A PATIENT champion and stalwart defender of the county’s health services throughout years of upheaval and controversial changes retired last week.

Hywel Dda Community Health Council (CHC) Chief Officer Ashley Warlow has fought the corner of patients across the county for 14 years and has never been afraid to speak out against health proposals considered by many to be detrimental to residents.

Starting out in 2002 as Chief Officer of Pembrokeshire CHC Mr Warlow has seen two incarnations of local NHS trusts and the eventual merger of Carmarthenshire and Ceredigion with Pembrokeshire into the Hywel Dda Health Board, as well as the merging of the CHCs themselves.

As the longest serving CHC chief officer in Wales he’s worked with five health ministers and eight CHC chairman as well two health board chairs and three chief executives.

Back when Mr Warlow first took up post, moving from human resources and public relations in the oil industry, there were four CHCs and members would be dealing with smaller issues than nowadays.

For example, said Mr Warlow, at that time Angle doctor’s surgery was housed a couple of days a week in the front room of a resident’s home. When proposals were made to close that around 300 people attended a meeting at Angle village hall to try and fight against it.

The CHC also helped the public fight for the inclusion of beds at Tenby Cottage Hospital, which was to be the first in Wales without inpatient beds, with the Welsh Government eventually conceding that provision would be provided off site.

“Things were very different, we were looking then for expansion of services, bringing services down from Swansea, more clinics locally, it was a different era,” said Mr Warlow.

It was in 2004/05 that things began to change with proposals from Welsh Government called Design to Deliver which launched an idea to down size Withybush Hospital, making it “subservient” to Glangwili or close both and build another hospital in Whitland.

“There were eight huge public meetings which culminated with a meeting at Withybush Showground where 1,200 came to fight the local cause – the public won that time, the patient voice was listened to and hospitals were maintained.

“We got through that battle and then it all changed again. Back came the same issues in 2010 with the proposal to centralise services. I still firmly believe that the rurality of west Wales and Pembrokeshire should not be overlooked. We are on the western tip of Wales and there’s nowhere else to travel therefore provision of services is paramount.

“You need safe and sustainable services but what’s the point if you can’t get to them? Bigger isn’t always better.

“No change is not an option but it has to be done in a measured way. Ultimately access remained top of the list in our equation. Hopefully, some commonsense will prevail,” said Mr Warlow.

Hywel Dda CHC was the only body to refer health proposals to the health minister but unfortunately Mr Drakeford’s panel found the plans to be acceptable and they were pushed through.

“At least we tried, and we continue to strive, or the fairness and parity,” he said.

For some time the relationship between the CHC and the health board was “difficult” but Mr Warlow is optimistic that the new chairman Bernadine Rees and chief executive Steve Moore will hail a new and more positive era of work between the two bodies.

“In the past several months, under new leadership, there is far more openness and transparency between us all. We have met regularly with the chief executive and the new chairman. They have started these public meetings, at least they are going out to the public, it all bodes well for the future.

“The last Listening and Engagement exercises left a lot to be desired, we were very critical of that.

“Withybush remains the jewel in the crown for Pembrokeshire and long may it remain. I’m optimistic there’s a greater understanding of the needs of Pembrokeshire. Hopefully things can get better,” said Mr Warlow.

He pointed to more recent success such as the provision for dialysis patients at Withybush and the commitment of a new Chemotherapy Day Unit, which local campaigners have been fundraising for over many years.

The CHC is made up of volunteers and Mr Warlow paid tribute to their hard work and thanked them for the hundreds of hours they put in across the three counties as the patient watchdog, adding his work with the CHC has been the most enjoyable of his career.

“Thanks to all the people I have met that have contributed to the success of this organisation and long may the CHC continue. There must continue to be a patient watchdog. It would be a sad day if that were to disappear. In retirement I’ll keep a watching brief on local health issues,” he added.