Concern expressed by councillors over Swanage Ambulance Car’s future

At the first meeting open to the public, to discuss the review of the Swanage Ambulance Car, councillors who represent residents in Purbeck, lined up to voice their views.

Dorset Council’s people and health scrutiny committee meeting on Tuesday 8th June 2021, was given a short presentation about the ambulance car by Dorset Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG), which funds the service.


In addition to the committee members, Dorset Council’s elected representatives from across Purbeck also attended the online meeting, including councillor Bill Trite (Swanage), councillor Gary Suttle (Swanage), councillor Laura Miller (West Purbeck), councillor Cherry Brooks (South East Purbeck) and councillor Beryl Ezzard (Wareham).

The Purbeck Paramedic Car

The Swanage Ambulance Car in Corfe Castle

Last minute inclusion of the matter

The last minute inclusion of the ambulance car review as an urgent item on the meeting’s agenda was controversial, as it effectively disallowed any questions from the public being submitted before the deadline.

The ambulance car, also known as a rapid response vehicle (RRV), is based in Swanage but serves the whole of Purbeck. It is mainly staffed by a paramedic and Dorset CCG says it is operational seven days a week, 24 hours a day.

Plans by Dorset CCG to scrap the emergency services car emerged in February 2020, but it was given a reprieve at the start of the Covid pandemic. Now the issue is under review.

Save our paramedic car campaigners and dog

A campaign has been launched across Purbeck to save the ambulance car

“It is a huge issue in the Purbeck area”

Opening the meeting the chair of the committee, councillor Gill Taylor said:

“I would like to thank everybody who has been writing to us from the public about this issue. I understand and I do appreciate it is a huge issue in the Purbeck area, simply by the amount of members of the public who are really engaged in this – it is something that I can see that you really value.

“I know I’ve got one statement today, and we were quite late putting this on the agenda for a number of reasons. I’ve got one statement from a member of the public today but I am aware I’ve also had an awful lot into my in-tray.

“And we’ve also had some really useful information sent to all of the committee from the group that are campaigning to keep this car. I would just like to take this opportunity to thank you so much for keeping on doing this. I really do appreciate it.”

Funding is not being removed”

The presentation was led by Sue Sutton, the programme director of emergency care at Dorset CCG, with support from Nick Reynolds, county commander of South Western Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust. Sue Sutton said:

“We absolutely want to listen, I also think it’s really important to say up front that the CCG funding is not being removed. And we absolutely understand the importance of this service to the local community, and we want to work with them. What we wanted to cover today is how the current service came about.

Sue Sutton went on to explain that when Swanage Hospital’s minor injuries unit moved to daytime opening only, the ambulance car service was increased to 24 hours in 2008 but things had changed since then. She told the meeting:

“13 years on, we’ve had national developments, we’ve had more local investment. And it is the natural time for us to be looking at, at this service, the money that we spend on the public’s behalf, which as I say is not reducing and get the best possible outcomes for patients. So it is the natural time for us to review this service, as we do with all services.”

It was explained that as this was billed as a listening meeting, the Dorset CCG would not at the stage, be offering any data or detailed proposals.

Ambulance car at Incident in high street swanage

The Swanage Ambulance at an incident in the High Street in Swanage

“Protect this isolated community’s many vulnerable residents”

The chair then moved the proceedings to take written questions from members of the public.

There was only one that had made the deadline and it was from Swanage Town councillor Debby Monkhouse, who leads on the town council’s emergency health services working party. Part of the submission said:

“Unlike the paramedic car, which is a fast 4×4, that does not routinely take patients to hospital and which supports Purbeck GP home visits, so is ‘tethered’ to base, ambulances are routinely out of base in use across the county.

“Even if an ambulance is available at Wareham when there is an emergency in Swanage, it cannot get here within the eight minute target response time that gives the best chance to save life.”

The submission then went on to ask:

“Could Dorset Council’s people and health scrutiny committee please ask DCCG to honour the commitment made to fully maintain the existing ambulance resources based in, and tethered to, Swanage, in order to protect this isolated community’s many vulnerable residents?”

We love our ambulance car poster

“One in three households are displaying a ‘Save Our Ambulance Car’ poster”

The chair then said she would hear from Dorset Council councillors, who weren’t members of the committee. Councillor Bill Trite from Swanage was the first to speak:

“I’d first invite members of this committee to come to Swanage to gauge for themselves the extent of public concern over the potential loss of the ambulance car. Something like one in three households are displaying a ‘Save Our Ambulance Car’ poster in their windows or garden.

“That’s a truly huge number which I’ve never known approached by any other issue in the town over the last 30 years.

“It isn’t a case of Swanage being selfish or fussy. It’s a recognition of the vital importance of a service which Swanage’s location and circumstances make essential for the saving of lives – which has happened many times thanks to the rapid response of the ambulance car.

“It’s vital that this committee is exposed to all the information relating to this life-and-death issue, both quantitative and qualitative, and it’s for this reason that this wholly inadequate hearing should be followed by a properly timed one, preferably with this matter the only one on the agenda.”

Ambulance car banner

“A matter of life and death”

Councillor Gary Suttle, the other Swanage ward representative and portfolio holder for finance, commercial and capital strategy then spoke. He expressed concern over the way Dorset CCG was delivering its promised public engagement on the matter:

“The retention of the RRV to Swanage is the most important issue to the town in recent years, in fact, the view of us all, a matter of life and death.

