National children’s hospital: Q&A

The planning saga is over. Next step is funding construction at the St James’s site

Artist’s impression of the structure to be built as the national children’s hospital at the St James’s site in Rialto, Dublin. Image: Children’s Hospital Group/PA

Artist’s impression of the structure to be built as the national children’s hospital at the St James’s site in Rialto, Dublin. Image: Children’s Hospital Group/PA

 

So planning permission has been given to build a children’s hospital in St James’s. This is a good thing, surely? Yes, it means construction can begin within months and a children’s hospital should be opening its doors in 2020. It won’t add that many new beds to those available in the three Dublin children’s hospitals but all of the 380 beds will be in single rooms and the facilities will be of a much higher standard.

Isn’t this the same hospital that was supposed to open in time for the anniversary of the Rising, ie this month? Yes, it is, but the project has been bedevilled by delays and snags. Plans to build it at the Mater hospital north of the Liffey were rejected on planning grounds in 2012. The Government pressed the pause button and took advice before opting to move the project to St James’s, but this choice has provoked fierce opposition in some quarters.

Why? What’s not to like about a children’s hospital? It isn’t the hospital that has attracted opposition but the location. Some people wanted it built beside a maternity hospital such as the Coombe. Others wanted it on the M50 for easier car access. Opponents claimed the St James’s site was cramped, and that it suffered from access and parking problems.

Are they right? Space isn’t an issue for the planners. They like the design of the new building, and the seven storeys proposed are far fewer than the 14-storey monster that was mooted for the Mater site. St James’s is the Republic’s biggest and one of its better-run hospitals, so that’s a plus.

The real issues were around traffic management. The team building the project envisage a big shift to public transport among users of the hospital and staff. Patient parking – there will be 675 spaces for visitors – will be tightly managed and may have to be booked, while staff parking is limited to 325 spaces.

But how is a parent driving a sick child supposed to get to the hospital in rush hour? This has been one of the main concerns voiced by groups opposing St James’s. The project team believe they can reduce traffic congestion and provide adequate visitor parking by encouraging staff to switch from their cars to public transport. The planners see no grounds for refusing permission on the basis of access.

And what about babies born very sick who require urgent treatment? Children’s hospitals should be located alongside maternity hospitals; that’s international best practice. Initially, such children will have to be transported by ambulance from the nearby Coombe or other maternity hospitals to St James’s. This is less than perfect but the plan is to relocate the Coombe to St James’s. The planning decision, while not addressing this scenario in detail, says there is sufficient room for further expansion of the children’s hospital site.

So it’s all systems go then? Most likely, but given the history of this project, you never know. Planning is no longer an issue, but money is. The outgoing Government spent the €200 million it promised to ringfence from the sale of the National Lottery, but this money will presumably be found in the exchequer coffers. The project is supposed to cost €650 million but building inflation has already added €60 million to that.