NSW health authorities have been accused of an illegal land grab of the Mullumbimby Hospital site which will be vacated early next year once the new Byron Central Hospital is commissioned, and a public campaign has been launched to keep the site for a community aged-care and social-housing precinct.
While no final decision has been made on the future of the site, locals fear the land could be sold off to a private interest and the community will lose a site which was dedicated more than 100 years ago for a public hospital.
A community group says there is a ‘desperate need’ for the site to be used for aged care, disabled young adults and victims of domestic violence and will hold a public meeting at 7pm on Thursday, September 17, at the Mullumbimby Civic Hall to muster support for their cause.
Community volunteers in the Mullumbimby Hospital Action Group (MHAG) are crying foul over the murky transfer in 2010 of the site from Crown Land to freehold title after a community trust was dissolved by the government.
Several other hospital sites in the region faced the same fate including Tweed, Ballina, Bonalbo and Urbenville, which were all transferred to freehold title to the government’s Health Administration Corporation (HAC).
They say the site is a community asset and its future use ‘must be determined by the community and trustees’.
The main Mullumbimby and District War Memorial Hospital building, opened in 1958, is riddled with asbestos and the Northern NSW Local Health District (NNSW LHD) is planning a multi-million-dollar demolition of the building.
But the popular maternity wing and adjoining accident and emergency unit, both built more recently, are also in line for demolition as part of the hospital’s decommissioning, expected in March next year.
The Mullumbimby land was set aside as a public trust and reserved for a hospital in 1900, with the first four trustees of the Mullumbimby Hospital Reserve Trust appointed for a four-year term in 1902.
But the most recent four-member trust was dissolved quietly by the government in 2010 after two of its members suddenly quit, leaving it without an official quorum.
Action group member Dr Michael Pelmore told Echonetdaily the community lost control of the land and use thereof when the trust was dissolved, ‘which we don’t believe was legal, there was no explanation, no public notice, nothing’.
Another action group member, Jan Mangleson said that when they realised the trust had been disssolved and the community had lost control of the land, she contacted a senior lands department official but told it was ‘too late’ and there was nothing that could be done to reinstate the trust.
‘There was no consultation process with the community whatsoever, and we question whether it was legal,’ Mrs Mangleson said.
NNSW LHD chief executive Chris Crawford told Echonetdaily (before he announced his resignation this week) that because of the transfer in October 2010, the Mullumbimby Hospital site ‘can be disposed of by NSW Health without changing the purpose for which it was dedicated’.
Mr Crawford said last month that ‘currently, no final decision has been made on the future of the Mullumbimby Hospital site’ and that ‘in due course there will be consultation regarding the future utilisation of the site’.
‘The first priority once the Mullumbimby Hospital site is vacant will be the remediation and rehabilitation of the site, including demolition of the buildings and cleansing of the land to remove all the asbestos that is currently present.
‘Should a decision be made to sell the site, the funds raised would be utilised to fund this site remediation process’, he said.
But the action group says in their newsletter that ‘the compulsory acquisition of the site by NSW Health appears to have occurred without authority or knowledge of the Trustees. Any transfer of this property to the Department of Health should have had to be done with the permission of the Trustees’.
Mr Crawford said the process of acquiring Crown lands across NSW that had been reserved and dedicated for the use of the Department of Health was started in 2000 by then health minsiter Craig Knowles.
He said that since that date, a number of hospital sites in the region that were previously Crown Land had been transferred to freehold title in the name of the HAC.
Mr Crawford told Echonetdaily that services currently located on the Mullumbimby Hospital Campus will be transferred to the Byron Central Hospital once it’s commissioned, and that once vacant ‘the NNSW LHD will tender for the removal of asbestos, including the demolition of the existing buildings, to make the site safe for future utilisation’.
‘Once the preferred tender is selected, NNSW LHD will be aware of the cost of removing the asbestos from the Mullumbimby Hospital Campus,’ he said.
But on further questioning, Mr Crawford said ‘The asbestos at Mullumbimby Hospital is currently contained and does not pose any risk. It is friable asbestos and is unlike most of the other asbestos within the NNSW LHD’.
‘The condition of the roof structure and the roofing material poses a risk looking into the future. Engineering advice has stated that the roof structure is deteriorating and with the passage of time there will be increased risk of containment failure,’ he said.
‘The engineering advice states it is considered a higher risk to try to preserve the existing roof structure in a satisfactory condition, rather than to remove it and the asbestos.
‘The best long-term option is complete removal of the roof, and the asbestos within, and the complete demolition of the buildings to ensure all asbestos is removed’.
But action group member David Bradbury said ‘why can’t they leave the hospital still standing? Half of Mullumbimby and Brunswick Heads roofs are made of asbestos and surely if it’s not disturbed can go on to serve the community for another 20 years’.
‘Mullumbimby, with its ageing and young families, needs an outstation hospital that can deal with snake bites, heart attacks and all other common health issues, there is even doubt now that the larger hospital at Byron will have an operating theatre to deal with serious emergencies,’ Mr Bradbury said.
Group member Elaine Robinson said the community had been involved in fundraising for the hospital over many years and the trust had managed the area on Hospital Hill, including the community health buildings and adjoining nursing home site, for more than 100 years .
Mrs Robinson said the hospital’s beginnings could be traced back to 1900 when ‘A Mr Wallace’ owned a portion of the land and ‘deeded it in perpetuity to the town to build a hospital and health services when needed and we have always believed it was our land’.
She said the accident and emergency ward, built in 1988, was supported by tens of thousands of dollars in funding for the building and equipment, raised by local service clubs and the hospital auxiliary.
In 1993, the Susan Jamison Birthing Units facility was built and furnished with a donation of $300,000 from the Jamison family and more than $44,000 raised by the auxiliary.
The birthing unit, Mrs Robinson said, had become ‘a blueprint for the whole northern rivers health care’.
Many more thousands of dollars raised by the community was provided over the years for the hospital’s palliative care and high-dependency units as well as the former operating theatre, which was closed down in 1995 after the local surgeon retired.
Mrs Robinson said the establishment and expansion of the hospital facilities ‘could not have happened without the support of the community, and this shows how important it is to them’.
A meeting of the action group on August 19 has proposed a campaign to lobby the government to develop the hospital site as a precinct for aged care facilities and services, housing for people with a disability, and affordable social housing for vulnerable and disadvantaged people, including domestic-violence victims.
The group says the site ‘is a community asset and the future use of the hospital and land must be determined by the community and the trustees’.
‘MHAG is advocating that the Mullumbimby Hospital land be restored to its status as lands held under public trust and trustees appointed to administer the site,’ they say.
‘The site trust land should be used to develop a range of aged care facilities and services and housing options. This would complement seniors supported accommodation provided on the site by Coolamon Villa.’
The action group is still trying to find out exactly why the trust was dissolved, enabling the land transfer.
They are yet to locate the original trust deed for the hospital which could bolster their case for the site to remain in community hands.
Echonetdaily this week asked both the lands and health departments for answers on why there had been no community consultation over the land transfer and dissolution of the trust, but is yet to hear back.
Action group members say the move by the government should have been gazetted and that the NSW Governor is the only person authorised to dissolve it.
There is also no confirmation from the local health district on whether the birthing unit building, which has no asbestos, will be demolished.
The authorities have also failed to answer what type of consultation process to determine the future use of the site will take place.