Call for answers over farm controversy

TODAY The Evening Star is calling on health chiefs to provide the answers to serious concerns over the controversial taxpayer-funded acquisition of a farm.

TODAY The Evening Star is calling on health chiefs to provide the answers to serious concerns over the controversial taxpayer-funded acquisition of a farm.

We have compiled a list of 20 vital questions over the details of NHS Suffolk's purchase of the �475,000 property opposite its Bramford headquarters, which will be turned into a car park.

Health bosses claim there are not enough parking spaces at its premises in Paper Mill Lane, despite promising that parking would not be a problem when it leased the site just under three years ago.

The decision to buy the six-acre site for parking and renovate the dilapidated farmhouse was taken in secret and not put before the trust's board.

On behalf of the public, we are seeking to uncover the nitty gritty of what happened prior to the sale and discover how half-a-million pounds of public money was approved to be spent on a project without the full board's approval.

In yesterday's edition, Suffolk Coastal MP John Gummer urged the Strategic Health Authority to launch an inquiry into how the decision was made.

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Mr Gummer said: “These are very important questions because this is a big issue.

“Those who took that decision ought to consider whether they have the capabilities of doing this serious job and getting the health service through the difficult predicament that the credit crunch has left them in.”

Alasdair McWhirter, NHS Suffolk chairman, wrote a letter to the Evening Star last month, in which he said the sum for the site was at the “low end of the budget levels”.

Health campaigner Prue Rush said: “I think that was an extraordinary thing to say. This is a lot of money we are talking about.

“The government is saying it is putting huge amounts of money into the NHS but it is going to administration.

“They were told that Bramford was not a suitable place. It was obvious that everyone was going to travel by car as there is no public transport around there. They are talking about renovating the farm house and putting staff showers in so people can cycle to work, but not everyone will do this.

“NHS Suffolk does not seem to be working for the people it is supposed to be working for.”

NHS Suffolk said it had stuck to the rules over transparency and accountability when the decision to buy the farm was taken on March 19. The matter will be reported at the board meeting in public in September.

What questions would you like to put to the NHS Suffolk? Write to Your Letters, Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN, or e-mail eveningstarletters@eveningstar.co.uk.

1. How did the sale of (Paper Mill Farm) come to the notice of NHS Suffolk? Who was contacted by whom and when did this happen?

2. Did the sale of Paper Mill Farm go on the open market or was this a privately-conducted purchase? Was the building and land bought at the asking price?

3. Before pen was put to paper what work was done and what costings were detailed for i) the building of the car park and ii) the renovation of the farmhouse?

4. As the site is in a flood plain, were Mid-Suffolk planners or The Environment Agency consulted about any environmental issues, including the ripping up of farmland to be concreted over for parking?

5. Did any discussion take place between the chairman of NHS Suffolk and the acting chief-executive that the �475k purchase was under the �500,000 board referral limit?

6. Did any discussion take place between the chairman of NHS Suffolk and the acting chief executive and/or others that the overall bill, with the building of a car park at more than �50,000, would breach �500,000 board referral limit?

7. Did any discussion take place between the chairman of NHS Suffolk and the acting chief executive on the further cost of the renovation of the farm and what that would be? If yes, what was that discussion? If no - why not as there was the certainty of a major extra spend on renovation?

8. Was there at any time a discussion that such a purchase was a “reputational” issue for NHS Suffolk and therefore demanded referral to the board in any case? Which executives went on site before the purchase was made?

9. Which NHS Suffolk board members were contacted about the purchase of the farm, by whom, and when?

10. Was the chief executive of NHS Suffolk, who has been on sick leave for part of this year, consulted about the purchase? If yes, what was her view and when did she give it? If no, why not, as she was instrumental in the original, controversial move to Rushbrook House?

11. Was Sir Neil McKay, the chief executive of the East of England Strategic Health Authority (who had already warned NHS managers about looming budget cutbacks), consulted about the purchase. If yes, what was his view? If not, why not?

12. Was anyone else in the NHS contacted about the proposed purchase before it went ahead?

13. Was there any discussion on the speed at which the purchase needed to be made because of looming NHS cutbacks?

14. Was any discussion held that the farm purchase - a statement of long-term intent to stay by NHS Suffolk - could compromise any future discussion over rental costs at Rushbrook House?

15. Was this matter referred to NHS Suffolk's compliance officer?

16. What will happen to the rest of the land at the farm and what cost provision has been made for looking after it?

17. What discussions were held, prior to the purchase, concerning the ongoing viability of Rushbrook House as an NHS Suffolk headquarters? If yes, what were the discussions? If no, why not?

18. With the NHS-owned St Clement's site (the previous home of Suffolk NHS) still available in central Ipswich/close to Ipswich Hospital, was any discussion held about the possibility of a purpose-built site being there - without any parking issues?

19. Do you regret your community engagement note to Suffolk business leaders on “challenges ahead” given the public reaction to the purchase of the farm and looming NHS budget cutbacks?

20. Were any other parking options considered by NHS Suffolk? For example, was a “park and ride” style site nearby discussed?

NHS Suffolk has sparked outrage by splashing out �475,000 on farmland opposite its Bramford headquarters.

The decision was taken in secret by the chairman and finance director and did not go to a public board meeting.

The trust, which buys and plans healthcare in the county, wants to convert the 2.5 hectare space into car parking, and possibly transform a dilapidated farmhouse into staff facilities.

The extra parking spaces are needed partly because NHS Suffolk's staffing numbers have more than doubled from 80 employees in 2006 to 190 today.

The trust was warned in 2006 not to buy an out-of-town site with no access to public transport and little parking - but it pushed ahead regardless.

Creating the new car parking spaces will cost an extra �50,000 on top of the initial investment.

Here is a light hearted moment for the man at the centre of the furore over the farm at NHS Suffolk, chairman Alasdair McWhirter.

“Old McWhirter had a farm,

Ee i ee i oh!

And on that farm he had a car park,

Ee i ee i oh!

With a car park here,

And a car park there

Here a car, there a car,

Everywhere a car park

Old McWhirter had a car park

Ee i ee i oh!

Old MacDonald Farm was children's nursery rhyme first written in America in 1917.

It features in a collection of First World War era songs by F.T Nettleingham and was entitled Old Macdougal Had a Farm. It has since been adapted slightly, as the name and some of the lyrics have been changed.