North Yorkshire County Council accused of sitting on fence over NHS centralisation

The Friarage Hospital.

North Yorkshire County council chiefs have denied “sitting on the fence” as NHS services are centralised, leaving their residents facing lengthy journeys to get treatment and having to recover far from their communities.

The extent to which NHS services in parts of England’s largest county has dwindled was laid bare at a full meeting of North Yorkshire County Council, which is charged with examining NHS provision on behalf of residents.

Opposition members said the council’s decision to simply get its scrutiny of health committee to continue examining the NHS plans was insufficient.

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During a debate about the Conservative-led authority’s response to proposals for changes to mental health services in the county, members were told the Friarage Hospital, in Northallerton, where in-patient mental health wards are set to close, had seen a litany of cuts in the last 15 years.

Councillor John Blackie said since 2003 the hospital had lost children’s surgery, stroke pathway, children’s accident and emergency, consultant-led maternity, paediatrics and gynaecology.

He added the hospital’s accident and emergency department had been demoted to an urgent care centre, with overnight all cases are sent to the Darlington Memorial Hospital or James Cook University Hospital, in Middlesbrough.

The Upper Dales member said: “The mortuary has gone, sadly the relatives of people who pass away sometimes have to travel to James Cook to rescue their bodies. The pathology lab has gone, the switchboard has gone, the mental health wards have been reduced and now they are due to go.

“The future for the Friarage threatens the anaethestists service, which threatens overnight and immediate care that might be available at the hospital.

“In 2003, the Friarage had 412 inpatient beds. Once the mental health wards are removed it will have 120 beds. Dangerously, it is being described as one of the smallest hospitals in the country.”

“Despite the best efforts of the council’s scrutiny of health committee the NHS has succeeded in taking over the agenda. It is time that we spoke as a county council, otherwise we will find almost all of North Yorkshire, except for secondary care, an NHS-free zone.”

Harrogate Bilton and Nidd Gorge councillor Geoff Webber said following meetings with the Tess, Esk and Wear Valley NHS Trust a move towards centralising services had become plain and said it would also be a disastrous for residents in his area.

He said he was “very disappointed that this council has kept such a low profile on matters of such huge concern”.

He added: “This council recently issued a press release over the proposed closure of Northallerton Magistrates Court, objecting to it on the basis that if it was to close then miscreants would have to travel more than one hour on public transport to seek justice.

“And yet we have made no statement at all about the people living in Pateley Bridge and further west who may have to travel for six hours to visit patients in York, three hours each way.

“I want to see this council get off the fence, stop being apologists for the Government and NHS and make a clear, unequivocal statement that we believe these services should be retained in the local Harrogate area.”

The council had acknowledged the lack of community mental health provision in the county, Richmond councillor Stuart Parsons said, “but was sitting on the fence” by not insisting that hospital mental health beds were maintained until the community services were bolstered.

The council’s executive member for adult social care and health integration, Councillor Michael Harrison said the authority believed the key issue related to the amount of community mental health care, which preceded the need for acute beds.

He said: “The fact that we are so behind the rest of the country in community mental health is the biggest issue that faces us, rather than where specific mental health beds would be.”

Cllr Harrison confirmed the council’s response would be for its scrutiny of health committee to continue examining the issue and for its health and wellbeing board to host a summit later this month to examine the future of mental health services in the county.

He added: “I don’t think it is a case of us sitting on the fence. We are recognising the challenges that are out there and trying to promote the debate which gets us the best service for mental health, both community and acute, in the county.”