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Enoch Powell (1912-98)

The Conservative member of parliament Enoch Powell is best remembered for his ‘rivers of blood’ speech. Delivered in Birmingham in April 1968, the speech warned of the consequences of uncontrolled immigration. But years earlier, Powell actively encouraged the employment of a large number of Commonwealth immigrants to positions within the understaffed National Health Service. A man of contradictions, he is less well remembered for commencing one of the largest hospital construction programmes in England.

Expenditure on hospital building in Britain rose considerably in the 1950s and 1960s. All political parties mentioned increased funding in their election promises in 1959. It was one way of improving uneven distribution of health services across the country. The election brought the Conservatives to power, and Enoch Powell became the new Minister of Health. As promised, he pressed for an urgent hospital building programme. It aimed to place a general hospital in each community that was home to more than 150,000 people. It was not just a plan to modernise and rebuild hospitals; it would change their entire organisation. In some cases, hospitals were to be integrated with social services. Until that time, no other nation had tried to refashion its hospitals in so comprehensive a way or on so large a scale.

In the end, the ten-year plan put forward was a failure. Most critics regarded it as financially unviable. Others suggested the government had no idea what it might cost to build a hospital. In many ways, the plan’s failure was inevitable. With advances in medicine and technology, the costs of hospitals would inevitably have escalated over the period, as they continue to do today. Also, during this time, the needs of the population had changed. Lengths of stay among patients continued to fall in these years.

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P Cosgrove, The Lives of Enoch Powell (London: The Bodley Head, 1989)

G Rivett, From Cradle to Grave: Fifty Years of the NHS (London: King’s Fund, 1998)