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The best way to steer through the difficult planning problems—because the site is not a push-over for a developer, and it will be very difficult to extract development value from it—will be co-operation, and I ask for the Minister’s good will. When Defence Estates has property surplus to its requirements, the rule is that it must seek to obtain the best price for it on behalf of the taxpayer. That is a reasonable view in most circumstances. However, special provisions must apply in the case of Haslar. Until recently, the MOD owned about one third of my constituency, and has only recently begun to dispose of land in the area. It is still a very large landowner there. My constituents feel strongly—I share their view—that when the MOD has had such a big footprint in an area,
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it owes that area a special responsibility when it disposes of the site. Indeed, the Minister will know that payment was made so that the Chatham dockyard could continue as a legacy site, and I maintain that the same situation applies at Haslar.

The only way round the best price rule is if a government body, such as a local authority, steps in and offers to take over the site and be responsible for it. If local authorities were to recognise the unique opportunity of the site as well as its needs, and step in this point—with the good will of Government—and bring to the table those who wish to use and operate the site, that would be a solution that would be welcomed by all. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.

2.43 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Quentin Davies): I congratulate the hon. Member for Gosport (Sir Peter Viggers) on securing this debate. That is a fairly conventional compliment, but let me make two remarks that are rather more than that. First, it is entirely due to the hon. Gentleman’s efforts over the years that the whole House knows something about the Haslar issue. I had heard about it years before I joined the Government, thanks to the hon. Gentleman. Secondly, it is entirely due to his tireless advocacy down the years that Haslar hospital has remained a working military hospital for so much longer than any other, and it is only recently that we have come to the reluctant conclusion that the logic of modern requirements for military medicine are such that we should cease to have any military involvement in Haslar. I understand that the local NHS does not wish to continue with the site as an NHS hospital.

The hon. Gentleman described the history of Haslar going back to the 18th century and the aesthetic and historical importance of the site. For those reasons, we can all well understand the emotional attachment to Haslar that many people feel. However, I think that he may now accept the decision taken by the Government to close our military hospitals. By the early 1990s, during the last period of Conservative government, it had already become clear that our hospitals did not have a sufficient patient volume or range of military cases to develop and maintain the skills of military medical personnel. Over time, that would have damaged the level of care that we could provide to our military patients.

Over the past decade, medical science has become ever more specialised. Only through day-to-day involvement in clinical practice are medical personnel able to maintain their skills and qualifications, enabling them to respond quickly and efficiently to a wide range of medical casualties. The necessary range and variety of experience and activity can be provided only in a large NHS hospital, with its large throughput of patients. To meet the training need, we have, as hon. Members know, established Ministry of Defence hospital units within NHS hospitals at Derriford, Frimley Park, Peterborough, Portsmouth and Northallerton, while the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine at Selly Oak hospital, Birmingham, has become the principal reception centre for military casualties. For some years, therefore, we have had no requirement for a military hospital in the UK.

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On a typical day, I am pleased to say, we have barely enough in-patients in all the NHS hospitals in the UK to fill two wards. That would be insufficient to sustain even a single low-level civilian hospital, even if, in an attempt to maintain its viability, military patients were sent to it from all over the UK, even for simple and short clinical procedures—and that would be, to some extent, at the expense of the individual patients involved. It is no longer clinically viable to maintain even one military hospital in the UK. By using major NHS hospitals, we are obtaining quality clinical care for our injured service personnel that is second to none.

We first announced plans for the closure of Haslar in 1998. Since then, we have entered into a partnership with Portsmouth Hospitals NHS Trust, which has been responsible for the provision of medical services at the site. Military doctors and nurses have continued to work there alongside NHS civilian staff. They have continued to gain experience at Haslar in a range of clinical fields, including radiology and pathology. Later this year, once the redevelopment of its Queen Alexandra hospital at Cosham has been completed, the local NHS trust will have no requirement for facilities at Haslar and the services retained by the MOD can be transferred elsewhere. There will therefore be no requirement for the Haslar site. We are planning for clinical activity there to cease in July, as the hon. Gentleman said, and for the site to be handed over to Defence Estates for disposal by the end of the year. The service family accommodation will be vacated over the same period. Medical facilities and equipment are being transferred progressively to the NHS or being re-used elsewhere within the MOD.

