Hospital central to city's needs

What a shame the Dunedin City Council is divided over its campaign to keep the city's hospital in the central city. This is an issue which should unite Dunedin. The squabbling is distressing.

The council has initiated an effort to keep the rebuilt hospital right in town, with three councillors, Lee Vandervis, Mike Lord and Doug Hall, voting against.

Dunedin-based National-list MP Michael Woodhouse waded in late last week, implying the campaign was a front for the Labour Party, and the three councillors criticised an email from Cr Benson-Pope alluding to Cr Lord's political affiliation, part of what Cr Vandervis described as ''a shameless slide into partisan politics''. Cr Benson-Pope, in turn, responded that apart from the ''three Tories'', the campaign was supported by the rest of the council.

There are two fundamental issues. First, on the siting of the hospital, and second on whether the council should campaign on that.

As as been pointed out strongly on this newspaper's opinion page by two distinguished Dunedin residents, Sir David Skegg (a former University of Otago vice-chancellor) and Emeritus Prof David Jones (a former university medical division head), close links between the medical school and the hospital are vital.

Shift the hospital from the central city, or downgrade its capability, and the medical school is undermined. Weaken the medical school and not only will health services in the South suffer but so too will the university's core division, health sciences. The university would be hit and, therefore, so too would Dunedin itself, with flow-on effects through Otago and Southland. In a worst case, a downward spiral in the university would destroy much of the city. People should realise the stakes could hardly be higher.

The integration between medical school staff and students and the hospital are such they must be cheek by jowl. While, say, Wakari or South Dunedin might be only a few kilometres away, that would be far enough to disrupt the efficient and effective integration of the institutions and their personnel.

There is also the matter of public transport for patients, hospital visitors and staff - with a bus hub planned and buses routes almost all running through or into town - as well as Dunedin's central-city strengths. This is part of what makes the small city and it is the envy of other centres. Although big-box retailing is eroding central-city shopping, Dunedin as a city focused on its centre is worth fighting for.

Because a hospital rebuild close to the present site is so important, logically the city's council should fight for that. Mr Woodhouse's point about the inconsistency of the council granting ACC the right to consider buying the Frederick St car park is acknowledged. The council, of course, is eager to help ACC establish as many of its jobs as possible in Dunedin, but the car park option weakens its position.

Councillors opposing the campaign have also pointed out the danger of the Government, the hospital rebuild ''partnership'' group and Treasury reacting badly and digging their toes in.

Nonetheless, we live in a democracy where political pressures are part of the process. It is blind to think that Treasury or other outsiders will have Dunedin's best interests totally at heart. Dunedin cannot just sit back and accept what is decided.

The hospital rebuild, including the site, matters so much to Dunedin and the South that Labour will of course exploit the issue in this year's election. There are substantial gains to be made in the party vote in Dunedin North and Dunedin South. National will be aware of that.

The council's campaign, after its unfortunate beginning, will have to be smart. It has to be seen as city-wide and not at all aimed, as Mr Woodhouse said, as an opportunity to create a win for Labour and to proclaim some kind of forcing of the Government's hand.

Perhaps, given Cr Benson-Pope is a former Labour Cabinet minister and despite his vigour and initiative, the mayor and councillors not closely aligned with political parties need publicly to lead the campaign. Other considerations have to be subservient to the essential end result, a quality new hospital in the central city.


The difficulty may be that what Dunedin wants and needs is often not congruent with the Government's preference. Nats got peeved by public demonstrations to save neuro. They don't like it, and inclined to label public opinion 'political'/

With the current views from central government on funding a rebuild of the hospital on a central city site, it must be timely to look again at repurposing the main ward block and surgical block. Other structures close by are at the end of their lives including the children's pavilion and ex-nurses home and could make way for decent buildings while Wakari Hospital is already absorbing many services currently run from the city. Writing off the embodied value in the existing buildings and acquiring another site only to demolish what is already makes little economic sense to me, particularly as the two main buildings on the hospital campus were constructed to generous engineering margins only 40 years ago. The reasoning put forward that the floor to floor heights of these buildings are inadequate to house modern services suggests that it is the services need to be redesigned rather than wasting what appear to be perfectly reusable buildings. Hazardous asbestos needs to be contained during demolition operations in any case. Let us start by looking at the value of these buildings so that a budget can be devised without the expense of needless demolition and the purchase of another site.

I suspect a strong argument can be made that the law requires local government to be complementary to central government, not antagonistic to it and that the DCC is acting beyond its powers in promoting and funding any kind of political campaign, including this one.

I don't think so. Central government can sack democratically elected local government, but it is not a given that local government, representing ratepayers, must defer to central government in all things.

The hospital has been in need of maintenance for 10 to 15 years. So why would one think that due process will occur with the current government or the next. Public and local government pressure will be the only way to push this forward, and considering the state of the current buildings, the sooner the better.
The buildings need to be situated in central city, and near the university, for the sake of the Medical School.
As per normal an engineers report would be required to determine whether the current buildings are useful for a modern state of art hospital and specialist departments.

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