Harrogate hospital CEO talks car parking, strikes and tackling NHS finances
Last updated Feb 26, 2024
Jonathan Coulter.
Jonathan Coulter

In the first of a two-part interview with Jonathan Coulter, chief executive of Harrogate and District NHS Foundation Trust, Mr Coulter gives his thoughts on hospital car parking, NHS strikes and finances.

This month marks two years since Jonathan Coulter took the helm as chief executive of Harrogate and District NHS Foundation Trust.

Mr Coulter is responsible for two hospital sites, more than 4,000 staff and health services ranging from emergency care to cancer treatment.

The role is a massive undertaking — one which few would relish the opportunity to take up. But not Mr Coulter.

“I have always wanted to work in the public sector,” he says.

In his first interview with the Stray Ferret, Mr Coulter gives his thoughts on his two years in charge of one of Harrogate’s biggest organisations.

Mr Coulter has spent 30 years working for the NHS, 18 of which have been in Harrogate.

He grew up in Oxford and still follows his beloved Oxford United, despite being some 200 miles away.

He left the city when he was 17 and went onto attend the University of Leeds. From there, he has worked around Yorkshire.

A trained accountant, Mr Coulter worked in the NHS in Pontefract, Wakefield and Bradford before joining Harrogate as finance director in 2006.

He could have gone into the private sector, but his ambitions have always been in working for the public.

He says:

“I think you can get up in the morning and understand why you are coming to work.

“I say that to people who join induction here still. In the NHS in particular, we do the most important job that there is.”

NHS strikes

Mr Coulter was appointed interim chief executive in February 2022 following the departure of Steve Russell.

The position was made permanent in May last year after what he describes as a “rigorous” interview process.

His tenure has coincided with a series of staff walkouts amid pay disputes.

Junior doctors on strike on Wetherby Road in Harrogate in March.

Junior doctors on strike on Wetherby Road in Harrogate in March 2023.

Among the most common has been junior doctors, but consultants have also staged strike action over the last 12 months.

Mr Coulter says there have only been two months in the last year without any walkouts.

As we sit in his office at Harrogate hospital on a Thursday morning, another junior doctors’ strike looms in just two days time.

He says that the prospect of strike action has become so common that the trust has got used to preparing for it:

“Unfortunately, it has almost become business as usual in terms of planning. We’ve become quite good sadly at managing the industrial action.

“But what it has meant in reality is that we have had to cancel clinical appointments.”

The last year has seen the hospital cancel more than 1,500 appointments due to industrial action. What’s more, over the last year strikes have cost the trust £3 million in staffing.

Mr Coulter points out that the trust spends a week or so planning ahead of every walkout and then a further week afterwards to rearrange appointments and put staffing in place.

However, he adds that he recognises that those taking strike action are in dispute with the government, not the trust itself:

“It’s not a dispute for us. It will be decided elsewhere what the right outcome for pay for junior doctors is.”

Parking charges

One of the more controversial decisions taken during his tenure so far was to introduce automated number plate recognition in Harrogate hospital car park.

Parkingeye, which operates car parks across 30 NHS trusts, was brought in to manage the  system in September 2023.

At the time, the trust said the ticketless system would help to reduce congestion on Lancaster Park Road.

Over the last five months, The Stray Ferret has received numerous letters and complaints that the company has issued unfair parking fines.

Jonathan Coulter, chief executive of Harrogate and District NHS Foundation Trust, speaking at Harrogate and Knaresborough Area Constituency Committee.

Jonathan Coulter speaking at Harrogate and Knaresborough area constituency committee.

When pressed on whether he recognised the concern over the fines being issued, Mr Coutler said he accepted that there were “teething issues” and that some matters, such as fines at drop-off points, had been raised with Parkingeye.

Mr Coulter added that prices for charges will be reviewed in May and that the contract with the company would also be kept under review.

He said that two areas of parking concern had been raised with him, which were cost and clarity on where patients could park. However, he accepted that some parking charge notices “had been an issue”.

“I think, in the main, the parking has improved in terms of practically how the parking is managed on the site over the last 12 months.

“But, I appreciate there are issues around some of the concerns that patients have raised around the cost of it and the parking charge notices.”

He added:

“There have been teething issues, we know that and we acknowledge that.

“I think if we looked back six to 12 months to what it used to be like – it’s not perfect now by any means – but it’s a lot better than what it used to be.”

Tackling a financial deficit

One of Mr Coulter’s tasks as chief executive is to oversee the trust’s finances.

Much of the hospital’s funding comes from taxpayers.

Despite being in one the north’s more affluent areas in Harrogate, the trust faces the same financial pressures as NHS organisations across the country.

It currently faces a deficit of £6.4 million.

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However, Mr Coulter says he is confident of getting to break even before the end of the financial year.

Part of this includes reducing the hospital’s reliance on agency staff which recently cost the trust £503,000 in December.

It has also introduced plans to cut out non-essential costs by placing a pause of discretionary spending, such as furniture and staff training, until the start of April.

For Mr Coulter, the bigger financial pressures are yet to come.

“We are confident that we will get to a break even position before the end of the year.

“I suppose I’m a little more nervous about next year, because some of the financial projections nationally are looking really, really challenging for ourselves and the wider NHS.”

In the second part of our feature length interview with Mr Coulter which will be published tomorrow, we ask about RAAC and projects at Ripon Community Hospital.