Northern Ireland news

Private company behind £100m healthcare park vows it will not raise rents of GPs who move there

An artist's impression of what the new health and wellbeing park at the King's Hall in south Belfast
Seanín Graham

THE company behind a £100 million "health and wellbeing park" has pledged to protect GPs from rent hikes if they move to its earmarked site in south Belfast.

Benmore Octopus Healthcare Developments told the Irish News they will "provide a guarantee" to GPs who move to the King's Hall site that their future rents would be agreed with the health service as well as the government agency which sets valuations.

The Health and Social Board (HSCB) is the body which currently reimburses the rent of GPs working in privately-owned premises. The rental value is determined by Land and Property Services (LPS) who visit practices every three years.

Many GPs with private landlords can be locked into 25 year deals with no 'break clause' - leaving them open to substantial rent hikes and be out of pocket if they are forced to make up the shortfall.

The Irish News learned that such is the level of concern about companies buying over GP buildings that a Department of Health director issued a confidential memo last month warning doctors to be cautious about "recent approaches" from private developers.

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The leaked letter, which was sent to all GPs across the north, urges them to contact the board for "advice" and stresses they need to "fully understand the implications into which you might be considering entering".

Benmore has insisted that it has "no intention" of trying to move GPs to its new state-of-the art site, which is aiming to operate a 'one-stop shop' for healthcare.

"The proposed Primary Care Centre at the Kings Hall Health and Wellbeing Park will, if agreed with the GPs and supported by the HSCB, deliver NHS services, operated by GPs and other healthcare practitioners, under the same existing terms as their current premises," a spokesman for Benmore said.

"We have no intention of trying to move GPs from any other area to the King’s Hall. In particular, none of the GP practices in Sandy Row (in south Belfast) have expressed an interest in moving...On the contrary, we have been working to secure and improve services within that area."

He added that "all the GP rents" on the new site will be "agreed with the HSCB, which takes advice from LPS".

"These are the protections that are part of due process. Additionally, we also provide a guarantee within the lease that ensures all future rents have to be agreed with the HSCB/LPS," the Benmore spokesman said.

Dr Michael McKenna, who has a large GP practice in west Belfast, was contacted last year by a developer - not connected to Benmore - attempting to lure him to a new-build.

He warned younger GPs to be wary of "getting into bed with a private landlord".

"I and a number of other GPs have been offered lucrative deals with sweeteners to move to state-of-the-art premises - and this can be very tempting," Dr McKenna said.

"I turned it down because I did not know what I was tying myself to down the line. I could not in all consciousness pass this to someone coming after me - I would urge younger GPs to be very careful about these offers.

"Our premises are funded by the taxpayer and if a landlord decides to increase the rent you could face the risk of being left out of pocket or potentially face bankruptcy."

The Irish News asked the Health and Social Board if it had been approached by any GPs who wanted to relocate to the King's Hall site and were seeking additional costs to do so.

A board spokeswoman confirmed they had been contacted but was unable to say by how many. She added the board would not be providing any money toward the project.

"GPs, as independent contractors, are entitled to consider options for the relocation of their practices," she said.

"Where GP practices have approached us seeking advice on whether we would reimburse any additional costs associated with a re-location to the (Benmore) development, we have made clear that this scheme is not a HSCB priority at this time and therefore, given budgetary constraints, it is unlikely that funding would be made available."

The board also moved to distance itself from the project - with the spokeswoman stressing it had "no involvement" in the King's Hall development which she described as "private sector led".

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