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Health plan is what the doctor ordered

AGENDA

THE GOVERNMENT'S plan to build hundreds of one-stop primary care centres and to refurbish thousands of doctors' surgeries looked to be just yet another grand pledge when it was unveiled three years ago.

There were many critics. It even seemed some in the health service would have been happier to see the radical idea of delivering the plan through Local Improvement Finance Trusts declared dead on arrival rather than forge links between private and public sectors.

Even the more considered opinion, which held that the needs of doctors and their commercial contracting partners would come into conflict, has, happily, proved wrong.

The NHS LIFT programme, which opted for a practical approach to solving problems, did get off to a slow start. But anyone who deals with the NHS should by now be accustomed to long waiting times. In the case of LIFT the time and effort spent getting new-style contracts right from the outset appears to have avoided the recurrent problems that, until recently, dogged hospital PFIs.

Even the bundling-up of schemes into bitesized packages of £20 million-£100 million has not reduced competition to a few major contractors, as was first feared. Happily some schemes have been carried off by smaller contractors with strong balance sheets.

But the real bonus is that this approach has forged close local partnerships, with real economies of scale. Even the target of wrapping up deals in 12 months from project launch to financial close now looks achievable.

By all accounts the LIFT programme is proving to be a good way of getting a lot of work done quickly - the sort of delivery that has eluded the Government to date.

Far from the prognosis looking bad, LIFT appears to be in rude health. And plans to expand the programme with another big tranche of projects are very welcome. A few more deals going the way of competent regional contractors would be an added bonus to what is fast looking like one of the Government's more effective procurement routes.