Senedd backs plans for new Velindre cancer centre
Alex Seabrook, local democracy reporter
Senedd members have backed current plans to build a new Velindre cancer centre in north Cardiff as a sign-off decision is imminent.
Velindre University NHS Trust is planning to build a new cancer hospital on land near its current site in Whitchurch, known locally as the Northern Meadows. Velindre is commissioned by health boards across south-east Wales to provide cancer services.
But the plans have drawn controversy with thousands of people signing two petitions to the Welsh Parliament, one in favour of the current location and one against.
The two petitions led to a debate in the Senedd on Wednesday, March 3, where MSs broadly supported the current plans, while the health minister hinted he will decide “in the coming days” whether to sign off the business case for the new cancer centre.
The new cancer centre forms part of a wider upgrade to services across south-east Wales, which also includes a new radiotherapy centre in Abergavenny. The new hospital is needed as the current one, also in Whitchurch, is 66 years old and far too small for today’s needs.
Senedd members stressed the need for urgency in upgrading cancer services in the region, as the number of cancer patients has rapidly increased over the past few years.
The Save the Northern Meadows petition received 5,348 signatures, calling for an independent inquiry into the choice of site for the new cancer centre.
The petition raised concerns around the environmental impact of building on the meadows; as well as clinical fears for patient safety in building a standalone centre, rather than colocated next to an existing acute hospital like the Heath.
The petition supporting the current plans received 11,392 signatures, raising the urgent need for an improved cancer centre and a better quality of care, that a new larger building could provide.
Velindre is planning to invest in huge new radiotherapy machines, which take up a lot of space, something that the current cancer centre doesn’t have. A new, larger hospital would also help improve the dignity and wider experience of patients.
Health minister Vaughan Gething said: “The importance of improving cancer outcomes and the need for this to include a new cancer centre are not in question. What is in question is where a new cancer is best located to deliver that contribution.
“It has been a long and complex process, involving an incredible amount of work, and is now coming to a final decision.
“The Welsh Government’s role in this is to assess through our formal scrutiny process the strengths of the case being made, and to make a determination with regard to approval and funding.
“Ultimately Welsh ministers will make that decision based on the analysis and recommendations carried out by our officials and their advisers, who would have scrutinised very closely the work done by Velindre and the advice provided by Nuffield and others.
“That scrutiny process has now completed and I expect to consider the advice later this week. I cannot comment on any of the issues raised in the petitions as this could clearly prejudice any decisions to be made in the coming days on the business cases which are before Welsh ministers.
“I understand the interest in the plans and the concerns that are being raised by both petitions. I will give them due consideration when it comes to making a decision.”
Rhun ap Iorwerth, shadow health minister for Plaid Cymru, said while he recognised concerns about the plans, the need for improved cancer services needed “to be accelerated, and not slowed down”. He also called for Welsh Government to investigate the issues raised.
He said: “I certainly don’t doubt at all the clinical belief of leaders at Velindre that the plan they do have on the table is robust. They wouldn’t back plans that they didn’t think would work. And they’re people who have dedicated their professional lives to fighting cancer.
“At the same time there are real worries about the choice of clinical model. Doubts have been raised about parts of the process, transparency, and elements of how the proposal is being financed.
“These fundamental disagreements on strategy and mistrust are damaging to the overall aspiration that I want everybody to get behind. The government should step in to ensure these issues are rapidly investigated, in a way that is truly seen as independent.
“We’re all touched by cancer at some point in our lives. It’s in everybody’s interests to make sure that our cancer services are the best that they can be. I want to see a project to put Velindre services on a firmer footing for the future, to be accelerated and not slowed down.”
Both campaigns in favour of the current plans and against the proposed location have been mired in rancour with accusations on both sides of bullying and abuse, particularly on social media.
Janet Finch-Saunders, chair of the petitions committee, said the divisive nature of the debate was a “point of regret”, and called for both sides to come together.
She said: “It is a point of regret that an issue of such importance has become such a divisive issue. We all appreciate this is a very emotive issue.“I’m hoping that today’s debate will show that at the end of the day, the right decision will be made and that both sides of the argument can come together.”
Other Senedd members including Jenny Rathbone, MS for Cardiff Central; and Huw Irranca-Davies, MS for Ogmore; broadly supported the current plans, saying many constituents had stressed the urgent need for improved cancer services in south-east Wales.
Despite the broad support in the debate, the Save the Northern Meadows campaign said it will continue to oppose the plans to build the hospital on the meadows.
A spokesperson for the campaign said: “Most contributions seemed ignorant of patient safety and basic understanding of cancer care. These contributions were plainly misinformed.
“No attempt was made to grapple the deep issues of environmental destruction, misinformation, bullying within health boards, or even thought worthy to mention the 163 clinicians whose concerns made the front page of the South Wales Echo in recent weeks.
“We will continue to oppose the development on this site for as long as the community wants us to. It seems the political process is geared to exclude the community and our concerns at every turn, and so we will continue to represent ourselves.”
The health minister Vaughan Gething said the decision on signing off the business case for the hospital will be made public soon. Once that is signed off, that will allow building work on the site to go ahead. Velindre said the new cancer centre could be ready as soon as 2024.