, a desperately needed new secondary school, expanded general health facilities including—this is important—day care mental health facilities, and recreational facilities that could be used by local people.

It therefore came as a total shock when the Heart of Birmingham primary care trust, in conjunction with the Birmingham and Solihull mental health trust, began a consultation with local residents on the possibility of the site being used solely for mental health facilities. Several meetings were held at which representatives from the mental health trust made presentations about the need for additional mental health facilities in the west midlands. Initially, it was pointed out that no decision had been taken and that the purpose of the consultation was to ascertain the views of local people. It was also pointed out that in addition to the Yardley Green hospital site, three or four other sites in and around Birmingham were being considered and that similar consultations were taking place.

At the meetings in Bordesley Green, there was overwhelming opposition from local residents to the suggestion that the site should be used solely for mental health facilities, because of the other pressing needs in the area. At those meetings, I made clear my opposition to the site being used solely for mental health facilities. I pointed out that I had had previous dealings with the mental health trust in respect of another site in my constituency and that, to put it frankly, I was not convinced that the mental health trust or the health authority were acting in totally good faith in giving the impression that they were conducting a consultative process.

Based on my previous dealings with the mental health trust, I pointed out that I believed that it already had it clearly in mind to put solely mental health facilities on the Yardley Green hospital site because it owned the land, so that that presented the cheapest option compared with the other sites that it said it was considering. Furthermore, the trust had already embarked on a programme of closing mental health institutions in the countryside around Birmingham so that the land could be sold off, extremely profitably, for executive housing irrespective of whether the mental health patients living in those institutions wanted that to happen.

As the consultation moved on, more information about the plans emerged bit by bit, and it was eventually made known that the mental health trust had it in mind to build a medium secure unit on the site to accommodate 80 clients in a locked facility. It subsequently came to light that that facility would be bordered by a 5.8 m-high fence. When the full facts became known, there was even greater opposition to the proposal from within the area, but the trust finished its consultation process and then announced that, on reflection, it had decided that the most appropriate site for such a unit was the Yardley Green hospital site and—surprise, surprise—it also announced that the other areas in the west midlands that were being considered wholeheartedly supported the facility being put on the Yardley Green hospital site.

Yesterday, I received a briefing—I suspect that it was intended not for me, but for the Minister—from Karen Helliwell, in which the mental health trust came up with a number of reasons why I should speak for the proposal today. The briefing is a collection of spin, half-truths, innuendo and downright slurs. I shall address one or two of them.

The briefing points out that 114 responses were received to the public consultation, including 39 from local residents and two petitions signed by more than 1,300 members of the local Bordesley Green community. It then said that the majority of the 114 responses to the consultation supported the proposals for a medium secure unit. Nevertheless, there was concern among the population. No reference was made to the 1,300 people who signed a petition, nor to the fact that the petition violently opposed putting a medium secure unit on that site. It also says that the facility is closest to the centre of Birmingham and Coventry. It is certainly closest to the centre of Birmingham, but Coventry happens to be rather a long way away, so again there is a massaging of the true facts.

Finally, I take most offence at the fact that the briefing refers to the community liaison group, which was set up to conduct the consultation, and had been meeting since 6 June 2006. It said that “the Community Development Worker”—to whom I shall refer in a moment—

“is responsible for ensuring that all the community issues are acknowledged. The last meeting was held on Tuesday, 29 May. In fact, members of the public have been put off attending the CLG meetings as they have been intimidated by protestors outside the meetings.”

That is a direct slur and there is no justification for it. Indeed, Mr. Wilson, the project manager, wrote to me on 7 June stating:

“Since January 2007, we have seen a decline in attendance at the CLG meetings. It has become apparent that while some people have found the CLG to be helpful, other people have not found it a useful forum. We have therefore taken the decision to postpone the meeting next Tuesday, pending a review of our communications strategy and how the community liaison group fits in with that. We know that many people are anxious about the development”.

There was nothing about the meetings being called off, or about people not attending because, allegedly, they have been threatened or intimidated. However, I regret to say that that is the way in which the mental health trust has approached the issue—with a catalogue of spin, half-truths and innuendo.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Does he recognise that across the River Cole, in my constituency, people are concerned about the same proposal? The record of consultation shows an absence of willingness to respond to community concerns about the proposals for change.

I thank the hon. Gentleman and entirely accept what he says. I am well aware that he has constituents who feel just as strongly as my constituents about the matter.

