The New Children's Hospital: Opportunities vs Opposition

Sitting in the Mount Brown band hall with a dozen local residents last Thursday evening, the atmosphere was sombre and serious, despite the circus-like music of honking and tooting brass instruments coming from another room.

We are in a circle discussing the new National Children’s Hospital planned for the site of St James’s Hospital. Most residents here tonight live an actual stone’s throw away from the hospital.

They have a number of concerns that say haven’t been dealt with yet and fear a drop in their quality of life if the hospital becomes a reality. “It’s easy to support when it doesn’t affect your sleep at night,” one woman said.

If the plans are approved, there will be five years of construction. And as local residents point out, there are also intentions to build a maternity hospital on site after that, and plans to move St Luke’s Hospital there too. It seems endless to them.

People Before Profit Councillor Tina McVeigh is in attendance and is helping to guide everyone through the questions to ask at tomorrow’s information session with the hospital planners.

Though all the residents are up-to-date about the plans so far, she is highlighting specific terms to use in their questions: “scenario testing”, “environmental impact assessment”, “mitigation”.

Although she is in favour of keeping the new hospital within the St James’s campus, as are most of the locals here, she thinks putting some of the new hospital’s buildings at the Coombe – which was looked at previously – could reduce the impact.

“I think it’s a fantastic opportunity for the area, but there are residents that have genuine concerns that need to be addressed,” she says. “Some will be more adversely effected than others.”

A Litany of Concerns and Piles of Distrust

Among the residents’ biggest concerns are traffic and parking (which are already issues), noise, subsidence of their homes (some garden walls are at strange angles) and drainage – the area floods often and the hospital’s drainage system is already at full capacity.

This is like planning a mission into enemy territory, there is so much distrust among the people here.

The hospital produced a booklet to allay residents’ fears, but the residents see it as a PR push full of promises, without anyone’s name signed to it; they don’t see it as a reassuring guarantee. They want the questions they ask tomorrow answered in writing and signed so someone can be held to account later, if something is amiss.

Who can blame them for being suspicious after the chairman of St James’s Hospital, Paul Donnelly, was reported by The Irish Times to have said that anyone one who opposes the new hospital needs to “shut up” and “move on with it”.

Tom Costello, chairman of the National Paediatric Hospital Development Board, expressed a similar thought in a more polite manner at a recent Dublin City Council South Central area committee meeting.

“Occasionally it feels like we’re property developers coming in to build a commercial property,” Costello said. “It is important that people stand back and think: it is a children’s hospital, it is essential for the care of children in the country.”

There, he was preaching to the converted; all the councillors praised the plans and the work the board was doing.

Some residents have already had issues with noise and construction in the hospital. Sean Finn is one of them. As he tells it, he has had situations where building in the hospital has been taking place until 11pm.

His experiences dealing with the hospital in these instances “generally hasn’t been positive. It is very easy to make promises sitting behind a desk, but there’s no commitment; it’s all unsigned, all aspirational,” he said.

He has found that when he contacts the hospital, they pass on the message to the contractors doing the work, but “when push comes to shove, they ignore the concerns of the residents”. He feels he is treated with “contempt”.

The Big Pitch

The following evening in the F2 Centre, Rialto the information session kicked off at around 4pm. I arrived at 5pm, ahead of the members of the Ceannt Fort, Mount Brown residents association.

Plans and drawings were on display around the room. The tea and coffee said “come in and take your time”, but the heat and lack of seats told a different tale.

All the planners were there to welcome people in and help with any questions. They are genuinely enthusiastic about the plans and it is easy to see why; they are a top-class vision for a children’s hospital.

The foyer is reminiscent of a holiday resort or an aquarium. Free Willy is hanging from the ceiling. The aim is to stop children from feeling scared; if anything, they will be happy to get out of school to attend a hospital appointment.

There are a number of gardens even on the rooftops, and playgrounds, some of which will be open to the public, and a football pitch specifically for children in physical therapy. The hospital will have cafés and eateries, rather than a hospital canteen; some of these will be open to the public too.

It is certainly better than plans for the Mater site and less intrusive, with seven storeys at the centre.

According to John Pollock, the project director, the aim is to make the hospital site more permeable so that it is easy to walk through and can be accessed from different entrances.

He believes the new entrance yard at the Rialto Luas stop will prevent the problem of anti-social behaviour there.

He dismisses the idea of the hospital moving site, saying that St James’s Hospital has been decided as part of government policy.

Adjustments have been made after talking to residents, he said. Balconies overlooking the South Circular Road have been changed and the glass will be frosted to give the nearby households more privacy.

He has also discussed the landscaping with residents. Some want prickly plants for protection, while others want tall, leafy trees for privacy. “But not too tall,” he adds, “they can’t block the sunlight.”

The aim, according to Pollock, is to create a new experience for patients and their parents, with a parking space for each parent that can be booked in advance, single rooms, pull-out beds for parents and, of course, excellent medical amenities.

As the residents of Ceannt Fort arrive, the planners are asked harder questions, some of which they find difficult to answer. There are no maps regarding drainage, which leads to plenty of hand movements and imagining. Though there are plans to upgrade the sewers, the cost doesn’t appear to have been factored into the budget.

Answers regarding parking were confusing too. There will be less car parking for staff in the hospital, despite an increase in numbers of 3,000, but the planners believe this will be balanced by encouraging workers to take public transport and cycle.

There will be an extra 665 spaces for patients, though I couldn’t get an answer for what the total number will be.

Resident John Lane found that the planners had the answers to questions regarding the inside of the hospital, but not its effect on the surrounding areas in terms of traffic, drainage and parking. “There was a lack of information and a lot of grey areas,” he said.

Resident Brenda Meehan said she was just as worried as she had been when she’d arrived at the meeting. “It’s opening up more things to look into,” she said. “I’ve been getting different answers from different people and I just don’t feel I’m getting the full truth of it. It would look lovely if I lived in Foxrock.”

Adding to their distrust, residents discovered that the hospital will be five metres closer to their homes than they had expected. They also appeared to have been completely unaware of a new hospital entrance at Mount Brown.

And though the hospital still promises to pay for an independent survey of their homes, this won’t take place until construction has begun.

Resident Helen Conlon doesn’t have any major concerns with the project and referring to “fear-mongering”, she dismisses the idea that any of the houses will subside. “No engineer would put their name on that,” she said.

A Game Changer?

On a more positive note for residents, the €650 million investment will bring a boost to Dublin 8’s economy and will probably bring further investment from other businesses. There are also plans to have a community-benefit scheme, which will ease unemployment in the area.

Currently, the skill sets of the local area are being examined. Later, targets will be set. Joe Donohue, a team leader with Fatima Groups United, is excited about the prospects. It’s a “game changer” for the area, he said.

“The hospital will need 100 different types of jobs. We’re doing some research and then we’ll focus on training plans and linking up with schools to ensure the maximum benefit is received,” he said.

Fine Gael TD Catherine Byrne, who attended the information meeting in F2, is in favour of the hospital, but admits the plans are still basic and acknowledges the concerns for locals.

The best time to lodge any complaints is when the plans are submitted to An Bord Pleanála, she said. “I firmly believe they can deal with the concerns and that it will open many avenues for the community,” Byrne said.

One more consultation with the local community is due to take place before the plans are submitted. John Pollock, the project director, expects a decision by next January, construction to start in February, and services to kick off in mid-2019.

Author:

Louisa McGrath: Louisa McGrath is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. You can reach her at lmcgrath@dubinq.com.

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