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2.20 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Yvette Cooper): I congratulate the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Mr. Prior) on securing this debate on the redevelopment of Cromer hospital. However, I commiserate with him about the late hour at which the debate has been called.

I am aware that there has been considerable local interest in the redevelopment of Cromer hospital and the proposals for it. It is clear from the hon. Gentleman's remarks that the local support for Cromer hospital is something of which the local community can be proud.

The hospital's services provide a vital local resource which is clearly valued by local people and the town's many visitors alike. It currently provides a wide range of out-patient and day-case services, including neurology, orthopaedics and ophthalmology, as well as a minor injuries unit. The services provided by the hospital and

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the dedication of its staff have rightly been given the recognition they deserve by the remarkable legacy of Mrs. Bernstein.

Cromer faces a number of challenges in terms of its health and its regeneration, particularly in relation to the decline of traditional industries such as fishing. There is widespread determination by the local NHS to ensure that all stakeholders, especially the public, will be involved in decisions on the future of the town and its services.

As the hon. Gentleman explained, there have been various and lengthy discussions about the future redevelopment of Cromer hospital to provide more efficiently organised, expanded and modern services. He is right to say that many challenges are faced by the hospital facilities. It is important that the discussions about the modernisation and development of Cromer hospital reach fruition and can make progress to benefit those living locally.

The hospital was built in 1932 and is run by the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital NHS trust, which provides the majority of services currently on the site. I understand that in 1995, and again in 1998, discussions began with local commissioners about what services should be included in a redeveloped Cromer hospital site. However, on neither occasion was it possible for commissioners to determine the scope of services required. That was due partly to the anticipated intermediate services strategy which was being developed by the then East Norfolk health authority, but also to uncertainties about future commissioning arrangements. As a result, no business case was produced at that time, and there was no tangible progress for Cromer hospital and its patients. These previous efforts to determine how Cromer hospital should be redeveloped have clearly contributed to an understandable local feeling that more needs to be done to progress Cromer hospital and that the investment needs to be secured and made without further delay.

This is a matter for the local health authority, the trust, the community health council and local people to determine, through formal consultation, if required. If there is still local disagreement, the community health council can, of course, refer the matter to Ministers. However, this is first and foremost a local matter, and it should be resolved locally.

I understand that progress is being made on the redevelopment of Cromer hospital. The proposals being considered include diagnostic and treatment services, pathology and primary care, such as general practitioner services, as well as the future configuration of community care in Cromer. No decisions have been made to date, and it is anticipated that the proposals will be completed in the near future, when there will be an opportunity for the public to have their say. The proposals will then be developed into a strategic outline case by the local NHS, led by the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital NHS trust. The strategic outline case will be submitted to the regional office later this year. The production of the proposals is, of course, not the end of the process, and it is important that this is understood by all; even after the proposals have been made public, discussions will need to continue on development, the cost of the proposed services and how they will be provided, and other details. I look forward to the conclusion of that work and the publication of the proposals as soon as possible.

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One of the most fundamental issues that will have to be thought through as part of that process will be the running costs of the redeveloped Cromer hospital. That matter must be resolved before any work can begin on the ground. Agreement will need to be reached on the revenue implications of the developments. All local parties, including the public, must satisfy themselves that the benefits of the improvements to Cromer hospital and health services in Cromer are sustainable, adaptable and robust for the long-term future.

Public involvement and support will be key aspects of the proposals for Cromer hospital. There is a great deal of local interest in the future of the hospital, so it is crucial that patients and local people support the future developments.

The NHS plan demonstrates the Government's commitment to patient-focused services, and it is essential that services meet that aspiration; after all, that is what patients and the local community expect. Those proposals must have local support, so the involvement of the local community health council in the working group is also a key part of the process.

The working group that has been established to consider the redevelopment includes Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital NHS trust, the North Norfolk primary care group, local GPs, the Norwich Community Health Partnership NHS trust, local authorities, including North Norfolk district council, and the local community health council.

It is extremely important that we take a partnership approach to the development of Cromer hospital. I take on board the point that the hon. Gentleman makes about the need for clarity in developing the proposals and his argument that a partnership approach should not entail too many discussions that do not lead to a conclusion. I do not think that is the consequence of a partnership approach; it is clear that Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital NHS trust would take the lead in developing the strategic outline case. However, I shall bear the hon. Gentleman's points in mind as the plans progress. It is important that the partnership is conducted so as to deliver the results that local people expect.

Fresh impetus has been brought to discussion of the proposals by the substantial and completely unexpected bequest of Mrs. Bernstein in summer 2000. Mrs. Bernstein's regard for the excellent care and services provided to her sister by the staff of Cromer hospital led her to bequeath the remarkable sum of approximately £10 million to the hospital for the improvement of its general facilities. Understandably, that has invigorated discussions about the hospital's future.

Of course, the size of the bequest and its significant implications for the hospital mean that decisions about the future redevelopment have to be the right ones. An opportunity on that scale is unlikely to be repeated, so there is an obligation on the people drawing up the plans locally to ensure that the money is used to benefit local people for the long term. The public will have to be satisfied that the plans are right for the local area and will deliver the maximum possible benefits.

In response to some of the points made by the hon. Gentleman, I can reassure him that no money from Mrs. Bernstein's legacy is being spent on any other project; it is not being used to support the new Norfolk and Norwich hospital or any other health project in the area. It will be used specifically for Cromer, as stipulated

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in Mrs. Bernstein's will. It will make a significant contribution to the capital expenditure on the redevelopment of Cromer hospital. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it would be completely unacceptable if the area's fair share of NHS funding for a wide range of projects were affected by Mrs. Bernstein's bequest--it was clearly intended to improve facilities and to make a real difference for the people of Cromer.

The bequest represents a huge opportunity for those in Cromer, for the local community and for those in the NHS. It coincides with a big increase in funding to the NHS in Norfolk. As I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware, the Chancellor announced in his Budget statement the biggest ever increase in funding for the NHS in England. I am sure that he is also aware that, in his Budget speech on 7 March, the Chancellor announced extra resources for the NHS in England in each of the next three years, with an extra £300 million in 2001-02. That involves additional revenue and capital resources; provides a chance to improve NHS facilities across the board in Norfolk and the Norwich area; and comes at a useful time in the debate about Cromer hospital's future.

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I am sure that all parties in the process are working towards a common aim--providing the best possible health services for the people of Cromer. I look forward to the speedy development of the proposals for the future of Cromer hospital and to those proposals being made public in the near future, as well as to partnership work involving not only all those in the NHS but local authorities, voluntary groups and the local community. Things are not standing still in Cromer while those discussions are taking place. Developments continue at the hospital--for example, improvements to the dermatology department are currently being implemented.

The redevelopment of Cromer hospital will be a very significant milestone for health services in Cromer, so all parties must ensure that the best possible solution is found. The health authority, the trust and those involved in the local discussions will take note of the points that the hon. Gentleman has made in this debate. All local stakeholders owe it to the people of Cromer, the hospital's staff and Mrs. Bernstein, who had regard for them all, not to waste this opportunity.

Question put and agreed to.

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