MATT COOPER: Scrap the crazy plan to put sick children into a sky-high bottleneck

THANKFULLY there is still time to save the people of this country from the serious mistake of building a new national children’s hospital in Dublin’s north-inner city on the grounds of the already crowded Mater Hospital complex.

The HSE seems determined to press ahead with the construction in the grounds of the Mater. It is boasting that the delay in a project that should have been completed by 2012, but which now may be finished by 2015, could save the state some money; if it goes ahead it would be a few hundred million euro cheaper because of the massively reduced building costs arising from the recession.

However, there remain many problems that should be resolved by the relocation of the hospital. One is that even at a reduced cost of €650m there is not enough state money available to build the more cheaply priced hospital. The state has left the project a substantial €200m short of what it will cost.

Instead, the development board plans to raise €110m of the funding required from philanthropy and fundraising. Optimistically, the plan is that another €90m will be generated by the sale of private clinic space to doctors, the inclusion of retail units and an underground car park, as well as from research and education grants.

In other words the state is getting out the begging bowl. A fundraiser has been hired to conduct a global campaign, seemingly in the hope that the ‘diaspora’ will stump up. That’ll look good. When the country was awash with cash we couldn’t build something as fundamental to a decent society as the best children’s hospital we could afford. Now that we can’t afford it — after building hundreds of thousands of houses and apartments that are empty because they weren’t needed — we’re out scrounging off the wealthy of other countries to help us out. Pride, how are you?

As for the idea that nearly half of the shortfall can be made up from commercial ventures: well has anyone involved heard of the recession? Doctors may have paid silly money in the boom years for medical suites from which they could offer consultations to patients, but those days are over.

I don’t know what type of retail units the development board has in mind but a few sweet shops and flower stalls are not going to provide the necessary money. And as for the car park, well that brings up something else very interesting.

One of the biggest complains about the decision to locate the new hospital alongside the existing adult hospital is that there are already significant traffic and parking problems in the area. The site for the hospital is being used as a surface car park already and it is simply not big enough. Some staff at the Mater have to park considerable distances away and relatives and friends of patients find parking a major irritant.

A 1,000 space car park at the children’s hospital is not going to be sufficiently big, especially when so many others in the area are looking for parking (and let’s not even take the disruption caused by construction into account).

Imagine you are rushing a sick child to A&E or that you are bringing him or her for lengthy treatment. Where will you park if every space is full and how will you afford to pay for it if such car parks are being run on a commercial basis to repay the hospital’s construction costs?

The answer that used to be given was that the Metro North rail line was going to run underground with a stop at the new hospital. The idea was that sick children could be brought by train. If children were coming from other parts of the country they could be brought to Heuston or Connolly and then transported onward by the new train network.

Talk of Metro North was very quiet this week. I doubt if that pipedream will ever be built — even if it too apparently would be much cheaper now because of the recession — which then demolishes one of the tenuous supports for the Mater site.

Basically, the Mater site makes no sense on logistical or financial grounds. It never has and it never will. I have been shown around the site by eager advocates but they did not convince me it was suitable. Doctors arguing against the choice on medical grounds have been far more convincing. They hate the idea of building up, as is the case in this design, and want somewhere with plenty of open green space and a relatively flat and spread-out complex.

Admittedly, the design to be submitted to An Bord Pleanála looks absolutely wonderful from an architectural point of view at least.

It sounds convincing too when it comes to the description of the medical facilities. But this massive structure, which would be a towering landmark in Dublin, higher and far wider than Liberty Hall, is being forced on the designers by the lack of available land. That must increase the cost of the construction dramatically. The size of the planned project is going to lead to the mother of all planning rows.

This is why the bullies who say the location has been decided and that the debate cannot be reopened should be called out for their spin. One of their arguments is the project may be lost if it has to be restarted elsewhere. That is nonsense. The use of a greenfield site on the outskirts of Dublin, giving relatively access to the general public, rather than the Mater, could bring about faster planning permission and construction.

Even if the planning is granted I can’t see how the cost shortfall will be made up. But for the same money, by using a greenfield site, I’d bet that an at least equally good hospital could be built for the children of the nation.

NO one could argue feasibly there would be an additional cost in buying the land. NAMA could supply it easily or it could be bought very cheaply. It is impossible to believe it would not feasible to build a facility with 445 inpatient and day beds, all in single rooms, and accommodation for parents to be with their sick children, and all the other things planned for the Mater site, for the available €450m.

There is no confirmation as to why the development board chairman Philip Lynch has resigned but it is believed to be linked to his concerns about the financial viability of the project and, linked to that, its location on the campus of the Mater hospital. There should be transparency on this issue. It is not good enough that we have not been told why he has gone.

And one other thing: the notion that a children’s hospital must be colocated with an adult hospital. This is not best practice internationally. Adult hospitals, such as the Mater, specialise in particular disciplines, but so do other hospitals in the Dublin region such as Beaumont and Blanchardstown, which would be called on for help from the children’s hospital as often as the Mater. If anything a new national maternity hospital should be built alongside the new children’s hospital, but not as is planned too at the Mater.

The desire to keep going with the Mater site is even more bizarre now that the local TD, Bertie Ahern, is no longer Taoiseach. This is one debate that needs to be reopened.

The Last Word with Matt Cooper is broadcast on 100-102 Today FM, Monday to Friday, 4.30pm to 7pm.


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