Slow progress as children's hospital awaits go-ahead

Project director John Pollock gives tour of site and defends location at St James's

John Pollock, project director at the site of the proposed national children’s hospital at St James’s Hospital, Dublin. Photograph: Eric Luke

John Pollock, project director at the site of the proposed national children’s hospital at St James’s Hospital, Dublin. Photograph: Eric Luke

 

The new national children’s hospital could break the Government if it fails.

Poppies, buddleia, acres of car-parking and a few clapped-out hospital buildings – there’s little to indicate that this land at the back of St James’s Hospital may soon become the biggest building site in the State.

We’re standing on the roof of the old Hospital 7 in St James’s – the patients have been moved elsewhere – and I’m trying to imagine the creation of a high- rise, world-class hospital for the sick children of Ireland arising from this jumble.

John Pollock, project director for the team building the national paediatric hospital, has his own vision of how this project will evolve and he’s convinced we’re in the right place. “This is a cracking site in the middle of the city. In agricultural terms, it’s a small farm, a quarter mile from one end to the other.”

Years after a new national children’s hospital was first mooted, this is as far as the project has got. There’s a boring machine taking soil samples and a few billboards promising to “work together for our children’s future”. Sick children and their parents shouldn’t hold their breaths. Real progress has to await the granting of planning permission – if it is granted – over a year hence.

Design team

The design team will be confirmed shortly, but Pollock’s team has done the preparatory work. They’ve surveyed the site, the traffic situation, even the bat population (there is none). The buildings on site are being emptied and a “multifaith centre is being built to replace a soon-to-be-demolished 19th- century chapel.

After many false starts, most notably the failed planning application for the Mater site, the hospital is now on track in the right location, Pollock maintains. “This site is large. That’s the lesson we learned from the Mater; it didn’t fail because of traffic or medical issues, because of over-densification.”

Because his site is twice as large, Pollock believes a seven- to eight-storey building will accommodate the new hospital, compared to the 16-storey behemoth planned at the Mater. That should pass muster with the planners, he says. Unlike the Mater, the current project has the full cost of €650 million committed by the Government.

Pollock spent 30 years in civil engineering and when the downturn hit, he shifted his work to the Middle East, building medical facilities in Saudi Arabia. That experience is now being brought to bear on the Government’s flagship project; if it doesn’t work out, and planning permission is refused at the end of next year, it could end up scuppering the Government itself. That’s not a scenario Pollock envisages happening, as he responds to the arguments that have been thrown up in opposition to this site.

Concerns

The Drimnagh sewer, which runs under the land, will be left in place and built around, he says, though the design team will make the final decision.

“It’s two pipes. To listen to Jonathan [Irwin, chief executive of Jack & Jill charity, a firm opponent of the site], it’s like moving the port tunnel.”

A more substantial concern is traffic. There are already almost 1,500 parking spaces in St James’s, most of them for staff, and another 1,000 spaces for patients of the children’s hospital are envisaged. Yet access is tight and the approach roads frequently clogged.

Pollock blames morning and evening traffic jams around the existing hospital on the large numbers of staff commuting to and from work.

“The business of the HSE and of hospitals is healthcare, not car parks. I’m not saying it’s the easiest site to get to, but it’s not about a building, it’s about children’s lives and clinical outcomes. The idea we would protect so much valuable land just for staff parking doesn’t make sense,” he says.

Adequate parking

There will be adequate parking for patients, so that sick children can make it to the hospital unimpeded. Pollock makes the point that, currently, “people are not dying on the roads” because they can’t get to the adult hospital.

The other main criticism of St James’s is the absence of a maternity hospital on the campus, though the Coombe is down the road. Pollock says the vast majority of patient movements from maternity hospitals to children’s hospitals are pre-planned, rather than emergency situations.

St James’s is home to 13 medical specialities, against one in the Mater and two in Beaumont, he points out, so children will benefit from the proximity of high-class care in areas such as plastic surgery, burns and cardio-thoracic medicine.

Another acre or so, currently a car park, is being ringfenced for a maternity hospital, though it is likely to be years before this project gets off the ground.

The aim is to complete building the children’s hospital “by the end of 2018”.