999 HQ purchase ends costly saga

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TAXPAYERS have paid £6.7m to buy Yorkshire’s ambulance headquarters – bringing to an end an embarrassing saga which saw the NHS facing huge bills in the wake of serial management failings a decade ago.

The Department of Health has approved the purchase of the Yorkshire Ambulance Service (YAS) Springhill command and control centre near Wakefield, which includes the main 999 call handling centre and will soon house the 111 urgent care service, delivering savings of £600,000 a year.

The site was occupied in 1998 by the now defunct West Yorkshire Metropolitan Ambulance Service (WYMAS) which was thrown into chaos four years later when a series of major failings were exposed.

A damning report in 2003 blamed an “entrepreneurial business culture” among senior management focusing on a host of problems including deals for leases taken out for the Springhill property which were signed in serial breach of NHS procedures.

Former chief executive Trevor Molton was dismissed for misconduct and finance director John Miners quit amid highly-critical reports into the running of the organisation. In a separate police inquiry, both were jailed in 2006 for three years for conspiring to defraud the NHS of £250,000 in a venture to rent houses to Filipino nurses.

A business case written in June, and obtained by the Yorkshire Post, for the purchase of the headquarters property said buying it was the best value-for-money option.

Otherwise, the service would be locked into “well above current market rents” until 2018 under the lease signed in 2003, paying £894,000 a year compared with a market rate of £704,000. It also faced a £2m bill for maintenance and moving costs of £3m if it relocated. The unnamed landlord of the property put it up for sale early this year but it was put into the hands of receivers in May.

Rod Barnes, director of finance and performance at YAS, said the purchase would save £600,000 a year – “money which will now be invested directly into frontline services for the benefit of our patients”.

In 2003, a confidential report made coruscating criticisms of the way WYMAS had been run amid predictions the failings would take years to overcome and cost taxpayers millions to put right.

It said formal business cases for an expansion at the Springhill site and to other offices at Dean Clough, Halifax, had not been made and that approval for the projects had not been obtained from the Department of Health as required, despite their huge cost.

Key changes to the lease had been made in 2003, which saw the trust raise £1.1m in return for agreeing to a 12 per cent increase in rent to £745,000 a year, and extending the lease from 10 to 20 years with a break clause only in 2018. It said these should have been approved by NHS chiefs but this was never sought.

The report said that had the deal been referred to regional NHS chiefs in accordance with rules, it was “unlikely” it would have been approved “due to the length of the leases and the inflexibility of the break clauses”.

The trust also breached competition arrangements in appointing lawyers, property consultants and other advisers for the projects without seeking alternative bids for advice which cost many tens of thousands of pounds. It concluded that overall the breaches at WYMAS were a matter for “serious concern”.

Molton and Miners were jailed after they set up a property firm in 2000 to provide accommodation in Wakefield, Dewsbury and Pontefract for 70 Filipino nurses recruited by WYMAS. The venture failed when nurses, who had signed two-year leases, quit the homes and the pair used cash from WYMAS to cover their losses.

The trial judge branded it “an appalling tale of greed, arrogance and stupidity”.