Government promise of 40 'new' hospitals by 2030 set to be broken, report says

The government has also failed to achieve good value for money, with the scheme having cost £1.1 billion. Credit: PA

The government is on track to break a promise to build 40 hospitals by 2030 - defined as new by the government - a report by the public spending watchdog has found.

Delays to projects mean the target is unlikely to be met, with work on buildings in the second cohort of the scheme yet to have started as of May, according to the National Audit Office (NAO).

Critics branded the findings “utterly damning” and accused the government of “woeful progress” despite having tried to “move the goalposts” to meet the deadline.

A recent investigation by ITV News showed that almost half of NHS hospitals in England have been forced to close wards and vital services due to flooding, power cuts and structural problems.

In May, Health Secretary Steve Barclay told MPs there had been a change to the hospitals included in the programme owing to the need to urgently deal with some that were in danger of collapse.

Some needed urgent repairs as they had been built with reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC), a lightweight material used up to the mid-1980s, he said.

Steve Barclay said it is ‘imperative we support people earlier’ Credit: Jordan Pettitt/PA

He acknowledged that work may not be completed by 2030 for up to eight of the original group.

The NAO said that the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) had adopted a “broad” definition of “new”, including refurbishment of existing buildings as well as completely new hospitals.

By the watchdog’s analysis, 32 hospitals in England classed as new by the definition the government first used are set to be completed in 2030.

In October 2020, the government stated that 32 of the schemes under its New Hospitals Programme (NHP) would count towards the 40 new hospitals commitment, while the other eight projects were already either “in build” or “pending final approval”.

The government explicitly stated it would announce a further new eight schemes also to complete by 2030 in due course, the NAO said.

Using the original definition, the NAO found that changes to the programme announced by DHSC earlier this year mean that by 2030 the government expects to complete the following:

  • Eight pre-existing schemes within NHP, which do not count under the original definition and date back as far as 2010

  • 24 new hospitals already within NHP

  • Five new hospitals that will replace hospitals that were built using RAAC, and which were announced in May 2023

  • Three new mental health hospitals, which were approved, and will be managed, outside of NHP

In May this year, construction was yet to begin on any in the second wave of building in the programme, including Royal Bournemouth Hospital, Shotley Bridge Hospital in County Durham and Derriford Emergency Care Centre in Plymouth, for which work was expected to start between 2022 and 2024.

Staff shortages mean the design for a standardised hospital has also been delayed and will not be completed until May next year, the NAO said.

The approach to achieving key objectives at the lowest possible cost could also result in hospitals that are too small, according to the watchdog.

Entire parts of St Mary's Hospital have been closed because they are structurally unsafe, ITV News found.

The government failed to achieve good value for money, with the scheme having cost £1.1 billion by March this year and progress being slower than expected, the report said.

The NAO made several key recommendations, including for announcements about major capital programmes extending over more than one spending review period to “fully reflect known uncertainties”.

It also called for a reconsideration of assumptions that could result in future hospitals being too small.

A DHSC spokesperson said: “The NAO’s report acknowledges that despite changes to the original programme to prioritise hospitals affected by RAAC, 40 new hospitals will still be delivered by 2030, and praises the programme’s innovative plans to standardise hospital construction, deliver efficiencies and improve quality.

“We remain firmly committed to delivering these hospitals, which are now expected to be backed by over £20 billion of investment – helping to cut waiting lists so people can get the treatment they need quicker.

"Three new hospitals have already opened and more will open this year so patients and staff can benefit from major new hospital buildings, equipped with the latest technology.”

Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, said: “The programme has innovative plans to standardise hospital construction, delivering efficiencies and quality improvements.

"However, by the definition the government used in 2020, it will now deliver 32 rather than 40 new hospitals by 2030.

“Delivery so far has been slower than expected, both on individual schemes and in developing the Hospital 2.0 template, which has delayed programme funding decisions.

"There are some important lessons to be drawn for major programmes from the experience of the New Hospital Programme (NHP) so far.”

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know...