A rural revolt

Observations on NHS cuts

Police in the ancient market town of Cirencester had to hold back placard-waving protesters last month when the Health Minister, Patricia Hewitt, visited their local hospital, just a few miles away from Highgrove, Prince Charles's country pile.

Days later in the Royal Forest of Dean, rowdy demonstrators streamed across the pristine lawns of the Dilke Hospital to confront the West Gloucestershire health boss, Stephen Golledge.

The surprised chief executive tried to beat a hasty retreat but found his exit blocked by angry Foresters, who surrounded his car, banging on the roof.

And in Stroud, not far from the Princess Royal's country home, Gatcombe Park, the writers Jilly Cooper, Katie Fforde and Sue Limb have joined the campaign.

What are they all so furious about? What drew 7,000 people on to the streets of Regency Cheltenham one sunny summer's morning to protest?

The answer lies in the actions of county health chiefs, whose proposed cuts are in stark contradiction to government policy and whose arrogance has succeeded in uniting trade unions, which fear for their members' jobs, and the chattering classes, who fear losing their local services.

Although the government's white paper on health, published just seven months ago, vows to provide more services for the community, Golledge and his colleagues propose to do exactly the opposite. Their plans include the closure of eight community hospitals, a reduction in maternity and surgical services, and a cut in the number of people who can receive IVF treatment.

In the foreword to the white paper, Tony Blair declares: "We want change to be driven, not centrally, but in each community by the people who use the services and by the professionals who provide them." Hewitt promises: "Far more services will be delivered . . . in the community or at home." Elsewhere, the white paper vows to provide "more services in local communities, closer to people's homes" and to improve "community services for expectant mothers".

The contradiction was articulated by Nigel Costley, regional secretary of the South West TUC, who asked: "How can you improve community services by closing community services? These plans are ill thought out and will devastate the county's health services."

The result of Golledge's plans would be to centralise the county's health services to Gloucester and Cheltenham, in effect abandoning the rural communities to fend for themselves.

Increasing the sense of isolation, the entitlement to Patient Transport Services is being reduced. Seven thousand fewer locals a year will be eligible for it, stranding people in their villages while their relatives are in hospital.

But they are not giving up the fight. Websites have sprung up to solicit support for hospitals, and placards placed in hedgerows pleading "Save Our Services".

Businessmen are standing shoulder to shoulder with trade unionists, hospital cleaners with millionaire novelists. Whisper it, but is this the start of the socialist countryside alliance?

This article first appeared in the 21 August 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Al-Qaeda: Britain in its sights