Jeff James talks about his resignation, Savernake Hospital, the NHS’s future and his own future

Written by Tony Millett.

Jeff James’ resignation last month as Chief Executive of two primary care trusts (PCTs) – Wiltshire and Bath & North East Somerset (BANES) – came as a great shock to his colleagues and friends.  He had been with Wiltshire NHS since it was formed in 2006 and was appointed to BANES this year.

As part of the government’s major reorganisation of the NHS, Wiltshire and BANES were ‘clustered’ together to save money and make way for the abolition of PCTs in 2013 when the GP-led Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) and Wiltshire Council take over.  During the ‘clustering’ process, the team he had built at NHS Wiltshire saw many redundancies as costs were saved.

Jeff James, who is 58, has worked in the NHS for thirty-one years – sixteen of them as a chief executive.  He was ordained priest in the Church of England in 2002.

Why did he resign?  Jeff James told Marlborough News Online that he had looked at the balance in his life between work, home and the church, and found it was not the balance he wanted. 

Why did he resign now?  “Now is as good a time as any.  If I didn’t change now, I’d have to wait till 2013.  Going now gives someone the chance to see through next year’s business plan and conclude the handover to the CCGs and the local authority.”

Did he resign because of the government’s reorganisation? No, but… “In 2013 the kind of job I’ve really enjoyed doing won’t exist.”  The fragmentation of the NHS means that no one will again have the whole canvas of health services to work with.  James now has national, regional and local responsibilities and is involved in almost every part of Wiltshire’s health service.

The Wiltshire PCT’s portfolio of responsibilities is being divided between the CCGs (in charge of some local commissioning), the yet-to-be-formed NHS Commissioning Board (in charge of specialist services), Wiltshire Council (public health and, through the new Health and Wellbeing Boards, strategy), Great Western Hospital (community health) and support services (Commissioning Support Services – CSUs, the latest out of the Department of Health’s copious store of acronyms, whose agenda is still be settled and which will ultimately be privatised.)

Jeff James would miss, for example, overseeing NHS Wiltshire’s work running the screening calls for Wiltshire, Swindon and Devon – work in which his team have become expert.

Savernake Hospital

In the Marlborough area, Jeff James is best known as the man who closed Savernake Hospital Minor Injuries Unit (MIU) and Day Hospital very soon after the community hospital had, at great cost, been expanded and renovated.  Why were they closed?

James says the decision was not specific to Marlborough and was brought about partly by costs and partly by a change in the model of service – creating a new balance between care at home and care in hospital. During his time at NHS Wiltshire he has pioneered the much admired Neighbourhood Teams bringing care and daily treatment to people in their homes.

James makes the point that consultation on the future of health care across Wiltshire had begun in 2005 - before he and NHS Wiltshire came on the scene. And that was also driven in part by costs. The Kennet and West Wiltshire PCT (K&WW) had run up an over-spend of £44 million by the end of 2005 and were on track to add another £24 million during 2006-2007.

The future of Savernake had been considered by the (then) Wiltshire Health Authority in 2002.  Then the issue was handed over to K&WW: “They were very optimistic about the money available, very optimistic about the clinical role of Savernake and not as aware as they might have been about the trends in hospital usage.”

Beds in community hospitals were becoming less busy.  More people were going home sooner after surgery. And community nursing and minor treatment in GPs surgeries was becoming the norm: “Gosh! How did anyone reach the conclusion that [upgrading Savernake] was the right thing to do.”

James and NHS Wiltshire’s Chairman, Tony Barron, have been criticised for the way they conducted the judicial review led by Val Compton which alleged the consultation on closing the MIU and Day Hospital was unfair and the decision unreasonable. Why, for instance, did they contest the cap on costs?  Each side had to pursue their ‘best interest’ and “The wider consequences in the NHS if we had lost would have set a pattern with serious financial consequences. We had a responsibility to conduct our case pretty vigorously.”

Both James and Barron have been the subject of some pretty fierce personal attacks.  During the 2010 general election campaign, the Devizes constituency’s independent conservative candidate pictured them as arrested criminals in American-type police mug-shots. And one campaigner greeted James’ resignation with a tweet: “The end of the road for Jeff James”.

“It’s part of the rough and tumble. When I first started in the NHS there was a committee, in the late 1980s chief execs and chairmen came along and we started to have a much more personal debate. Tony and I decided to make a lot of the running in the public debate – it was a style choice. If you are the person who is the accountable officer you can’t but be held responsible.”

“We don’t live in respectful or deferential times – that’s a good thing. But we can all wish there was a different tenor to the debate. The alternative is that you withdraw from the public.  Out of the public exchange you don’t get agreement, but by not doing it anonymously people may come to understand the reasoning.”

The NHS’ future

Jeff James sees some risks in the government’s new design for the NHS. He has made sure that as an organisation NHS Wiltshire has low costs – “mean management to fit austere economic times” – and the costs for the CCG’s will be higher.  (Wiltshire NHS costs £21 per head of its population, against an average of £35 for other PCTs in the region and a probable £25 for the CCGs.)

In the government’s Health and Social Care Bill, local authorities get more say in health services, running the new Health and Wellbeing Boards.  Might some of them flex their muscles and try to dominate the commissioning process? James admits there may be ‘tensions’. They may know the pain in closing a school: “Imagine how much more exquisite that pain would be if they were allocating health service resources” – closing a ward or a hospital.  And at least one person on the Boards will have to face re-election.

In Andrew Lansley’s new order “We’ll have three agendas: the local ‘popular’ agenda, the clinical agenda and the national political agenda – with the local agenda bumping into the national one.”

Jeff James’ future

Once it’s decided when he will leave his posts (he can be held to six months’ notice), Jeff James wants to take some time off. “It’s a bit like deep-sea diving – after the pressure of the last few years, I need to decompress for a time – or I’ll get the bends.” 
Then he wants to divide his non-family time about 50-50 between work and the church, and would very much like to do more parish work.  Where will that be? “My wife comes from Cornwall and I’m from Wales – so we’ll see!”
Having watched Jeff James in action over the past six months for Marlborough News Online, I’ll bet he very soon gets a call from a university – his experience and analysis will be a great draw for them.  The university might be in Wales or it might be nearer to Cornwall.

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