New hospital and leisure centre a step closer after proposal revealed

There have been many false dawns when it comes to the subject of Berwick's long-awaited new hospital.

Friday, 24th August 2018, 1:00 pm
Cllr Peter Jackson, leader of Northumberland County Council, and Cllr Cath Homer, cabinet member for culture, arts and leisure, at the Swan Centre for Leisure in Berwick.

It has been on the agenda since the early 1990s with hopes raised and then dashed by various political administrations.

The latest to take on the challenge of delivering on the task is the Conservative-led administration at Northumberland County Council which, working with Northumbria Healthcare NHS Trust and Northumberland Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG), has outlined plans for a £45million-plus integrated health, social care and leisure development at the Swan Centre in Tweedmouth.

“There has been talk about new facilities for Berwick for years and years,” acknowledged council leader Peter Jackson. “There have been decades in which the people of Berwick have been led to water and then let down again and we were determined that would not happen again so, since being elected as the new administration, we have been working more or less from day one to come up with specific proposals for Berwick. This is our number one project.”

No timescale for the project has been given but capital funding for the work is in place – an estimated £27million for the hospital/health services and £18million for a new leisure centre.

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The Swan Centre was considered the best of five sites under consideration – the others being Roberts Lodge, Newfields, Seton Hall and the current infirmary site, which it was always known was not big enough for a joint health and leisure development.

“The only site that was big enough and presented us with a degree of confidence in its ability to deliver what we needed was the Swan Centre,” revealed Stephen Holmes, council and NHS deputy director of community services.

“Seton Hall came into the running at the public engagement sessions we held but was not big enough for a joint development,” he added. “Roberts Lodge and Newfields were large enough but brought with them significant challenges. The community also very much identified the Swan Centre as their favoured option.”

The new leisure centre will be built first on a different part of the site, with the advantage that it can stay open during the build programme. It is envisaged the football pitch at the rear will be built on so there are moves to relocate it. Work is also planned to make the Main Street/Springhill/Billendean roundabout safer.

The co-location of a new hospital and new leisure site represents the best in modern medical thinking – with an emphasis not just on treating sickness or injury but in preventing them in the first place.

“The link between health and wellbeing and maintaining a healthy lifestyle is well established and the possibility of combining health and leisure services in one area through this partnership is an exciting prospect,” said Coun Jackson. “If you think of health and well-being as a joint service, it seems to make sense to have everything centred on a single site and we’re hoping to provide some council services for older people in the facility.”

Some disquiet about the prospect of a shared environment between hospital patients and leisure centre users was raised at a public meeting in Berwick town hall earlier this year but reassurances have been given that privacy of patients will not be an issue.

There have also been concerns that the new hospital would be little more than a glorified health centre but, again, assurances have been given that existing services provided at Berwick Infirmary will be retained and the possibility of using modern technology to deliver virtual clinics is being explored. Further detail of what hospital and health services will be forthcoming once the design team come back with their ideas.

The proposal has been approved by the leadership of Northumbria Healthcare and Northumberland CCG in their individual board meetings and will go before the county council cabinet on September 10.

“It’s absolutely fantastic to be at this stage,” said Northumbria Healthcare chief executive Jim Mackey.

“It has been a long, at times frustrating, road but I can honestly say that we have arrived at the right place. These plans will incorporate existing services currently provided within Berwick Infirmary in a modern, purpose-built facility.

“Co-locating leisure and health is a natural step and will make it much easier for our nurses, therapists and doctors to link in with exercise facilities which are critical to healthy living.

“Similar models have been successful elsewhere – including within the North East –which will mean that the new facility serves the whole community for years to come.”

Janet Guy, chairman of NHS Northumberland CCG, added: “We know people in Berwick are keen to see improved services locally and we are keen to be able to take this further forward.  The integration of health services and their co-location with a leisure facility reflects the very latest thinking in how to deliver world-class care. 

“Nationally and locally, there is now a much greater focus on patients spending less time in hospital and being supported in the community, where it is safe to do so. 

“The new hospital will include inpatient beds, a range of other hospital services, possibly GP services as well as community health and social care staff and leisure facilities.

“We remain absolutely committed to ensuring this development will be fit for the future and we will continue to work with the local community to ensure it meets their needs.”

The council wants the new leisure centre to provide a first-class facility for residents and tourists, as well as a much-needed wet-weather attraction.

“We looked at refurbishing the Swan Centre which would have been the cheapest option but we have taken the long-term view that to invest in a brand new leisure centre would set Berwick up for a much more optimistic future,” said Coun Jackson.

Coun Cath Homer, cabinet member for leisure, added: “It’s suffered from lack of investment in routine maintenance over the last few years and it quite often has repetitive difficulties. We’re still working up the plans at the moment but it will be far better in terms of facilities.”

Berwick MP Anne-Marie Trevelyan said: “This is such an important step in securing a hospital in our town for the future. Crucially, every service presently provided at the hospital will be offered at the new site. That the town will also be acquiring new leisure facilities is an added bonus.”