For 154 years Brighton General Hospital has been an iconic landmark on the hillside of Elm Grove, with its imposing classical buildings visible from as far as Brighton Railway Station. Opened in 1866 as a city Workhouse, it subsequently served as a Kitchener Hospital for wounded soldiers in WWI, becoming a Municipal Hospital in 1935, run by Brighton Corporation. After the NHS was founded in 1948, Brighton Municipal Hospital eventually became Brighton General Hospital in 1951.
After years of running Brighton General Hospital down and decanting NHS services into (the now severely overdeveloped) Sussex County Hospital and even private clinics around the city at great expense, the Sussex Community NHS Foundation Trust (SCFT) is seeking to sell off a large part of Brighton General site to private developers for the highest price. It claims this is to finance a ‘health hub’ at the bottom of the site, though they are also intending shiny new offices for SCFT headquarters next door to the hub. Figures are currently unknown as to what they would receive for the site v what the new HQ and health hub would cost but it is suspected a sizeable profit would be made.
However even the 11 services still using the Brighton General site would struggle to fit into the proposed ‘hub’, which is also intended to provide a GP service and campaigners argue the plan has not been properly thought through. The Ambulance station has been re-located to new premises by The Keep at the top of Lewes Road, though would need to retain a micro site for a couple of vehicles and interestingly the existing ambulance station piece of land belongs to SECAMS (South East Coast Ambulance Service) so would need to be purchased in order to bring SCFT’s plans to fruition.
Three groups have joined forces to try and stop this public asset being sold off. Sussex Defend the NHS, The Living Rent Campaign and Brighton and Hove Heritage Commission. While they all have differing dreams for the future of the site, on one thing they are agreed. This land is THEIR land. In fact the famous Woody Guthrie song inspired a certain Robb Johnson to pen a protest song for Brighton General. There has also been a recent TV interview with protestors amid several protests at Brighton General site as well as stalls in the city.
There is also a fourth group involved, the Brighton & Hove Housing Coalition.
Apparently a local homeless charity has also approached the council begging for the Brighton General hospital to be turned into a homeless community – which would have represented an apt return to its workhouse roots. Certainly Emmaus has done wonders with the former nunnery in Portslade village turning it into an admirable and full homeless rehabilitation service. However with the pressing issue of the Corona Virus, perhaps the most immediate need is to re-open the disused wards as an emergency isolation unit.
Yes we need social housing, but the city is also desperately short of convalescent, or step-down, beds and has no dementia care unit. Patients needing either service are currently scattered in disparate nursing homes, sometimes in other towns where their friends and families struggle to visit them. Some of these nursing homes are also now closing down, so a low-tech cottage hospital facility would be ideal.
Meanwhile the NHS has already flogged off Bevendean Isolation hospital, Hove General hospital and scandalously, in 2011, the Brighton General Hospital Nurse’s home, a much loved and much needed source of affordable housing for local nurses close to their work (whether that was Brighton General or Sussex County). A feeling is growing that the city cannot afford to lose any more NHS healthcare facilities.
In 1950, the population of Brighton & Hove was 434,948. In 2019 the population of Brighton & Hove is 601,574 (an increase of 166,626 individuals – almost a third) and people are living longer yet hospital provision is going down not up. No one seems to know when the last area health audit was done, but once NHS facilities are gone they are gone. And let it not be forgotten that the overdeveloped Sussex County hospital serves the whole county, not just Brighton and Hove. Moreover it has no green spaces and precious little car parking, making it a difficult site for many patients and visitors. Brighton General Hospital, although on a hill, has plenty of both and each building has a distinctive character. It is already laid out like a ready-made community with safe spaces for people to recuperate or work in. The physical rehabilitation centre even has its own gym. As for the East Brighton Mental Health unit, that is much needed where it is and its patients won’t necessarily want to share a waiting room with physically ill patients all shoehorned into a health hub.
Interestingly when Brighton and Hove Heritage Commission put up their blog post, in Jan 2019 to highlight the architectural and potential community treasures of the site they were contacted within 12 hours by the SCFT and asked to remove it and promised a meeting. This never materialised. It also became evident that council officers were not then being consulted and nor was CAG (Conservation Advisory Group). When a local tour guide tried to arrange walking tours of the site, he was refused for ‘health and safety’ reasons, even though he did regular walking tours of the Woodvale Victorian cemetery up the road with no issues. Ingeniously he simply turned them into indoor virtual tours of Brighton Workhouse, producing an informative and enjoyable history of workhouses in general and Brighton General Hospital’s history in particular, to wide local acclaim. Save Brighton General Group attempted to have a ‘picnic protest’ in the grounds last summer, but this too was nixed.
If a local area health audit were to find that Brighton General is no longer needed as a hospital though, and the site largely became housing, it is worth remembering that high ceilings and picture windows never go out of fashion yet all people get nowadays are eggbox flats with tiny windows and doors they cannot get their furniture through. It also keeps things infinitely more affordable rent or sale-wise to refurbish and retrogreen a heritage property than to demolish and rebuild with some soulless glass and concrete box with a lifespan of only 50 years. We also have a responsibility to future generations to honour the past where we can and keep Brighton special if we are not to end up with a homogenised Luton-on-sea. Ultimately there are other places to live when a city becomes overcrowded and this city already has a major issue with empty and second homes lying empty for large swathes of each year, which only St Ives style measures can address.
So what next for the campaign? Well that would be telling, but none of us are going away including the many NHS staff, past and present, among our ranks who are equally appalled at the prospect of losing Brighton General! We know that SCFT see us as a mere inconvenience to their plans, and we intend to prove them wrong.
Join the mailing list here firstname.lastname@example.org and find out what stalls and events you can join in with or help promote
Write to your MP https://members.parliament.uk/constituencies/
If you are a health historian or land law expert, the Brighton Heritage Commission wishes to hear from you! email@example.com
Finally it should be remembered that the NHS did not pay a penny for Brighton General Hospital or its land when it took it over in 1951, so perhaps SCFT has a moral duty to hand it back to Brighton and Hove City Council (formerly Brighton Corporation) if it is no longer needed as an NHS hospital. At least then it would be easy for the council to afford to convert the heritage buildings into council/social housing, replacing the 20th Century buildings with sympathetic council/social dwellings to complete.