“Some say that a deal’s already been done. And by having this item, at such a late stage, you (Dorset Council) do little to undermine that thought.

“You will, I hope, be aware of the campaign, if you come to Swanage you will see the entire town with the banners supporting retention and you’ll have been sent the booklet giving the stories of those who benefited from the RRV. And who is to say what would have happened had it not been with us for those people.

“The paper suggests this to be an update before engagement. Although I believe that we’d anticipated a full consultation enabling individual response. I remain slightly perplexed as to what exactly engagement involves for our community.”

“Make a plea that we are completely transparent in the whole process”

Councillor Cherry Brooks, who represents villages including Langton Matravers, Studland, Corfe Castle and Worth Matravers, as well as being the lead member for highways added:

“I’m just worried – a couple of years ago, we were promised a large influx of ambulances, extra ambulances – off the top of my head, I think it was 18 into Purbeck. In reality, after we replaced the old vehicles, and we put in a couple of non-transport vehicles, we only actually got three ambulances. So the message that was being given was not the same as the reality that we received.

“So can I please make a plea that we are completely transparent in the whole process? And even if the message isn’t very palatable, that we are actually very open and honest about it.”

Swanage Ambulance Car

“Going to be quite a long road”

Councillor Laura Miller, who as ward member for West Purbeck and cabinet member for adult social care and health said she was impressed by the public response to the campaign to save the car:

“Certainly as local politicians, we’re always calling for people to get involved and we’re quite frequently disappointed when they don’t. So to have this level of public engagement before any suggestions or proposals have even been made, I think is incredibly helpful.

“I will be overseeing the Dorset Council response – I’ll be representing people in my cabinet role, the residents of Dorset, the residents of Swanage and Purbeck, as I would any other parts of Dorset to make sure that they get what they need. And that it’s equitable, and fair and safe.

“This is obviously the start of what is probably going to be quite a long road. But I’m really glad to see how committed everybody is to the process and we’ll be fully engaged and involved.”

“Despairing at the thought of losing this very, very, very important facility”

Councillor Ray Bryan, portfolio holder for highways, travel and the environment on Dorset Council, was previously the chair of the Dorset County Council committee looking at the future of the Swanage Ambulance Car. He said that he felt he had a lot to offer on the subject before any decisions were made:

“The pandemic has made the ambulance availability even worse. Staycations have made the highways even busier. We still suffer with problems of reliability with the Sandbanks Ferry. The delay on the ferry the other day when I was over in the Swanage area meant that I waited an hour and a half to get on a ferry.

“Needless to say, if I was a resident of Swanage, I’d be despairing at the thought of losing this very, very, very important facility. So I would ask that if anything’s going to happen, that I’m at least given the opportunity to speak on this. As I say, I’ve had many sleepless hours on this subject before.”

Swanage Ambulance Car campaign

Campaigners handing over to the ambulance trust, a copy of a booklet with the stories of how lives have been saved by the ambulance car

“Ask the Secretary of State to intervene”

Now it was the turn of the Dorset Council committee members to speak. Councillor Robin Legg pointed out:

“Following a public consultation, we (Dorset Council) can then examine it. And if we don’t like the decision, we can ask the Secretary of State to intervene and to substitute their decision for the one made by the health service locally.

He reiterated his point by adding:

“Unless we feel confident there’s been a proper consultation with the public, then that will be something we take into account in deciding whether or not we feel the decision made is an appropriate one.”

Councillor Nick Ireland spoke about the best scenario for emergency care and said that in his mind, we currently had the best solution.

“There aren’t any proposals”

Sue Sutton refuted the suggestion that Dorset CCG had already considered options:

“There aren’t any proposals, we’ve done some work…started some work in the background. It’s been delayed because of Covid, which you know, but it’s at the very early stages.”

Save our paramedic car campaigners

Campaigners and placards

“The more people being on this journey, the better”

Vice chair of the committee, councillor Molly Rennie said that it was good that this matter was being tackled in a calm manner. She said:

“It’s all about the more people being on this journey, the better, and a better understanding that we’re all going to have about it. And even if it takes a wee bit longer and it has to work its way through these various processes. I think that that is really, really important.”

“I find this sort of debate really, really refreshing”

In her summing up, councillor Gill Taylor said:

“It’s really, really evident how emotive this question is going to be and this issue is going to be. I think it’s going to be a really difficult one to take forward in a controlled, sensible sort of way. Because it looks as if a lot of people are very entrenched in their views.

“It’s how you get the facts out to the public, that is going to be really, really important. I understand that you haven’t made any decisions – there are no proposals on the table.

“…We will undoubtedly still continue to have an awful lot of emails, correspondence, phone calls from members of the public. And that is absolutely right. And as councillor Miller said, we love this when people are actually taking part in this sort of thing.

“As councillors we so often sit here and we say to the public, what do you want, and there’s just a silence out there. So I find this sort of debate really, really refreshing.”

Next steps

While there was no conclusion to the subject, Sue Sutton from Dorset CCG said that her next steps were to formulate the future public engagement programme and she would share that information with councillors.

It was indicated by the committee chair, Gill Taylor that the future of the ambulance car would be an appropriate subject for the Dorset Council people and health overview committee. That committee is next scheduled to meet at 10 am on Tuesday 6th July 2021 at County Hall in Dorchester.

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