Michael Forster: How people power can save Huddersfield’s health services

The battle over Huddersfield's health services is continuing.
The battle over Huddersfield's health services is continuing.
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The campaign group Hands Off HRI (HOHRI), which is fighting to save all local hospital services in Huddersfield, is now gearing up to launch its own People’s Commission into healthcare provision across the whole of Kirklees.

This is a novel and bold idea designed to challenge the latest proposal from local health bosses to transfer acute and emergency care from Huddersfield to Calderdale Hospital in Halifax. The idea was first initiated by the Save Lewisham Hospital Campaign Group a few years ago which successfully fought off an almost identical plan to close hospital provision in the London borough of Lewisham.

Their one-day event was meticulously planned with the help of Michael Mansfield QC, whose Chambers took witness statements from around 100 local people from all backgrounds including patients, health professionals, politicians, and members of the public. Around 30 of these people were selected to speak to an independent panel of experts which considered all of the evidence and came to a conclusion about local healthcare provision in the light of real people’s experiences. Unsurprisingly, they concluded the proposed A&E closure should not go ahead.

Whilst this had no legal bearing on the proposed closure, it still marked a turning point in the campaign’s public profile and huge public support with over 500 people turning out to sit through the day’s proceedings. Some of the evidence was later submitted to a judicial review three days later which saw a judgement passed in favour of the campaign and the A&E was saved.

HOHRI has come a long way since the initial proposals were first announced in 2016. At that stage, local health bosses intended to move A&E from Huddersfield to Halifax and to demolish the local hospital, HRI. The biggest campaign in Huddersfield’s history was launched with a huge demonstration of 8,000 people.

Since then the group has raised around £70,000 to assist with a legal challenge which finally found its way into the Leeds Crown Court in 2018. A judge found that there were at least five counts of public law which had to be tested in a full judicial review. Before the case went before the court, in a separate but linked development, Jeremy Hunt, the then Secretary of Health, announced that the proposal was not in the best health interests of the people of Huddersfield or Halifax and vetoed the plan, demanding instead the health bosses should return to the drawing board.

He was responding to a referral from the local Joint Health Scrutiny Committee of Calderdale and Kirklees councillors to a national health body which had been brought together to consider the original plans. We believe that the threat of a pending judicial review forced Mr Hunt’s hand as this was the first time a Secretary of State had vetoed a local Health Trust proposal.

However, the celebrations of local people were put on ice when the Trust announced its new plan to keep and maintain the local A&E and hospital, but to transfer all acute and emergency care to Halifax. This meant the downgrading of the A&E to a walk-in centre and the hospital to a rehabilitation unit. HOHRI is adamant this has to be resisted and hence the idea of a People’s Commission.

The Trust has completely failed to produce any concrete evidence to underpin their new proposal other than lack of staffing, money and the huge funding gap inherited by health bosses as a result of a failed Private Finance Initiative at Calderdale Hospital.

New refurbishments at the Halifax hospital were financed by a huge loan of around £65 million but the eventual repayments will be nearer £800m.

Through a People’s Commission, HOHRI will establish the real health needs of the local population by calling patients, local GPs and other health professionals, politicians, people from the minority ethnic community and other disadvantaged groups including young people and the elderly.

This will form a solid body of evidence which will challenge the Trust’s many assumptions and anecdotal conclusions. Already several professionals, legal experts and academics have offered their services to bring the Commission together.

This will be a huge project and one of the most ambitious the campaign group has yet organised but local activists are as ever confident they will continue to receive the support from local people to make this Commission as influential and successful as the Lewisham event.

Michael Forster is chair of Hands Off HRI.