Will East Devon still have any community hospital beds – even any community hospitals – if the Tories are in power for a full 5 years? The full story of the Tories’ plans for our hospitals, two General Elections, and Claire Wright’s campaigns.

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First they came for Ottery St Mary (above), Cullompton and Axminster.  Just two months after the Tories won their last majority, in 2015, the local NHS – already starved of funds after 5 years of austerity – felt emboldened to close hospital beds in Ottery St. Mary, Cullompton and Axminster (inpatient beds for the Axe Valley will be concentrated in Seaton).

Then they targeted Sidmouth, Honiton and Okehampton.  In 2016, NEW Devon Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) consulted on proposals to close many more beds, preferably in Sidmouth, Honiton and Okehampton, and announced that it would be developing a ‘Local Estates Strategy’ (LES), widely believed to involve selling off some of the resulting half-empty hospital sites to help balance its budget, which had been crippled by Government underfunding.

At the same time, NHS Property Services took over.  That year, ownership of East Devon’s community hospitals had been handed over to NHS Property Services – a government-owned company set up by the Tories to sell off ‘surplus’ NHS assets. Independent County Councillor, Claire Wright, who had helped fight the Ottery closures, first raised concerns about NHSPS’ role and warned that bed closures were the first step to fully closing the hospitals which lost their beds.

Finally, Seaton became the sacrificial site, since Sidmouth was too important to the Tories. Hugo Swire, the MP for East Devon, was alarmed at the proposal to close beds in Sidmouth – in his constituency – because Claire had won a shock 13,000 votes and come second in the 2015 election, an almost unheard of feat for an Independent. In November 2016, Swire said in Parliament that if it came to a choice, Sidmouth’s should be saved (Seaton be damned, as it had been removed from his constituency in 2010). Surprise, surprise, although the CCG’s consultation showed more people supported keeping beds in Seaton than Sidmouth, on 2 March 2017 the CCG made the shock decision – unwarranted by any good evidence – to save Sidmouth’s and close Seaton’s.

On cue, the Government incentivised selling off hospital sites. The LES was now expected later in 2017, and in March that year (just after the CCG’s decisions on beds) the Government-commissioned Naylor report proposed that CCGs should get twice the actual value of any sale, to incentivise them. The Government quickly adopted the idea.

… but in June 2017’s surprise General Election, Claire Wright jumped to 21,000 votes and put herself in a strong position to defeat Swire next time. This followed my own equally surprising win in Seaton and Colyton in the County Council elections in May 2017, as voters showed their disgust at the hospital decision. The Tories were undoubtedly shocked at the Independent surge, especially the threat to Swire which could be put down directly to Claire’s fantastic campaigning for the community hospitals.

The Tories doubled down on the beds closures. In July 2017, led by 5 East Devon Tory county councillors including the chair of the Health Scrutiny Committee, Sara Randall Johnson, the Tory majority defeated Claire’s proposal to refer the beds closures to the Secretary of State’s independent panel, the last chance to save the beds. Later, in 2018, East Devon Tories also turned down requests from the town councils to list Ottery and Seaton hospitals as ‘assets of community value’, which would have given them some protection.

However, the Local Estates Strategy did not arrive in 2017. Or 2018. Or even 2019. It became clear that Swire and the national Tories were so scared by Claire’s threat that he could not afford the political cost of its going ahead, and must have found a way to persuade the CCG to shelve the proposal. In 2018, indeed, Swire got new Health Secretary Matt Hancock down to Ottery Hospital to discuss the situation with local NHS chiefs, and Hancock subsequently proclaimed that the era of ‘blindly closing community hospitals’ was over. A junior minister finally assured Swire that ‘his (!) hospital in Ottery had a secure future‘ a year ago.

But what if Boris Johnson wins an absolute majority? Surely he’s made big promises for the NHS – our hospitals will be safe? Alas, no. Nationally, Johnson has only promised money to refurbish 6 existing (not build new) hospitals now, and to do 34 more (total 40) between 2025 and 2030 (a case of jam tomorrow if ever there was one). None of the trusts who may hypothetically benefit are in Devon. There is nothing even hypothetically for any community hospital, anywhere.

And meanwhile, it has been revealed that Devon CCG (as it’s now called) is facing a £66m deficit in 2019-20, up from a budgeted £27m. No prizes for guessing that, if the Tories win a majority and are secure for 5 years, a local estates strategy may finally emerge. Indeed the CCG told me last month, ‘There will be an estates section in the Devon STP response to the NHS Long Term Plan, due to be published in the Autumn.’ (It has not yet appeared, due to the election no doubt.)

The era of ‘blindly closing community hospitals’ may be over, but if the Tories win big on December 12th – and especially if their new parachute candidate manages to squeak in ahead of Claire Wright – expect new pressures for bed cuts and targeted estate disposals in the next couple of years. Are Sidmouth’s and Exmouth’s beds really safe? Will Ottery St. Mary, Seaton, Axminster and Honiton even be open in 5 years’ time? Is that pledge to Ottery worth the paper it’s written on, from a Government which changes its mind every 5 minutes? It will very much depend on how people vote in this election.

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