Children’s hospital debacle: New way to plan big projects needed

Money that could have been spent on healing sick children has been squandered

An Bord Pleanála’s decision to grant planning permission for a new national children’s hospital at St James’s Hospital is decisive and clear-cut, and so clears the way for the project to become a reality after years of delay and dispute.

It proofs the development against challenge on planning grounds and sends a clear message that St James’s ticks as many of the boxes as any site could be expected to for a project of this size.

“There is no perfect or ideal site as such, each will have their own strengths and weaknesses,” notes planning inspector Tom Rabbette in his report, summing up the reality any impartial observer would come to.

This writer felt the project should have gone to the Coombe maternity hospital in 2012, because of the importance of locating a children’s hospital beside a maternity hospital. This didn’t happen, for political reasons that have never been explained. But rather than raking over the coals of that decision, the imperative thereafter had to be to just get on with the project.

You only have to visit the permanent building site that is Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital, Crumlin, or the rabbit warren that is Temple Street, to understand how badly needed a new children’s hospital is. Yet for years the job of replacing these outmoded facilities has been delayed by planning fiascos, political strokes and infighting within the medical community.

Money squandered

If this debacle shows anything, it is that Ireland needs a new way of planning big projects. Money that could have been used on healing sick children has been squandered on platoons of lawyers, planners and consultants beavering away on plans that never see the light of day. The public gets nothing; the professionals get their fees.

All manner of concerns were ventilated at the 10-day oral hearing into the planning application late last year, from vermin to the local swift population, but the central issue was access and traffic.

Objectors claimed the hospital would bring traffic chaos to St James’s and parents of sick children would not be able to access the hospital quickly in an emergency. Mr Rabbette was unmoved.

Access wasn't an issue for An Bord Pleanála when it rejected the proposal to site the hospital at the Mater for other reasons, so why should it matter now, he reasoned.

“Many observers may share a common ground in opposing the choice of the St James’s site, but that common ground dissipates when it comes to selecting an alternative site, with some opting for Connolly hospital, some for the Coombe site and some for the Tallaght hospital site,” he also noted.

Funding

The challenge now is to find the funding. Money will also have to be found to fund the proposed transfer of the Coombe to St James’s, alongside the children’s hospital.

The delay has pushed up the estimated cost from €650 million to €710 million, and that is before the building is fitted out. The money needed over the next four years will eat into the funds the next government might have earmarked for Independents’ support.

The financial demands of the children’s hospital will also have to compete with the needs of the rest of the health system for increased resources.

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