17 November 2012

Ambulance Chasers

One of the largest public meetings ever seen in New Mills was held on Friday 16 November.
There was only one subject on the agenda: the radical changes that are being proposed to High Peak’s vital ambulance service.

The Public Hall of New Mills, above the town council offices, was the venue.  It is a very large space, and it was packed.  Concerned residents and health professionals from all over High Peak were in attendance.

It is shocking to learn that the hall hire for this public meeting was met by one individual councillor, who paid for it out of his own pocket.  More on this issue later.

The Chief Executive of the responsible East Midlands Ambulance Service (‘EMAS’) was present.  Phil Milligan came with two colleagues, and got a rough ride from the audience.  To say the people at the meeting were not happy was an understatement.  The heat was on.  By the end, Mr Milligan was sweating more than Jimmy Savile’s tracksuit at a Girl Guides convention.

Geography lesson

The first audience contribution came from Pam Cohen.  It wasn’t so much a question from the floor; more an unequivocal statement that she had absolutely no confidence in EMAS to deliver, because the organisation’s focus is a long way away, geographically.  Ms Cohen said loud and clear that it should now be seriously considered whether New Mills should approach North West Ambulance Service and leave the sprawling EMAS organisation.

County Councillor Beth Atkins gave an excellent statement, making similar points as above and re-iterating the direct, sensible views in her recent letters to the press on this subject.

Jackie Wilson of Hayfield also mentioned the anomalous situation whereby New Mills (and Hayfield) is close to Stockport and Tameside, but finds its ambulance service run from a very long way distant, over the hills and far away in the opposite direction.

Where are the patients going?

Ian Mason spoke about the approximate 25% inefficiency that would be caused by ambulances having to be brought from and to Chesterfield.  This does seem like an Alice in Wonderland way of organising things. He observed that the key factor in making these decisions should surely be the destination of the patients, not where the ambulances are currently managed from.  

Of course, in much of the High Peak the patients are almost exclusively taken to Ashton, Manchester or Stockport.  This again points to North West Ambulances as the obvious and efficient choice, rather than EMAS.

In sickness and in health

The EMAS area has an unwieldy, huge geography.  Amazingly, for what is supposed to be an efficient ambulance service, it extends from here to Towcester in the south and as far away as Skegness on the North Sea coast (!).  It is an artificially chosen, grossly unnatural area with no geography in common.  Mr Milligan admitted that EMAS has the highest staff sickness levels of all the ambulance services.

The problem of the sheer size of the East Midlands administrative area was never dealt with at the meeting, and is not dealt with in the consultation document.

However, every time a person suggested that the New Mills area should be serviced by North West Ambulances - rather than by EMAS - there was spontaneous, long-lasting thunderous applause in the hall.

Some other audience contributions

One audience member said he had worked in local government for many years and it was well-known that this kind of public consultation was usually a case of ‘First the verdict, then a trial’.  In other words, a sham exercise.  If this consultation were a vehicle, surely it would have to be a shambulance.

Dr Williams, the local GP, expanded on the problems from a clinician's perspective.

Jimmy Hagan, landlord of The Pride of the Peaks and with connections to Swizzells-Matlow management who will also be affected, was scathing about the practicalities of the changes that are being proposed.

A retired police traffic officer pointed out some obvious but important difficulties.

Kinder Mountain Rescue staff were present, and shared the concerns of the speakers, adding some specialist insight from the point of view of this district.

Andrew Bingham MP is known for being mild-mannered and liking to present a balanced view.  He started his short speech from the floor with “I think these plans are completely ridiculous,” and got more direct and forceful the longer he continued.

The catch phrase

Finally, it is worth noting that the beleaguered Mr Milligan from EMAS inadvertently developed a catch phrase during the course of the meeting.  He said it a couple of times during his opening speech, and then fell back on it in desperation more and more as the evening continued.
“We are looking very very carefully at what you are saying…” “I am looking very very carefully at this…”  "The consultation will have to look very very carefully at that…” and so on and so on.

He admitted late on in the meeting that he had started sounding like a politician.  It didn't escape anyone’s notice that his “looking very very carefully” mantra is in effect meaningless.  High Peak Borough Council was looking very very carefully last year at what nuclear weapons mean for everyone.  The editor of High Peak Transparency is ‘looking very very carefully’ at acquiring a black Bentley.  Dave Lee Travis is looking very very carefully at not groping female presenters live on air at the BBC in future.

It’s a public meeting and it’s at a public hall

Councillor Lance Dowson paid for the hire of the hall out of his own pocket, without knowing what the response would be, or even how many people would turn up.  Now that the meeting has been seen to be of major importance to the area and to the town, the local town council should immediately refund that money.

The councillor has made it clear to HPT that he is not seeking to be repaid, and that he will not be asking the town council.  But there is no doubt that the vast majority of people who were present at the meeting would take a very dim view of New Mills Town Council if it now left the hall hire charges to be paid by an individual for this particular occasion.