A planning application was submitted to Birmingham city council in February for outline planning permission. A petition of more than 1,000 people was presented and, in addition to the opposition that I had made quite clear at the consultative meetings, Councillor Shah, the Labour councillor for the ward in question, also objected to the application. The two Liberal Democrat councillors for the ward voiced their objections to the proposals at the consultative meetings, but one of them, who was a member of the planning committee, was not present when the application was considered on 8 February.

At the meeting on 8 February, the planning committee, which has a majority of Conservative and Liberal Democrat councillors because they are in alliance on the city council, gave outline planning consent. The sense of anger and frustration felt by the local residents has manifested itself ever since.

Councillor Shah, the local councillor, is not a member of the planning committee.

It is worth pointing out that the mental health trust had a paid community development worker who was involved in arranging the consultation process, and that surprise, surprise, he happened to be a Liberal Democrat councillor who represented the Springfield ward in my constituency, where the previous controversy over the location of the mental health facility arose. The two Liberal Democrat councillors for the ward did not seek to challenge the decision of the planning committee at the full council meeting, and by not doing so, many people locally believed that they betrayed the interests of their constituents.

Mr. Conway, forgive me, but I have given way twice already, and time is getting short.

Bearing in mind the small majority that the Con-Lib alliance had on the council, I should be amazed if the two Liberal Democrat councillors for the ward had been prepared to stand out against the proposals. They would not have been able to persuade the Liberal Democrat group within the ruling alliance that the proposals should not go ahead.

The reason why I raise this debate today is because the people of Bordesley Green are extremely angry and frustrated that their clear opposition to the proposal has been ignored. They have been poorly served by their local Liberal Democrat councillors, who had it within their power to stop the proposals going ahead. The land is public land, and while the ultimate decision about what is built on it lies with the local planning authority, the residents are looking for help from the Department of Health to try to prevent the medium-secure unit from being built.

I end by reiterating what I said earlier. It really is hard to appreciate the anger and frustration in the area. The people of the area appreciate, as I do, that mental illness is increasing, and that one in four of the population will be touched by such illness at some time during their lives. They have no objection whatever to the provision of much-needed general health facilities on the site, which would incorporate day-care provision and facilities for dealing with people who suffer from mild forms of mental illness, such as depression. However, to place an 80-bed, medium-secure locked unit surrounded by a 5.8 m fence in such an area, which is deficient in so many other needs, such as affordable housing, additional school places, general health facilities and community provision, is totally wrong. The site is the wrong site and I hope that the Minister will give some help and support to the local residents to stop that ill-conceived project going ahead.

Good morning, Mr. Conway. May I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath (Mr. Godsiff) on securing the debate? It is about a matter of great concern to him and his constituents. On the briefing to which he referred, if it was meant for me, I do not have it. However, I assure him that the briefing provided to me, as a new Health Minister, made absolutely clear the number of responses that were received, it referred to the two petitions and to the fact that they were signed by more than 1,300 members of the local community, and it made clear the way in which the local NHS has taken the consultation forward.

I understand entirely that such changes are at times difficult, and that they need to be fully explained. In my own constituency, those issues arise when there is change, and when there is a need to ensure that the full range of services that the NHS provides is available in our communities. I was grateful to my hon. Friend for referring to the fact that he does not question at all the provision of the full range of services, particularly in the mental health field.

My hon. Friend knows, and I shall make it absolutely clear today, that the development will provide a number of services, including the medium-secure mental health service. It will do so in a more attractive environment, bringing with it training and employment opportunities. He reiterated some of his concerns, and to do justice to his points, I know that he has vigorously engaged with the trust on behalf of his constituents as the proposals have developed during the 15-week consultation period. He touched on the point that it should be made clear that the approval of the plans came from the Birmingham city council overview and scrutiny committee, with support from the local primary care trusts. Every opportunity has been given to consider the other options.

My hon. Friend is right that in considering where it was most appropriate to locate those services, the health care professionals looked at a range of possible sites that were in NHS ownership, including the two existing medium-secure units. However, neither site had enough room for an extension, and they were incapable of providing the type of accommodation that the service requires.

I thank the Minister for giving way, and I take it from what she says that she confirms that the Government support the proposal as it stands.

The hon. Gentleman understands the issues fully, because he, too, has been engaged in the process. I am making it clear that they are matters for the local NHS to decide, and quite frankly, the Liberal Democrats cannot claim to have a policy nationally to devolve more power and decision-making to the local area—

No, I shall not give way to the hon. Gentleman; I shall finish my response to his point.

