The possibility of building of a new hospital to serve Craven was the hot topic of the day 50 years ago. And, after much campaigning, it looked as though the scheme might come to fruition. Lesley Tate investigates

A jubilant Craven Herald announced the good news that everyone had been fighting long and hard for – the building of a new £3.5 million general hospital.

Work on Airedale Hospital, as it was to be named, did not actually start until later than hoped in the late 60s and it was 1970 when it was officially opened by the Prince of Wales.

But in November, 1963, the paper had been given the tip-off by the then Skipton MP Burnaby Drayson.

It was the end of a long battle between Keighley and Skipton to get the new hospital built in their own towns and one of the most controversial subjects to hit the area for years.

The site, off the main Keighley to Kendal Road, was considered a compromise, but the fact it was large and level meant that building would be easier and more straightforward to get built – and, vitally, a lot quicker.

Mr Drayson had received a letter of confirmation from the then Minister of Health, in which he confirmed the siting of a new “group hospital” to be built on a site in Eastburn.

The MP, although acknowledging it would have been better in Skipton, announced it was at least to be built at “the end of the garden, and not in someone else’s parish”.

It was the then Leeds Regional Health Board that made the proposal that the hospital should be built at Eastburn, while also keeping the Skipton General Hospital.

The hospital was estimated to cost between £3 million and £4 million, would have around 640 beds and would meet the requirements of Keighley and Skipton – a joint population of around 150,000.

It would include a maternity unit, a geriatric unit, a short-stay psychiatric unit and all the ordinary specialties – thus giving a full range of hospital facilities to people in the area.

Interestingly, the site was described as in Eastburn, instead of Steeton, on a greenfield site and had been chosen over an alternative plan to redevelop St John’s Hospital at Keighley.

The Craven Herald reported there had been repeated claims over the years from Keighley and Skipton that a new hospital should be built in their towns.

And it had not been an easy decision for the regional health board to take – both towns coming up with such sound arguments.

But the board’s decision had been accepted as “wise and practical” and unanimously approved by the then Bingley, Keighley, Skipton and Settle Hospital Management Committee.

It was a meeting described by the chairman, Mr J Foster Beaver, as an “historical, epoch-making event”.

It was wonderful after so many years that the district was to have a new hospital within three – or four at most, he said.

And whereas Skipton had the greater geographical area, there were more people living in Keighley, but that there was nowhere in Keighley to build a hospital of such size.

The hospital was to follow one of two designs sanctioned by the Ministry of Health – a decision that it was planned would mean it could be built sooner rather than later in just two years and earlier than the more normal ten.

It would cost less than normal hospitals and would be one of two to be built in the country.

But, it was emphasised that it was not going to be a sub-standard hospital. It was possible to build more cheaply because of the site – it being level with plenty of space.

The planned hospital was to be horizontal, rather than vertical, would be mostly two-storey, but with some three-storey parts.

There would be no problem in getting the money, or planning approval, and work would start as soon as possible.

Not everyone was happy though, the then MP for Keighley, Marcus Worsley, describing it as a “crazy plan”. Keighley was where most people lived, and that was where the new hospital should be built. He said building it at Eastburn was a compromise, and like most compromises, it would be inconvenient to the greatest number of people.

Mr Worsley, who compared the decision to the judgement of Solomon and the cutting of a baby in half to satisfy two mothers, added he had been particularly surprised as he had been given ministerial indication that it was to be built in Keighley.

The chairman of Skipton Urban District Council, Coun W J Allen, was less scathing, but also not entirely happy. It was a decision that was better than it could be, but not as good as it could have been and would end up very inconvenient for people in the Dales.

The council was, however, pleased that services were to remain at Skipton General Hospital, along with 32 beds at Harden Bridge Hospital, Austwick, for the elderly.

In Settle, the siting of the hospital was welcomed as being so much closer than Leeds.

In its comment column, the Craven Herald said the mood had been one of general “approval and satisfaction”.

There might be some dissatisfaction that it was not to be built in Skipton, but at least it was not going to Keighley.

Eastburn was just over five miles away, not a great distance with modern transport systems, and the site was easily accessible.

It was a subject that had been the most controversial of recent years, reported the Herald.

The hospital board had admitted the decision had given it much anxiety and following lengthy consultation. It had been impossible to keep everyone happy, and so a compromise had been sought.

The Herald said the most important factor was the timescale. It had been told that it would be in commission in four or five years – at least ten years earlier than the normal timescale for a development of its size.

The promise of an early start had been something that had greatly impressed the district – sadly, in reality, it was going to take a few more years.