Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust’s proposed £25million development on the site of Berwick’s existing infirmary was unanimously approved at the Tuesday, December 1, meeting of Northumberland County Council’s strategic planning committee.
The scheme, which had been recommended for approval, involves the demolition of the existing infirmary and the creation of a two-storey building to accommodate all of the current services plus a GP practice for Well Close Medical Group. The Bell Tower will be retained.
A new, purpose-built energy centre in the north-east of the site will provide heating, water and power to the existing hospital until the new building is complete.
Health bosses have welcomed the go-ahead for a facility ‘fit to deliver 21st century healthcare’, while the MP for Berwick, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, is ‘delighted’.
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“Berwick needs and deserves state of the art facilities and it is great that these plans have been shaped by the local community. I look forward to seeing work begin on site,” she said.
However, while there will be little opposition to the principle of a new hospital in the town, there were some concerns expressed about this specific development.
In a written submission read out at the meeting, objector Elaine Paterson said that the ‘bulk and height will totally dominate the conservation area’.
Highlighting the use of the words ‘respect’ and ‘respectful’ in the planning officer’s report, Thomas Stewart claimed that ‘in relation to the neighbourhood and the community who live there, this is not the case’, suggesting that the site is too small for a hospital ‘triple the size of the existing buildings’.
But Cllr Catherine Seymour, the area’s ward councillor, said that she supported the officer’s recommendation for a ‘fully accessible and fit-for-purpose’ hospital and noted that it is being built on this site following the backlash against the plans for a new facility on a shared site with the new leisure centre, which were announced in autumn 2018.
Northumbria Healthcare, in partnership with NHS Northumberland Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG), subsequently backed down on those co-location proposals and in May 2019 announced that the new stand-alone hospital would be built on the current infirmary site – something which had previously been ruled out, after other options had been dismissed.
In total, the application had attracted 27 objections from 18 households, raising concerns about the design, scale and mass, access and parking, the impact on the character of the area, and how it would affect the residential amenity of neighbours.
Berwick Civic Society submitted a letter of support saying the proposal would ‘replace an incoherent and lacklustre hospital’.
And the submission by the applicant’s agent, Robert Dibden, concluded: “This new hospital is vital for the long-term health of people in Berwick and surrounding areas, and a key strategic priority for our trust as we strive to improve the wellbeing of our local communities.”
Members of the committee did have sympathy for objectors’ concerns about the design, but the importance of the new hospital was paramount.
Cllr Trevor Thorne, who moved approval, said: “We have got a lovely old building, it was built in 1874, but I’m sure when it was built, it was for the services it provides and it’s high time the good people of Berwick get a fit-for-purpose building that will deliver the best medical services for them.”
Cllr Jeff Reid added: “This is a big building in a sensitive area. I think if it had really upset the residents, we would have had a petition and far more written objections.
“I don’t particularly like modern buildings, but, as Cllr Thorne said, this is going to be a fit-for-purpose building as the original one was.”
Cllrs Malcolm Robinson and Guy Renner-Thompson shared the view that the design ‘leaves something to be desired’, but that the overriding benefits of a new facility were the key issue.
Decision welcomed by NHS trust
Reacting to the approval, Sir James Mackey, chief executive of Northumbria Healthcare, said: “Having our planning application for our new hospital in Berwick approved is fantastic news for people in the town and surrounding areas.
“For too long, residents have needed a new hospital which is fit to deliver 21st century healthcare and equipped to embrace the latest technology to further improve the care they receive.
“This new hospital will give them just that, while fostering greater integration with primary care, and represents a major investment in north Northumberland.
“In these uncertain times, this is an extremely welcome development and demonstrates our commitment to further improving the wellbeing of our communities, while leading the way in the NHS.”
Executive director Marion Dickson, who is leading the Berwick redevelopment project for the trust, added: “This is a long-awaited decision for the local community and our staff, and we’re delighted that we have now got the green light to progress to the next stage of this hugely significant development.
“While our staff at Berwick do an amazing job and provide the highest quality of care for our patients, they are constrained by the poor physical condition and functionality of the building which is, in parts, nearly 150 years old.
“Having a purpose-built hospital will make a massive difference to them and ensure an improved experience for our patients while providing enhanced privacy and dignity.
“This is a unique opportunity to revolutionise the way we deliver care for generations to come and we are determined to move forward with pace while ensuring we continue to keep services running with as little disruption as possible while we build the hospital.
“I would like to thank our staff and the local community for their ongoing support over the years and we will keep everybody up-to-date during the exciting times ahead.”