Staff and patients at the Whittington Hospital, as well as the broader working-class community in the North London boroughs of Islington and Haringey, are celebrating a third win in their ongoing war of attrition with the hospital board over closures, cuts and privatisation.
The Defend the Whittington Hospital Coalition, launched some eight years ago, has announced that an attempt to essentially hive off bits of the hospital to the main perpetrators of the Grenfell fire outrage has been halted in its tracks.
This follows two earlier victories, neither of which would have been possible without the angry disruption of board meetings, the support of rank-and-file trade unionists and two high-profile marches on the hospital which both drew thousands of local people.
In 2010, campaigners crushed an attempt to close the Accident and Emergency department. Three years later it was the turn of the Maternity Unit to face the axe, along with secret plans to sell off fully a third of the hospital.
Had the 2013 assault by the privateers and axemen not been soundly defeated, the Whittington would have lost its District General Hospital status, paving the way for complete closure.
Well over 500 jobs were saved, as well as more than 200 beds, and buildings that were to be flogged off are now still part of our hospital. 600 people attended a key public meeting to vote against cuts, closures and privatisation, 5,000 people braved the rain to march and further thousands who signed petitions and put up window posters.
Fast forward to earlier this year, and the slogan became ‘Get Rydon out of our hospital!’
As part of its ‘estates management’ plans to ostensibly upgrade parts of the hospital, the Whittington board appointed a company called Ryhurst as its ‘strategic estates partner’ – making a direct subsidiary of Grenfell cladders Rydon responsible, no doubt at a tidy profit, for overseeing (and potentially selling) several of the hospital’s many buildings spread throughout the central North London area.
Rydon was the lead contractor hired by Kensington and Chelsea council to undertake the refurbishment of Grenfell tower between 2014 and 2016, including the installation of the cut-price cladding which was cited as the major factor that allowed the fire to spread so rapidly.
Ministers have said that the polyethylene cladding did not comply with safety regulations, but the government’s chief fire advisor is on record as approving similar material as “safe for tower blocks”. After all, the sight of ‘ugly’ working-class housing had to be mitigated for Grenfell’s well-off neighbours who pay most of Kensington’s council and business taxes.
When news of Rydon’s appointment by Whittington management was leaked, campaigners called a public meeting at Islington town hall where there proved to be standing room only.
Defend the Whittington Hospital Coalition had organised a ‘consultative’ non-binding vote at the meeting, but the question put by the chair, a local Labour councillor, was so tame as to be meaningless: “Was the board right to appoint Ryhurst?”
Instead, our members essentially took over the meeting by insisting that the question be: “Do we sack Rydon and get them out of our hospital?” We then called the vote ourselves; it was a unanimous ‘yes’.
The public meeting was followed up by a petition, a series of occupations of board meetings (a tactic adopted in the two previous victorious struggles), and by a picket of Rydon’s national headquarters in Islington.
Campaigners, though, think that it was probably the threat of a large local demonstration akin to the previous two which tipped the balance in the people’s favour. Whatever the case, the Whittington board have now dramatically stepped down and, despite being warned that Rydon/Ryhurst might sue, cancelled the contract and taken ‘estates management’ back in house.
Despite this victory, the campaign is not standing down and London Worker remains very much a part of it, with two representatives on the Whittington Coalition’s planning group. It remains our duty to continue resisting what GP Dr Bob Gill has called the great NHS ‘heist’.
As London Worker went to press and pending the next planning meeting of the Defend Whittington Hospital Coalition, it was not yet clear where the next phase of the struggle will be focused. It has been pointed out, though, that the Whittington Hospital has not yet bowed to pressure to establish a private wing. Any move by the board to alter this state of affairs will certainly result in a renewed fightback.