It is 40 years since West Suffolk Hospital opened its site, in Hardwick Lane, Bury St Edmunds. Reporter Paul Derrick spoke to staff about their memories, how the building was a pioneer and why it was never officially opened.
When Kate Turner began her nursing career at the newly built West Suffolk Hospital 40 years ago, the air was palpable with promise – the corridors breathing with the potential of its experimental design.
On the cusp of a boom in hospital building, the £3.5 million Hardwick Lane site was one of the first of the Department of Health’s ‘Best Buy’ hospitals aiming to create a standardised design which could be replicated across the country.
It was a much-needed relief for Bury St Edmunds with its increasingly antiquated 1820s-built West Suffolk General, in Hospital Road, and St Mary’s geriatric hospital.
Mrs Turner, 57, remembers: “Everything just seemed so clean and modern.
“It went from the Nightingale wards (large and open) into the bays, which seemed very strange.”
Former chief executive Bob Jones was initially appointed in 1973 as deputy hospital secretary to help the transfer of services from the old to new site.
He says: “People were moving from a very old building to a brand new one. Everything was brand spanking new. Like everything else people took a bit of time to adjust. There were a lot of new things that came about – the new hospital had patients mostly in six-bed bays, visiting hours were a lot more open, patients had a choice of meals for the first time and a housekeeping service to support the nurses.”
Building work of the hospital began in 1969 with the first services moving across in June/July 1973 before it fully opened the following March.
However, Mr Jones reveals it was the hospital that was ‘never officially opened’.
The Secretary of State for Health was lined up to open the hospital in May 1974 but when Labour was elected, ‘some fairly junior minister was offered’ and the opening never happened.
Mrs Turner, of Stanton, who is a clinical nurse specialist in cardiac rehabilitation, looks back on those early years at the hospital with fondness.
She says: “Wearing the uniform you felt quite special and proud. You had the capes with the red straps and you wore caps then. The atmosphere seemed lighter in those days – money was never mentioned. You never had computers either obviously. I remember thinking computers in nursing that will never happen! The car park used to take all the staff and all of the visitors. You didn’t used to have to pay and when they did bring in the payment it was £1 to start with.
“A lot of people come back to this hospital like the doctors who go away and then come back and have taken permanent jobs here. It’s always had a really family friendly feel.”
The hospital also used to have its own social centre, which closed many years ago.
She says: “People just became busier, lived out and didn’t want to socialise really on work premises.”
Based on her memories you get a sense that the culture was different with more of a tightly knit community on site.
Mrs Turner says: “I think about it with warm thoughts. It was good times and like you say more of a community – people did more together originally.”
The hospital is aiming to put together a display to celebrate its history.
n Anyone with old photos/ other memorabilia should contact Emma Sewell on 01284 713794.
With pressure on hospitals to deliver more with less money, chief executive Stephen Graves discusses what the future holds for West Suffolk Hospital.
Plans to expand the hospital are mentioned in St Edmundsbury Borough Council’s blueprint for growth Vision 2031 as is the potential to move to a purpose-built health campus near the Westley A14 interchange.
Mr Graves says they have started looking at how they might develop the Hardwick Lane site but warns they are ‘a bit careful’ about proposals for the new site.
He explains: “We, the public sector, are not as well off as we were six or seven years ago.
“We all know if from the point of when any body says let’s look at building something brand new, it’s usually 15 years before it actually turns up because of all the processes you have to go through and there’s only so much money around.
“For 10, 15, 20 years we’re likely to be on this site and we’re doing work on what more can be done on this site.”
Then there are budget pressures with hospitals across the country needing to make five per cent efficiency savings, which equates to £8-9 million a year at West Suffolk Hospital.
Mr Graves says: “Some of that is dealt with by the fact that activity continues to grow every year hence in effect there’s more activity
going through the same cost base as we had the previous year.”
He says the hospital has not gone through a redundancy programme and they have more doctors and nurses than previously.
However, the amount of staff has increased less than the amount of work.
“The level of efficiency savings we have means there needs to be greater transformation of the way we deliver services because hospitals are the most expensive bit of service delivery.
“We’re working with GPs and community colleagues to do as much as possible to make sure people only have
to come to hospital if they really need to and there’s a lot more to be done in that whole area.”