Campaigners agree to raise £40,000 to fund "David versus Goliath" legal fight against Huddersfield hospital closure plans

Campaigners protesting against the closure plans in July.
Campaigners protesting against the closure plans in July.

Campaigners fighting to save Huddersfield Royal Infirmary from demolition have agreed to raise an initial £40,000 to challenge the plans in court. Chris Burn reports.

“The moment you step foot in court, you run the risk if you lose of paying the costs of the other party. It is very much a David versus Goliath battle. The worst-case scenario is if you went all the way to the High Court and maybe beyond is £100,000 to £120,000.”

Campaigners protesting against the closure plans in July.

Campaigners protesting against the closure plans in July.

The cautionary words of the specialist lawyer hired by campaigners hoping to save their local hospital from demolition through a judicial review could not have been clearer. But Yogi Amin, a public law specialist at Irwin Mitchell, was also able to offer considerable hope to those packed into a hall at the Huddersfield Methodist Mission building.

He said not only were steps being taken to protect the campaign from huge legal costs should they lose, but a careful examination of the available evidence so far means he puts their chances of success in the courtroom at “60 to 65 per cent”. “We feel it is a strong case,” he said.

For 18 months, campaigners have fought tirelessly against plans to demolish Huddersfield Royal Infirmary - a move that would leave the town with no A&E and just 64 hospital beds at a smaller adjoining facility called Acre Mills. The Calderdale and Huddersfield NHS Foundation Trust intends to move all A&E services to Calderdale Royal Hospital in Halifax in a move which it claims will save £175m while improving clinical standards.

A full business case for the proposals was published this summer and approved by hospital bosses - but campaigners remain determined not to accept defeat.

Campaigners protesting against the closure plans in July.

Campaigners protesting against the closure plans in July.

The often-wearying fight saw campaigners from Hands Off HRI split into two separate groups earlier this year following a dispute about whether they should focus solely on the Huddersfield issue alone or make it part of more politicised national campaign against NHS cutbacks.

Somewhat confusingly, the split initially led to two groups with very similar names - the ‘local’ camp called the ‘Original Hands Off HRI’ and the ‘national’ side called ‘Official Hands Off HRI’. Things were clarified slightly in April when the local group decided to change their name to ‘Let’s Save HRI’ to try and reduce confusion.

Both groups are considering legal action and in July, Let’s Save HRI opted to instruct new lawyers rather than staying with Irwin Mitchell to help differentiate their potential cases. Thursday night’s meeting was organised by the national camp and concerns were raised by the audience over whether dual legal cases will undermine each other.

Mr Amin said he believed any crossover could be avoided. “I will make sure no two cases are brought where they step on each other’s toes.”

Marches against the plans have taken place in the town.

Marches against the plans have taken place in the town.

Those in attendance were told that an initial £40,000 would need to be raised to fund the legal challenge by Hands Off HRI, as much of the £50,000 already collected in support of the campaign has already been spent on legal and specialist advice.

More than 100 people who had gathered for the meeting voted unanimously in favour of going ahead. It means that in the next few weeks the first steps will be taken in launching a judicial review which campaigners hope will win a similar against-the-odds victory as that achieved by the Save Lewisham Hospital group in 2013.

A High Court judge ruled in that case that Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt had acted outside his powers when he decided the emergency and maternity units should be cut back on the grounds that local people would have “to travel a long, long way further to get access to vital services”.

Many of the problems relating to the Yorkshire trust’s financial situation can be traced back to a private finance initiative (PFI) deal, in which private firms fund upfront construction costs and the money is paid back over several decades, done in the 1990s to build Calderdale Hospital.

Last year, Health Minister Ben Gummer admitted the PFI deal will end up costing around £100m more than if it had been paid for through public debt. The business case for the Huddersfield closure plans admits that the high finance costs of its current PFI is one of two key factors driving the trust’s financial deficit, with the other being having the same services based across two sites.

But ironically, it also reveals a fresh PFI deal will be required to bring the plans to fruition as there is no publicly financed capital funding available. The business case states HRI would require £473m of investment to stay open – a figure made up of £94m for repairs over the next decade and a further £379m after that for rebuilding costs for the hospital built in the 1960s.

It says the preferred plan of building new facilities on the adjacent Acre Mill outpatients centre site while sending all A&E patients to an expanded department at Calderdale Royal Hospital five miles away would instead cost a total of £298m, a £175m saving that would allow the trust to “achieve and maintain a financial surplus” by 2024/25.

It is expected almost 500 jobs will be lost over the next decade from the current 6,000-strong workforce, with the number of beds available in Huddersfield falling from more than 400 to just 64. Across the two sites, extra beds would be added at CRH but there would still be an overall loss of 105 beds on what is currently available.

Some of those who attended Thursday night’s meeting said they feel this campaign is about not only saving the hospital, but the very future of the NHS.

Retired trade unionist Mike Forster, chairman of Hands Off HRI, said he had previously been involved in a campaign to save maternity services at HRI in 2006, which ultimately proved to be unsuccessful.

“The huge difference is that there are ten times more people involved in this campaign than in 2006. That in itself has a massive impact on the town and the powers that be. Most of the people have never been involved in anything like this before. They are extremely passionate and have been a huge shot in the arm for this campaign.”

He said traffic congestion means it will not be easy for emergency cases from Huddersfield to get to the Calderdale site. “Both A&E departments are already hugely over-stretched and they will be asking for one A&E department to support 500,000 people.”

Among those in attendance was 17-year-old Joshua Smith, from Batley, who was born missing his left arm. He said he feared if funding problems for the NHS continue, he may eventually end up having to pay for the prosthetics that he gets in Leeds. “There are people far worse off than me, there are people who can’t even leave the house. That is why we need to continue the fight.”

Julie Hughes, a 52-year-old former nurse who now uses a wheelchair, said she had recently spent eight hours in A&E waiting for treatment and feels the service is already being “run down”.

“I was born here, I have been a patient here, I trained here. We are one of the biggest towns in the country, how can you shut down the A&E and hospital?”

Mr Amin said the grounds for the legal challenge are based on a belief that the evidence for the business case and the plan for more care to be delivered in the community “do not stack up”.

“We are going to be aiming to quash the proposals. The intended outcome would be a judge would say they have to go back to the start and produce new consultations.

“The key part of the evidence will be people who use the hospital now. We need to make it real for the judge, not just the impact on the community but the real impact on some people who use the service.”

MP's sadness at campaign split

MP Thelma Walker says she is disappointed the campaign to save the hospital has now splintered into two camps.

The Labour MP, who won the Colne Valley seat from Conservative Jason McCartney in June, told the meeting: “It has saddened me there has been a split in the campaign. I do feel there is strength in unity. I’m supportive of both campaign groups but it suits the Conservative party’s interest to divide and conquer.”

She said many local GPs do not support the closure plans, which place a greater emphasis on care in the community being required.

“Many of them are struggling to make ends meet. One local GP said to me ‘We are really pushed to fund keeping the lights on at the moment’,” she said.