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A call for homes for NHS workers on spare land

Monday 12 June 2017

Health care leaders have called for a rethink on government proposals to sell unused NHS land worth £2.7 billion to private developers.

Health service leaders have requested that the NHS release its large reserves of spare land to create new homes for doctors, nurses and other key staff who are affected by housing shortages.

Under the proposals by the NHS Confederation, which represents 560 health service organisations, modern versions of nurses’ homes, would be built. Niall Dickinson, Chief Executive of the confederation has proposed that the government create a new £10 billion NHS Homes Fund to revive homes for staff, once a common feature of hospitals, to tackle ongoing recruitment problems within some areas of the NHS.

“There was a time when there were nurses’ homes all over the country but they all fell into disuse and were sold off from the 1960s onwards,” Dickson said. “We believe there is a case for new-style homes for NHS staff, particularly where the cost of housing is very high, which leads to staff not wanting to work in these places because they can’t find proper accommodation or have to travel long distances.”

According to a review of NHS property, published in March by the former chief executive of University College London Hospitals, Sir Robert Naylor, there is a large amount of NHS land which remains unused. His report suggested that by unlocking the land for private development, it would create space for up to 40,000 new homes. Dickson has however suggested the land could be used for building affordable homes for NHS staff. “Indeed, there may well be scope for building affordable housing for the local community more generally,” he added.

The Naylor review cited a lack of incentive for NHS bodies to release the land for development as the reason the spare land, with an estimated worth of about £2.7 billion, remains unused. But the NHS Confederation believes that by providing seed money from the NHS Homes Fund, which the confederation estimates would need to be about £10 billion, the land could be released more easily and the money retained by the relevant NHS trusts for other developments.

Its proposal however, is at odds with the government’s position on the Naylor review. Theresa May told journalist and broadcaster, Andrew Neil during an election interview that she backed the Naylor report’s proposals but this stance led to suspicions of selling off the NHS.

Whilst the PM's stance may not be well-defined on this matter, what is clear however is that the NHS is finding it increasingly difficult to hire and retain staff. At present, more than 15% of registered nursing jobs are unfilled, and the number of nurse vacancies has nearly doubled in the last three years from 6% in 2013 to 11.1% in 2016. There are also severe shortages of psychiatrists, mental health nurses and family doctors. One in five GP practices has given up searching for new family doctors, with 12% of positions vacant.

Dickinson believes that by offering accommodation with a permanent full-time role could attract staff who might otherwise be tempted to become agency nurses or locum doctors.

“There are certain kinds of staff where we have a real difficulty trying to recruit and there’s no doubt that if you were able to offer accommodation it would make a post a lot more attractive,” Dickson said. “If you ask people running hospitals in London, large numbers of their staff don’t live locally any more and have to travel significant distances.”

NAEA Propertymark has previously raised the issue of unused public sector land for residential developments in consultation responses, citing the National Health Service, the Greater London Authority and Transport for London as all able to release land for development.