Faced with a large piece of poorly used prime real estate right next to a top teaching hospital in central London, Guy's and St Thomas' Charity brought the developers in to build housing for key workers. Louise Hunt reports

What can a major NHS charity do with a messy piece of land that happens to include prime central London real estate and be next to a top teaching hospital? From a myriad of possibilities, owner Guy's and St Thomas' Charity has chosen to improve NHS facilities, along with the local environment, with a£300m private finance initiative project that is thought to be the first of its kind in the country.

The Founder's Place development is the result of a nine-year deliberation over how the charity should use its land assets - a 1.69 hectare site opposite St Thomas' Hospital in north Lambeth that currently contains antiquated accommodation for staff and protected tenants and a barely used car park. "It [the site] was a bit of a mess", says charity chief executive Geoffrey Shepherd. "We started this development because we were concerned that we had this land, which really was not being used in the way in which it had potential to be used."

The charity sought expert planning advice from consultancy Drivers Jonas and came up with a proposal for a primarily residential mixed-use development whereby a developer will lease the land to build the health facilities, as well as 330 private residential apartments, while giving the charity a substantial premium for the opportunity. Planning permission was granted last October and the development will be completed in stages by 2013.

The double bottom line

Mr Shepherd says: "This is what I call the double bottom line approach, as it fulfils what we have been asked to provide in terms of the hospital and healthcare, but it also adds what will be tens of millions of pounds to the charity's funds, so that we can invest that money to continue to improve health services as we go along."

It is unlikely that any other NHS-related charity is involved in a project of this scale, says Mr Shepherd, due to the unusual wealth of the charity, which has assets of£500m. The charity exists to support local health services and, through detailed discussions with Guy's and St Thomas' foundation trust, it was decided that one of the development's priorities is to improve key worker accommodation.

"One of the trust's big issues is recruiting and retaining high-calibre staff, because the cost of private housing is so high in London. It would give the hospital quite an edge if it had really fantastic facilities to offer key workers across a whole range of hospital staff," he says.

When complete, the site will provide 407 affordable key worker bed spaces in 231 units. This will replace current accommodation dotted about Southwark and Lambeth. Unusually for hospital digs, staff will be able to enjoy state-of-the-art housing as the whole development has been designed by award-winning architects Farrells, led by Sir Terry Farrell.

Modern accommodation

"The accommodation will be substantially different from what is available now. The hospital has been very clear that it wants accommodation of the 21st century, as opposed to 1960s style single rooms, so there will be more apartments for families," says Mr Shepherd. A housing association will be appointed to manage the key worker homes, along with 41 social rented apartments, which will be used to re-house protected tenants occupying the current site. A new day nursery will also be built for children of hospital staff.

Founder's Place will also offer an overnight refuge to families of sick children who are being treated at the Evelina Children's Hospital, which was opened by the trust in 2005. Also on site will be a new patient hotel for people who are travelling long distances for treatment, such as chemotherapy, and need to stay overnight. The concept may not be unique to the trust, but it does support the drive for more outpatient treatment. It will replace the current hotel on the hospital campus. "It isn't necessary for a hotel to be on the main hospital site. The idea is that the main site is dealing with services that really need to be there," he says.

Following this line of logic, Founder's Place could become home to one of London's first polyclinics. One facility on the site will provide medical treatment, but will be distinctly distanced from the blue flashing light zone of the hospital.

Closer working relationships

"It is being designed as an outpatient arrangement, but I know the trust is keen to look at that in relation to a polyclinic," he confirms. "It's good to have facilities which are available in the community that do not actually use a hospital site and to get closer working relationships with GPs and other community health services. It will be something that is not available here at the moment."

Indeed, the whole approach to the Founder's Place development is community driven. As part of the planning agreement with Lambeth, the charity will invest£3m to improve the local area, again with Farrell's vision. This will be focused on an adjacent park and under the railway arches between the site and a local shopping centre.

"We believe that beyond the boundaries of the development our tentacles can go further in terms of improving the overall environment of the spot.

"The railway decimated the area by acting as a huge physical barrier. I believe the issues around crime and isolation are substantially improved by a co-ordinated development like this, which is well lit and well designed. It will offer secure arrangements as opposed to a series of isolated buildings and that is really important to key worker staff on shifts and everybody else," he concludes.

For more information, visit www.gsttcharity.org.uk