The Liberal Democrats cannot claim to have a policy to devolve more power and decision-making locally so that local people can determine the service based on local needs, which must be the right proposition, and then, when it does not suit the hon. Gentleman politically, claim something else.

No, I shall not give way. When the hon. Gentleman gets that sorted out, we can engage on this issue. The provision of services to people with mental health issues is an important matter, and it would be a travesty if we did not engage in a proper consideration of what that requires of us and what is happening locally.

Through the local consultation process, several changes have taken place in response to public suggestions. My hon. Friend touched on some of those changes, such as the change in the location of the building so that it will be away from some rear gardens. I fully appreciate that there are still people who want further issues to be settled, but any attempt to take the matter beyond the consultation process and appeal against the development would have to challenge the process undertaken. Anyone who wants to make such a challenge would need to get relevant advice about how such matters are dealt with locally and what remedies are available. I have no doubt that my hon. Friend has already considered those points, given his usual thoroughness.

I should like to put the development into a wider context, because this is a matter of balancing local needs and concerns against the wider reasons for the development being necessary. The proposals demonstrate that the NHS is responding to the public need for a spectrum of services; they are about providing for local people. The local mental health trust serves a population of 1.2 million people, some of whom will suffer from acute, severe mental illness, a small proportion of whom will need treatment in a secure environment.

No, I will not. I should like to finish this important point. People with acute, severe mental illness, some of whom will live in that community, need appropriate care as close to home as possible, because families and friends should be able to visit. Given that many patients already feel isolated because of their illness, a familiar environment is desirable. It is always difficult to strike the right balance between the best interests of the patients and those of the local community.

On that specific point, I understand the arguments about facilities being close to relevant client groups. However, the clients will come not only from central Birmingham but from Coventry and further afield. Secondly, I have never, during my time as a Member of Parliament, had a letter from the relative of someone in a mental institution complaining that they are having difficulty in getting to see their relative. I have, however, had numerous letters from the relatives of prisoners complaining that they find it difficult to travel to see them and asking whether I can get the offender moved closer to home. Therefore, I understand the Minister’s reasoning, but I have not had any complaint, locally, from the families of mental health clients, that they cannot get to see relatives in such institutions.

I shall tread carefully: I know that my hon. Friend is an assiduous and hard-working local MP, and that he therefore has contact with his constituents about many such issues. I must point out—I have experience of this as a constituency MP—that MPs are not normally the first port of call for the relatives of people who are suffering from severe mental illness, because they will be struggling with many things. However, I assure him that that is a relevant clinical point when considering how to make available the best treatment to those who have severe mental illness.

My hon. Friend talked about the wider geographical area. Of course, units of a certain size can provide detailed medical and wider support to individuals. I do not say that every unit is on the doorstep of every patient, but when balancing the many relevant issues, such as the availability of land on NHS sites and the needs of local communities, the local trust is charged with responsibilities to consider all those points in preparing local plans.

I am sorry; I have a few more points to make. In fairness, I must make some progress in responding to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath, whose debate it is. As I was saying, my experience is that the local issue has great resonance, but the specific vulnerabilities and difficulties relating to the requirements of the patients under discussion might mean that we do not always get such letters from their relatives.

In order to provide a comprehensive mental health care service for local residents, the trust needs to ensure that it has sufficient medium-secure accommodation. At the moment, a third of local men who need medium-secure care have to go out of the region. I, too, get letters from people who are finding it difficult to visit relatives in a prison that is further away, but there are also issues relating to individuals being treated out of the region. It is important at least to try to close that gap. As my hon. Friend pointed out, the majority of men who will benefit from the unit are from the Birmingham and Coventry areas.

Part of providing appropriate care in medium-secure services is making sure that the level of security is right. That is often a concern. Medium-secure services need to have significant levels of security. Those levels of security must satisfy the Healthcare Commission, local commissioners and, in the case of anyone being transferred from a prison, the Ministry of Justice. The Department is shortly to publish a set of principles and high-level indicators for medium-secure services, which are essentially to set the standards for those services. I am sure that my hon. Friend will want to consider that as well when considering the development. Those standards will be in place by the time that patients are admitted to the new unit.

I hope that I have been able to give some assurance to my hon. Friend. I encourage him, although he does not need any encouragement, to continue to talk to his local health services and, importantly, to shape this development, recognising all the challenges and pressures, to the benefit of his local community. I have listened carefully to all his points, and I also considered carefully the submissions in preparation for the debate. This is a matter for the local NHS, but I assure him that some of the broader points that he has made about the future shape of the NHS will need to be taken on board.

Sitting suspended until half-past Two o’clock.