The health trust in charge of Watford General Hospital moved last week to reassure people about its commitment to rebuild the hospital.
Chief executive Samantha Jones insisted in an open letter to this newspaper the trust was “100 per cent committed to the project”. Which was reassuring, if not a bit confusing, considering no one has yet questioned the trust’s commitment to the long-standing health campus project.
In fact, to people in Watford, the whole scheme has always been unquestionably about Watford General. Without the new hospital the scheme has promised for the last decade, it is just a huge housing development on the doorstep of one of the most densely populated areas of the town.
What was less reassuring was Ms Jones’s statement that it could take the health trust up to 18 months to reveal its clinical strategy, which will outline what the new Watford General Hospital would look like.
Any maths enthusiasts will notice this means the timescale ends around June 2015 – a month after the General Election.
This week, the trust elaborated on the decision saying it had rolled back the timetable to finalise the strategy as it has just appointed new board members and needs time to assess all the options. In the summer, this paper was told the clinical strategy could be unveiled as early as autumn last year.
The decisions in strategy have implications that will affect the lives of people in south west Hertfordshire for decades. So it is not unreasonable for the trust to ask for time to get it right.
But the latest delay is worrying as the forthcoming election cycle is unique opportunity for the trust to win serious financial backing for a regeneration plan.
In 2015, the town will have three parties vying for the parliamentary seat, all of which feel they have a realistic shot at victory. Two of those parties are in Government and the third harbours realistic ambitions of forming one come May next year.
However, there will be no pressure on those parties to say exactly what money is available to regenerate Watford General until the trust comes up with a credible plan. Both Chancellor George Osborne and health secretary Jeremy Hunt were able to bat away questions about hospital funding saying they needed to see what the trust has in mind. Unveiling a clear plan before then would challenge the three parties to set out exactly how much money there will be for the scheme.
The health campus does not just have implications for Watford. The trust is looking at redrawing services across its three sites including St Albans and Hemel Hempstead. New areas marked out on the health campus masterplan show potential for Watford General to expand. And if extra services are due to be based at Watford, then it does not take a huge leap of imagination to figure that St Albans and Hemel could be in line to lose out. Yet a senior member of the trust said this week that even the premise that the main health services will remain in Watford is not “absolutely certain”.
Whatever the case, there are bound to be losers as well as winners in the clinical strategy. And the last thing the trust needs is for the MPs and parliamentary candidates turning its decisions into volatile election issues. Delaying the clinical strategy until after May 2015 would make life politically easier for the trust’s high command. It could also make life more comfortable for politicians running in the General Election. But it is worrying news for people in Watford who have spent a decade waiting for a new hospital. Because on the evidence of this week, they could be waiting a good while longer.