For over 30 years, the Mousehole Nursery in Marylebone, central London, has been providing affordable childcare to the staff of University College London Hospitals NHS Trust (UCLH), but it is now threatened with closure. Used exclusively by the children of staff, it has been a lifeline to parents who quite simply would not be able to do their jobs without it. It fits in with irregular NHS hours and the facility to pay the fees through salary sacrifice has benefitted some 1,000 relatively low paid staff over the years.
New lease threatens upheaval for parents and children
The Mousehole is located in the basement of Elizabeth House in Marylebone and the entire building has been leased at an annual peppercorn rate of £350 from the Howard de Walden Estate for the last 99 years. However, the lease for the Mousehole expires in September 2024 and UCLH plans to close the nursery down, making continuing to work at the Trust difficult for many of the parents and causing upheaval for nearly thirty young children. The main reason for this closure is that HDWE has indicated that, if it were to renew the lease, it would want close to the market rate which is estimated at approximately £75,000 a year for the space. UCLH have claimed that this makes continuing to run the nursery untenable. Incidentally, the Howard de Walden Estate is currently worth about £4.9bn.
UCLH no longer see Mousehole deficit as a subsidy
While the rate increase has been the trigger for UCLH to close the nursery, it is not the only reason. UCLH say that the nursery is running at a significant deficit. This is true, but the Trust previously viewed this as a subsidy to provide childcare to its workforce, rather than a profit-making business. Furthermore, the nursery has been run to budget for the last 21 years by the skilled and dedicated nursery manager, Angie Shorey. By comparison, a new nursery opening up in the area will charge nearly £2,200 per month for full-time childcare, an amount that is unaffordable for most NHS workers.
UCLH claim that they have looked into the viability of changing the nursery’s location and possibly expanding it. However, the figures they have come up with for this are outlandish and seem almost designed to make it look so costly as to not be a credible option. For example, they estimated refurbishment costs of any new location to be £3m, whereas research has shown that set-up costs are closer to £250,000. UCLH also appear to have inflated possible rent rises by over 100% when conducting an appraisal of the possible options available.
Implications for women employed at the hospital
The parents and staff of the Mousehole are frustrated by the Trust’s ‘say one thing and do the opposite’ approach. For example, point 2 of the Trust’s five-year strategy, published in April, is to ‘invest in our diverse workforce’ but twelve women – most of whom are from diverse backgrounds – will be out of a job and no nursery makes continuing to work at UCLH more difficult for many other members of staff. If they leave or reduce their hours, then their posts will have to be filled with locums or bank staff which will incur higher costs. Closing the nursery also flies in the face of the government’s plans to invest in affordable childcare and encourage women to return to work after giving birth. Like most Trusts, UCLH is a majority female employer with aspirations to encourage more women into senior management roles. One good way to decrease their already significant gender pay-gap would be for the Trust to invest in their female staff by providing affordable childcare and allowing mothers to continue to progress in their careers.
No credible consultation
UCLH are currently engaged in a ‘consultation period’ with the Mousehole nursery and the affected parents until November. However, it seems that the decision to close it down was effectively made a long time ago and that this ‘consultation’ is a mere box-ticking exercise in which parents are offered kind words and soothing noises while their childcare is being snatched away. However, the staff and the parents of the Mousehole Nursery are not giving up without a fight and in a very short time, the medical healthcare professionals that use the nursery have been forced to become experts in accountancy, property law, property development, OFSTED regulations, HR procedure, campaign strategies, PR…the list goes on.
A demonstration took place at the hospital on Wednesday and a petition to keep the Mousehole open is close to 1,000 signatures already. It is scandalous that these dedicated healthcare professionals have to devote significant headspace to fighting the closure of the nursery. Of course, the only alternative was to do nothing and let the nursery die which, for the parents of the Mousehole children, was never an option.
Sussex Bylines feels that this is probably not the only workplace nursery under threat and if any of our readers know of other nurseries facing closure, please get in touch.