Sunday, 6 December 2009

Finsbury Health Centre

I am very pleased to have been elected Chair of the Health and Wellbeing Scrutiny Committee this year, which is one of the committees charged with counterbalancing the role of the Executive in the Council. One of my main tasks has been to scrutinise Islington Primary Care Trust’s somewhat undemocratic attempts to force the closure of Finsbury Health Centre.

For those of you not familiar with Finsbury Health Centre, it was designed and constructed as a Health Centre in the 1930s by the architect Lubetkin, intended to be a high quality and dignified building where all the people of Finsbury could go to receive a variety of different health treatments. The building pre-dates both the founding of the NHS, and the more recent coining of the term ‘Polyclinic’, which is what it is.

The building is still much loved by local people, both as a convenient, local venue for receiving health treatments, and also as an uplifting and inspiring building in which to receive those services. Many (although not all) of the health professionals that work there are also very fond of the building, and patients report a good level of stability amongst staff, who know most of their patients.

The building was, and still is, an exceptional piece of design as a Health Centre, and it still works. It is also listed by English Heritage as Grade I, partly because of the design of the building, and partly because the building is an important landmark in social history, and still a functioning health centre.

The problem arises because the PCT (The Primary Care Trust, who run Islington’s health services), seem to have decided for some obscure reason that they don’t like the building, and are determined, as it would appear, to get rid of it. They also haven’t carried out any maintenance to the building for the last 15 years, so it looks in a far more sorry state than it might.

The PCT’s strategy to date has been to take a decision behind closed doors to close Finsbury Health Centre, and then consult the public on where they want their services moved to. The option for patients to state that they want their services to continue to be delivered from Finsbury Health Centre was noticeably absent from the consultation.

At the same time as consulting patients on where they want their services moved to, the PCT have also published a series of rapidly escalating cost estimates to refurbish the Health Centre, along with a similarly improbable cost to leaseback the building once it is refurbished. The suggested cost to refurbish (£(9.1m) is almost twice the going industry rate for restoring listed buildings of this type, and the suggested leaseback charge of £1m per year for 25 years, means that a £9.1m project (if that figure were true) would actually cost the PCT £25m. Informed industry experts all suggest the restoration cost would be nearer £5m, and that there are a number of creative ways of sourcing grants and funding, based on allowing a building restoration charity to take over and restore the building – which would be very little trouble for the PCT. Patients, staff, conservation experts, planners and English heritage would all like to see the building restored and retained in its present use.

The re-location of services proposed by the PCT would involve many patients in an hour-long journey up to Holloway Road, which I’m sure the more frail patients would not make. The remainder of the services would be divided up between various smaller venues nearby, several of which are described as offering a ‘satellite’ service. In all, the proposals would redistribute all the current services in the building to seven different venues.

Up until recently, Labour and the Liberal democrats in Islington have been running parallel, if not entirely synchronised campaigns to save the Health Centre, and I thought that there was quite a strong level of agreement between the two parties that the PCT were not playing fair or listening to local people. That was, until Labour discovered that there might be some EC1 New Deal funds available to put towards the costs of refurbishment. This money is not essential to save the building, but could arguably be an appropriate use of the funds, given that the Health Centre is an important community facility in the New Deal area, which many residents would like to see saved. Labour tabled a motion to last Thursday’s Council meeting, calling on the Council and PCT to work with EC1 New Deal to try and secure these funds to assist in saving and restoring the Centre.

I thought this motion would be pretty uncontentious, and was very surprised to see a late amendment to the motion, tabled by the Lib Dem’s master of weasel words and obfuscation, Cllr Allan. His amendment called for health services to be “kept local”, and for the building to be kept in public ownership for the people of Finsbury to “enjoy”, but was clearly trying to undermine the continued use of the building as a Health Centre, which is exactly what the PCT are trying to do. The Lib Dems voted for this amendment and lost, and the Labour motion was carried, also enjoying the support of Cllr Andrew Cornwell (ind. LD) and Cllr Katie Dawson (Grn).

I feel sorry for those grass-roots Lib Dems who share Labour’s feelings about the injustice of the situation, and I hope they will still find themselves able to support whatever decision the Scrutiny Committee comes to when it has finished considering all the evidence. I expect the scrutiny decision to be a rational and reasoned assessment of the facts, with the passion and emotion about the issue restricted to patients and local residents who have already made it clear they want the Centre retained.

My passion in this instance is not so much for the building, but to expose what appears to be a concerted attempt to deprive the people of Finsbury of a unique, much-loved and well-used facility for no obvious or justifiable reason. My passion is to see honesty and the truth prevail.