Walking the tightrope

I’m often asked the question: why choose green and not brown?

I’m referring of course to the site for our new hospital. Our plan is to build a brand new hospital on a greenfield site, but the decision to go greenfield instead of developing and upgrading our existing brownfield site has not been a straightforward one. The pros and cons presented by both sites means I’ve often felt like I’m walking a tightrope deciding which is the best option for the Trust.

At the heart of this is our desperate need for a building that can provide the optimum environment in which to deliver the highest quality modern healthcare. A hospital that is the best place to work, rest and recover for our amazing people. An environmentally-friendly building that will harness energy generation and conservation technology to become net zero carbon.

And above all, a first class hospital for our patients. One that is bigger, better and more flexible to be able to cope with a growing and ageing population and future acute healthcare demands.  

A quick recap on the pros of our current brownfield estate. Yes, our existing site in Harlow is well located within the town and has good access and transport links. Yes, although the site has been developed extensively over the last 50 years, there are opportunities for further development if we were to demolish some small, single story buildings and rethink our parking. And yes, it is possible to go even further and have a wholesale remodelling of the site. Not quite knock it all down and start again, but not far off.

But adding to the existing jigsaw puzzle of temporary, portable and fixed buildings at Hamstel Road would not necessarily achieve the best environment for our patients and people, and certainly not without significant risks. Knocking down and starting again on the same site might be a better option, but it would take years of disruption and construction. At least eight to nine years we think, and this would also by far be the most costly solution – can you imagine working on a building site for nine years or being in a hospital bed looking out at scaffolding, tarpaulins and dumper trucks?

In contrast, a new hospital on a new greenfield site would be designed ‘from scratch’ to the ideal specification developed by our own clinicians. Using modern methods of construction, most of the structure could be built offsite and installed in just three and a half years, avoiding any service disruption to patients or staff. The building would be flexible by design to accommodate future need and encompass our learning from the pandemic. Creating spaces that can be quickly locked down to isolate infection. A hospital truly fit for the 21st century and many, many generations to come.

It would also allow us to build a truly sustainable hospital. Hospitals have massive carbon footprints and our current site alone emits a staggering 22,000 tons of carbon every year. Our new hospital will be fully electric and will enable us to meet the NHS net zero carbon target before 2040. 

The positive impact this will have on the environment is huge. And whilst we are making great strides with implementing our Green Plan on our current sites, we simply can’t achieve quite the same carbon efficiencies as quickly or effectively. You can read a little more about our journey to net zero here

And last but not least, one major factor in our preference for a greenfield site is our access to nature and its proven therapeutic benefits. To enjoy green spaces, trees, and wildlife in carefully landscaped outdoor environments that will benefit patients, visitors, staff and local biodiversity is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a hospital like ours. And we fully intend to make the most of it.

You might be thinking that’s all very well, but what about travelling to the new site? Of course we’re aware that travel is a massive issue. Which is why we are preparing a comprehensive travel plan with local councils and specialists to promote sustainable travel to our greenfield site, and providing appropriate vehicle space and car parking when you get there. Our priority concern is that all necessary journeys to our new hospital are convenient, affordable and quick for staff and patients. Anyone who knows Harlow will understand that a town centre location regularly causes serious traffic delays, especially for ambulances.

And regarding ambulances, The East of England Ambulance Service NHS Trust plan to locate a ‘make ready’ hub on our greenfield site, so ambulance service staff can respond to calls more quickly and effectively. The hub will host specialist staff and facilities to quickly restock, refuel and clean ambulances, getting them back on the road faster and maximising the time which frontline crews can spend with patients. It will also speed up critical journeys back to hospital.

So am I still precariously balancing on my tightrope? Hopefully not for much longer! We are at an advanced stage in our new hospital plans and ready to finalise our outline business case over the coming months.

We remain confident that greenfield will be our way forward. It’s better for healthcare delivery, a better place for our patients and people, better value for the taxpayer, better for our carbon footprint and better equipped for the future. And I really think the people of Harlow and surrounding area deserve that. Don’t you?

Michael Meredith
Director of strategy and estates