It has been at the heart of the community in Heanor since 1925, but now the corridors of the town’s memorial hospital echo with an eerie silence.
The Ilkeston Road site has been closed since September after brown asbestos was found in the boiler room.
There was no need for gas masks on Wednesday (February 5) as the News was taken on a tour of the empty health facility – no airborne particles of the potentially deadly dust have ever been found there.
Even the boiler room itself was safe to venture into without the need for protective clothing.
But as my guide Steve Ward, estates project manager for Derbyshire Community Health Services NHS Trust, which operates the site explained, the future of the site sits on a knife-edge.
“I would say we cannot remove every fibre of asbestos in this building,” he told me bluntly within minutes of the tour.
At the January 30 public meeting, many residents asked why, if much of the substance has lain dormant in the facility since 1925, was it now imperative the site stays shut?
But in the entrance corridor a peak into a floor hatch revealed why, according to the trust’s chief engineer Mr Ward, he says they were left with no other choice.
The hatch revealed a network of piping all potentially flecked with small splashes of brown asbestos.
While he was quick to state no patient or staff member has ever been at risk of breathing in the abestos, the trust was last year required to bring the site up to recent NHS standards.
Corridors needed widening, fire escapes improving, electrical wiring upgrading, and the heating pipework modernised.
But the trust says this would have been too expensive at Heanor as the hazardous substance would need to be removed in a costly process first, leaving behind a building which is old and subsiding in places.
Pointing into the floorspace, Mr Ward says: “That there is a major pipe that feeds the heating system.
“If that were to spring a leak, we would have to make the hospital a complete air chamber and evacuate the patients,” he said.
“You could be talking six or seven weeks of work – and then you could have a leak spring elsewhere a week later.”
But, echoing what many had asked during the January 30 public meeting, I enquired why this scale of asbestos had not been discovered before as hospitals are required to undergo biannual site surveys.
Mr Ward responded saying such surveys only required airborne samples and wall scrapings to be taken for traces of the substance.
An ‘invasive’ study, involving taking core samples of the walls, removing pipe lagging and looking into roof voids, had never been carried out until asbestos was discovered in the boiler of Belper’s Babbington Hospital.
The find prompted the trust to carry out invasive studies in all of its sites, Mr Ward said, and at Heanor the problem was found to be widespread.
In the Heanor boiler room he tells me: “We can come in here now and look around – the air tests are perfect, there is no problem.
“But if I need to swap that switch gear (for the boiler) there we would need to do invasive work.
“It’s guaranteed there will be asbestos behind that panel.
“If we wanted to upgrade this facility I could not offer any resilience on our services. I could be evacuating people all the time.
“You can’t even change a fuse in this boiler room.”
From the tour it is clear to see why the trust is considering building an entirely new health facility on the site at a cost of £1.6million - as opposed to an £850,000 refurbishment.
And herein lies the debate. A refurbishment would be cheaper on the face of it, but potentially more costly in the long run.
A new building would offer a better standard of care the trust says, but would be more expensive and might not be completed for between two and three years, he said.
Then there is the question of what facilities a new hospital would provide and whether it would retain its inpatient and outpatient beds.
Amber Valley borough councillor for Heanor Paul Jones, who is chairman of the ‘No to Closing Heanor Hospital’ group is clear where he stands.
“If the trust don’t feel beds are appropriate the questions are a) why not? and b) what else is appropriate?
“It’s all very well saying more people can be treated at home, but there is a grey area of patients who are not quite well enough to come out of hospital and not ready to come back home. It should have half a dozen beds where people can come and see their loved ones before they can come home and it’s about having that in the local community.”
Now health bosses want to know your opinions on the sorts of facilities you want to see in Heanor.
Let them know your views by calling them on 01332868677 or by emailing them via email@example.com.
A spokesperson for the trust said: “We are not yet at a point where we are able to say what might not be included in the facilities on the Memorial Hospital site or therefore what might be required to support them in the wider community. Everything will be considered carefully over the coming weeks and months in our discussions with local people.” What we do know is that our population is getting older, there is less need for patients to be treated in hospital than there was even ten years ago with patients increasingly able to be treated at home and finances within the NHS are tighter than they have ever been. So it’s really important that, working with local people, we get our decisions right for the future of health services in Heanor and make sure we don’t waste money on a solution that will no longer be meeting patient needs in the future.
We have agreed to collect your views on what should happen to the Heanor Memorial Hospital site. after it was found to be riddled with asbestos.
We want you to have your say on this important issue, which will impact on local health services for the community for years to come. We are aiming to publish as many of your opinions as possible to make this vital issue is dicussed widely in public and all avenues are explored. We’ll then make sure your views are passed on the the health trust.
It’s easy to get in touch with us too. You can leave us a message online.