Grenfell firm’s ‘shameful’ legal action after hospital axed estates deal
Whittington faces challenge after it abandoned a proposed 10-year contract with company connected to tower’s refurbishment
31 August, 2018 — By Tom Foot
AN NHS hospital is facing legal action after axing a deal with a private company connected to the Grenfell Tower refurbishment, it emerged this week.
The Whittington, in Highgate, is facing a challenge from Ryhurst – part of the Rydon Group – after it abandoned a proposed 10-year deal with the company in June.
Jonathan Gardiner, the hospital’s director of strategy and corporate affairs, said in an email to campaigners and the Tribune on Wednesday: “I am replying on behalf of the board and can tell you that this procurement process is now subject to legal challenge, following action by Ryhurst.”
Defend the Whittington Hospital Coalition (DWHC) chairwoman Shirley Franklin described the move as “shameful”, adding: “We need to rally round to oppose this. What I think is interesting is that they have the confidence to do this, to sue the NHS. It didn’t need to get this far.”
Ryhurst had been due to form a joint venture company with the hospital to mastermind the sale and redevelopment of NHS land and buildings.
At a national rally, days after the decision, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, the Islington North MP, said the anti-Ryhurst campaign victory was of “great significance”.
The DWHC had campaigned against the plan to hire the firm so soon after the fire that killed 72 people. The circumstances are being investigated by a public inquiry.
Ryhurst is a subsidiary of Rydon, lead contractor responsible for the cladding refurbishment of the tower. It has strenuously denied any culpability and said that its building work has always met government regulations. It has not been found responsible for any wrongdoing.
Hospital chiefs, including chairman Steve Hitchins and chief executive Siobhan Harrington, repeatedly warned that backing out of the deal with Ryhurst would lead to a lengthy and costly legal battle.
Mr Hitchins predicted last October that walking away from the deal would have catastrophic consequences – and even “shut down the hospital”.
The hospital’s board, however, announced in June it would scrap the deal, claiming it had received an unexpected windfall – believed to be around £19million – from the Department of Health after successfully hitting various health-funding care targets. It said it could afford a legal battle and run its estate services in-house.
The cost of the legal challenge is unclear, but Ryhurst last year submitted a claim for £2million against the Countess of Chester Hospital Foundation Trust and Wirral University Teaching Hospitals – both in the north-west of England. Both NHS trusts had abandoned similar plans to hire the firm as a “strategic estates partner”.
The two trusts said the decision had been taken partly because of “uncertainty and risks” in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire.
A Ryhurst spokeswoman said: “We continue to be open to discussion with the Trust.”
TRIBUNE COMMENT: Hospital’s in-house operation is a spectacular U-turn
IF you dance with the devil, you will get burnt.
That’s the message from the sorry saga of the Whittington’s legal battle with Ryhurst.
The company – a subsidiary of Rydon, the Grenfell Tower renovators – was heralded back in October as the NHS trust’s shining knight. Its “expertise” in the construction market would shrewdly realise hidden value from NHS land and create funds to renovate medical buildings.
Repeatedly, the trust board dismissed the anger from campaigners as emotional. They were as shocked by the Grenfell disaster as the rest. And yet, Ryhurst was the right choice.
Less than a year down the line the same firm has done next to nothing for the NHS and is now aiming to sting it for millions in the courts.
The board said it made its decision to carry on with Ryhurst after Grenfell, based on legal advice from a QC barrister. The advice – which was never made public, despite requests from this newspaper – was said to have unequivocally stated that dropping the company would be prohibitively damaging and time-consuming.
Now, the hospital says it can cover any legal bills and provide the same service “in-house”, thanks to an unexpected windfall from the Department of Health. Can this really be believed? In these straightened times, is the Whittington suddenly cash rich? It is a spectacular U-turn from the board and one that rightly raises questions about whether the hospital’s managers are fit for purpose.
The Defend the Whittington Hospital Coalition is calling for heads to roll. The campaign group – formed in 2010 when the A&E was threatened with closure – has now chalked up three significant victories in the past eight years. Aneurin Bevan’s eternal line – “the NHS will last as long as there are folk left with faith to fight for it” – rings true.
Despite the shambles, the Whittington board has begrudgingly seen sense.