Taxpayers left paying millions for empty Scottish maternity unit built under PFI

The former Cresswell maternity unit was built under the controversial PFI scheme, only to require a costly conversion after it became surplus to requirements. Picture: John Devlin
The former Cresswell maternity unit was built under the controversial PFI scheme, only to require a costly conversion after it became surplus to requirements. Picture: John Devlin
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Taxpayers have been left paying millions of pounds for a maternity unit built under the controversial private finance initiative (PFI) only for it to be closed to the public for more than 18 months.

The former Cresswell building in Dumfries was opened in 2002 by the local NHS Trust before maternity services were switched to a new purpose-built hospital in the town in the south of Scotland two years ago.

The unit was built under a PFI contract which has left taxpayers forking out £65m for a property with a capital value of £10m by 2032.

But with the loss of its original purpose health bosses faced a dilemma - spend another £14m converting the property for another use or risk it lying empty long term, all the while paying back an average of £2.6m a year.

The Cresswell is now being converted to provide out-patient services and has been renamed the Mountainhall Treatment Centre.

An investigation by The Scotsman discovered there was no public access for 599 days to the Cresswell, up to the start of August, as the building was reconfigured, while limited medical services continued at the site.

John O’Connell, chief executive of the Taxpayers’ Alliance, said: “It beggars belief that politicians signed up for this deal only to see hospital services shifted elsewhere.

“Hospitals don’t come cheap and PFI deals charged princely sums to get new services funded and functioning as soon as possible.

“Signing up to some dreadful deals, paying for buildings to lie empty, completely defeats the point.”

Despite being forced to covert a building fewer than two decades old for millions of pounds, the decision to switch services away from the Cresswell was hailed by NHS bosses in 2017 as a way to “maximise efficiency”.

Health board chief Jeff Ace claimed the “major project... continues our commitment to provide the best possible healthcare facilities for the people of Dumfries and Galloway”.

But the Scottish Government said it shared “concerns around the flexibility and the value for money offered by historic PFI contracts, which are often complex, need active management, and cost the taxpayer around £240 million every year for NHS buildings”.

Maternity services were transferred from the old Cresswell building, on the site of the former Dumfries and Galloway Royal Infirmary (DGRI), to a new £212m 344-bed general hospital in 2017.

The Conservative MP for Dumfries and Galloway, Alister Jack, said: “There is an obvious risk of circumstances changing during the period of such agreements and it is important best value is obtained for the taxpayer when there is a change of use.

“The merits - or not - of such agreements are very much in the detail signed off at the beginning.”

The Cresswell building was funded by the bank Lloyds, though the PFI contract was signed with a company called Dumfries Facilities Limited.

The original forecast price was significantly lower than £65m at £47.82m, with the difference being blamed on inflation.

A spokesman for NHS Dumfries and Galloway said: “We acknowledge there has been a period during which this part of the former DGRI building only partially occupied, but this was due to maternity services relocation to the new hospital and partly as a result of the sale of the former administrative building Crichton Hall reprioritising our programme of works.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “As the provision of healthcare changes, NHS Boards need to adapt their facilities to support new models of care, and that is what NHS Dumfries and Galloway are doing by redeveloping the Cresswell site and using it for the provision of a variety of day treatments such as renal dialysis and outpatients.”