It is because of its special importance and significance that we have considered carefully a wide range of proposed alternative uses for Haslar, including service medical or welfare activities, but I am afraid that the simple fact is that the services no longer need the extra capacity that Haslar represents. We can effectively and efficiently provide the required services elsewhere. I know that others, including parts of the media, take a different view, particularly in relation to operational casualties, but the Healthcare Commission has very recently, and independently of Government, assessed the care given to operational casualties and our rehabilitation services as exemplary.

I know that the hon. Gentleman is concerned about the possibility of the site deteriorating once the hospital is closed. I assure him that we will put in place a programme designed to ensure that the buildings remain in a good condition after closure, with an emphasis on maintaining the integrity of the historical buildings.

With no further military need to retain the site, we are actively taking forward plans to market and dispose of it. As part of that process, in late 2007 we investigated whether other Departments had any interest in using the Haslar site. That was done through English Partnerships, which is now the Homes and Communities Agency. At that time, no expressions of interest were received, and we have received no indication since that such expressions are likely to arise.

As the hon. Gentleman said, given the heritage issues surrounding the site, and to ensure that these were given due regard, we commissioned the Prince’s Regeneration Trust to assist us. One of the trust’s first steps was to hold a community-based planning workshop, based on
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what are now known as inquiry by design principles. The workshop took place over three days in November last year. Key stakeholders who took part included English Heritage, Gosport borough council, Hampshire county council, Hampshire primary care trust, the Roger Saunders charities consortium, which included the Royal Naval Benevolent Trust, and the Save Haslar Task Force.

The Prince’s Regeneration Trust produced its report on the inquiry in February. The report recognised that the site is unlikely to accommodate a single user or occupier of the entire existing accommodation. A consortium interest will therefore need to be encouraged and sustained, while planning options for re-use are developed. A key finding of the inquiry by design was that some form of additional development would be required to support re-use of the main hospital buildings and the associated infrastructure financially. The extent of such required development remains to be established. That said, it is possible that as much as 150,000 sq ft of residential development could be physically accommodated on site without detriment to the setting of the main hospital building. At this stage, however, it is simply too early to agree a draft master plan for the Haslar site, given that no key or primary users for the site have so far been identified.

I have mentioned the very important heritage aspects of the site. The inquiry was clear that a conservation approach should be adopted to restore and convert the listed buildings. Furthermore, any new building should respect the asymmetrical layout of the landscape and gardens. Maximum advantage should be taken of the sea views to make the site viable and attractive to a new purchaser. Those who have worked so hard to develop proposals to retain at least some medical presence on the site will be pleased to know that the inquiry supported that approach, as the hon. Gentleman said. We believe that the key to a successful future for the site will be for the market to determine the most appropriate mix of development. Of course, we do need to satisfy ourselves that the right development comes forward to secure a viable and sustainable future for the site and its historic buildings. Proposals will also have to have regard to the planning conditions set by Gosport borough council.

With that approach in mind, we are actively seeking expressions of interest from prospective private sector purchasers, including consortium interest. Of course, we would not exclude approaches from any source—from voluntary charitable organisations, local government or any other source. We have placed advertisements in property and medical journals inviting parties to register their interest. The initial marketing phase will be complete on 17 April. Evaluation of expressions of interest received will include careful scrutiny of conservation and heritage elements. I can assure the House that decisions will not be made solely on financial grounds.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this subject, which is of local and national interest, and I can assure him that we are committed to ensuring a long and prosperous future for the Haslar site. Our aim is to ensure that, even though our use has ended, Haslar will continue to contribute to the life and economy of the local community in Gosport, and that local people will be as proud of the site in its new guise as they have been of it in its old one. Of course, we take our
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responsibilities very seriously and I repeat that we shall not merely take financial considerations into account; we will be well aware of our responsibilities in terms of the site’s being of particular historic and aesthetic importance. To that end and through our consultation with Gosport borough council and other stakeholders—I
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am sure that the hon. Gentleman will continue to play a major part in those consultations—we shall seek to energise support for a new vision for Haslar.

Question put and agreed to.

2.54 pm

House adjourned.

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