Why another Imperial pipedream bit the dust

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The Paddington super hospital fell apart after disagreements among the partners

The National Audit Office, the government body which decides whether tax-payers get good value for their money, has just come out with a report on a huge failed project in which Imperial was an important partner… and slammed those involved for catastrophic mismanagement which cost the public purse £15 million.

Imperial’s governors, looking at the stumbling Wye Park plan, might care to read the executive summary of the NAO report (available at the foot of this article), and in particular some of its conclusions on why the attempt to build a huge new super hospital campus in Paddington, in which the rector, Professor Sir Richard Sykes, was personally involved, fell apart so spectacularly.

These include…

  • The Campus partners were unable to secure adequate land for the scheme
  • The Campus partners, and others, differed over whether the scheme was affordable
  • These same people got their sums horribly wrong. When they started work, they were predicting a need for more hospital beds in the area. By the time the project was cancelled, the strategic health authority had actually worked out they needed to reduce capacity by 500 to 600 beds.

Will Wye Park go the same way… and for much the same reasons?

The Paddington Health Campus was, says the NAO, a ‘complex and ambitious attempt to build a world-class healthcare and research centre which ultimately proved to be beyond the capacity of the scheme partners to deliver’. As a result, it delivered ‘poor value for money for the patients, visitors and staff who have been left with hospital premises that are long overdue for renewal and specialist clinical services which have failed to meet the recognised need for reconfiguration.’

There were three partners in the project, two NHS trusts and Imperial, for which the rector himself, Professor Sir Richard Sykes, was ‘accountable officer’ for expenditure incurred by the college. But things weren’t quite as straightforward as that, at least in the eyes of the other partners, both of whom were unclear about who was actually in charge of money overall. One NHS trust chief executive thought it was him; Imperial and the other one didn’t. In short, ‘…at the time, there was no resolution on who, if anyone, was the Accountable Officer for the scheme’. Would-be partners in Wye Park take note.

The idea (a familiar one) was to build a ‘world class centre of excellence’ for research facilities for Imperial, this time inside the new super hospital. But what followed was a mess of disagreements and mixed ambitions. The triumvirate underestimated the significant risks ‘in particular the mismatch between the size of the scheme and the land and funding available’. The way in which the scheme partners organised and carried through the scheme ‘did not maximise their chances of success’, and they couldn’t even agree on who was responsible overall for its budget. They also failed to carry the government, in the form of the Department of Health, which throughout declined to take a ‘strategic position’ on whether the idea was sound or not, and told them it didn’t share their view the project was of ‘national importance’.

Then there was the question of ‘need’. Just as in Wye, the project began with bullish projections about how there was a market for it, because ‘detailed modelling’ in November 2002 proved the area needed 1,200 new hospital beds. Eleven months later this figure was rounded down to 1,088 new beds. In May last year the partners were still reducing this to a hopeful 835 NHS beds and 88 private ones. But the strategic health authority had done their own sums, and worked out the area actually required between 500 to 600 fewer beds than it already had. The same kind of gleeful optimism appears to run through the Wye plans at the moment, which envisage huge commercial developments while much of the existing available space remains empty.

The original Paddington plan was estimated to cost £300 million and due for completion this year. By the time the scheme was cancelled in 2005, projected costs had risen to £894 million and the expected completion date had slipped to 2013. Faced with the loss of its fancy new research facilities, Imperial has, instead, refurbished facilities at its own National Heart and Lung Institute for research purposes… at a cost of £10 million.

No-one appears to have been reprimanded, let alone sacked, for this catalogue of disasters which has cost the UK tax-payer £15 million, and failed to deliver the improvements in health care the residents of the area are entitled to expect.

The parallels with Wye are tantalising. Imperial is operating with two public partners here, Ashford Borough Council and Kent County Council, albeit ones which are offering planning support, not hard cash (as far as we know). It is also engaged in huge and apparently very flexible sums — even larger ones for Wye, where the total cost runs from £1 billion to £1.5 billion depending on the day of the week. Then there are the wild-eyed estimates of need for the ‘science park’, without the slightest hard evidence to support them.

And, as at Paddington, Imperial hopes it has the Government on its side… though all the noises coming from Whitehall suggest their position is neutral, if not downright sceptical.

You can’t help but wonder: will the NAO be investigating the failure of Wye Park in years to come?

National Audit Office executive summary

National Audit Office full report


About David Hewson

Professional novelist, published in more than 20 languages. Creator of the Nic Costa series set in modern Rome, Pieter Vos in Amsterdam, adaptions of the Sarah Lund stories in Copenhagen, and versions of Shakespeare worked for Audible.
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