Solihull Council has approved plans for a cancer hospice “for the 21st century” to be built on green belt land.
Members of the planning committee met last night to discuss Marie Curie Cancer Care’s application to move from its existing facilities in Warwick Road to land by Marsh Lane, in the town centre.
The scheme met with opposition from hundreds of residents, who said the charity had not sufficiently proved the nature of the “very special circumstances” required by law in order to encroach on the green belt.
But despite being unanimously approved by the council, Marie Curie’s proposals now need to be put before the Government Office of the West Midlands for the scheme to proceed.
Lying between Marsh Lane and the Solihull Bypass, the 2.49-hectare plot has been referred to as the “green gateway” into Solihull, which many residents feared would be lost if permission were granted.
The charity also came under fire for a “lamentable” lack of detail regarding the 24 sites it said it previously investigated and disregarded as unsuitable – a matter which a number of councillors expressed fears could be an issue at the next stage of approval.
Speaking on behalf of Marsh Lane Area Residents’ Group, who opposed the application, chartered town planner David Scott said: “This harm will be caused in a location where an independent inspector concluded in 2005 that removing the Marsh Lane site from the green belt would erode a vulnerable part of the Meriden Gap.
“The proposal goes far beyond what is essential to increase the number of hospital beds from 17 to 24.”
Marie Curie outlined its case on the grounds of the need for more beds to reduce waiting lists, the necessity to retain staff and volunteers in the borough and the lack of suitability of alternative sites.
The charity performed poorly in a number of Care Quality Commission investigations between 2002-2008, which it put down to “extensive limitations” at its current facilities.
Conditions at Warwick Road – where the charity moved in 1965 – pose problems including a lack of privacy, unisex toilets and the deceased currently having to be brought down through a lift, past other patients’ rooms and out through the main reception.
Hospice manager Liz Cottier said: “Every day I see the problems my staff face in trying to deliver high quality care in a cramped building – which has absolutely no long-term future as a hospice.
“But, my biggest concern is for our patients and families. They want to spend time together in a dignified setting where they can talk and laugh and sometimes cry together in privacy.
“But that is so difficult when we have to care for more than 80 per cent of our patients in multi-occupancy wards.”
The charity said if approval was not granted there was a risk bed numbers would have to be reduced on safety grounds – despite the fact the local Palliative Care Network suggests between 25 and 28 beds are needed in the borough.
Also addressing the committee, Solihull MP Lorely Burt added: “I hardly need to spell out how important Marie Curie is to Solihull. Not only are 60 per cent of the patients from the borough, but also 83 per cent of the volunteers come from Solihull itself.
“As a defender of all green spaces I naturally would not have wished this new hospice to have been built on green belt. But the benefits are very great indeed.”
Committee members admitted the case was one of “head versus heart” but remained satisfied the charity had sufficiently proved the unique circumstances of their case.
They also approved demolition of the current hospice at 911-913 Warwick Road, granting outline planning permission for up to 37 homes.
Plans for the new hospice incorporate more in-patient beds, treatment and therapy rooms, along with a conference facility, education areas and meeting rooms.
The landscaped grounds would offer 109 car parking spaces and the hospice would employ 96 full-time staff and approximately 200 volunteers.
Speaking after the result, Ms Cottier said: “We’re one step nearer to providing the community with a world-class hospice but we won’t be celebrating until we lay our first brick.”