Controversy over choice of new NHS Lothian boss

Jackie Baillie. Picture: Julie Bull
Jackie Baillie. Picture: Julie Bull
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Controversy today surrounds the appointment of Lothian’s newest NHS boss after it emerged he lives on the other side of the country and has no experience in healthcare.

Brian Houston, an accountant and management consultant, will lead NHS Lothian – Scotland’s second biggest health board with a £1.4 billion annual budget – for the next four years as chairman. One of the requirements of the role, which attracts a £40,000 salary for working three days a week, was that candidates should live in or have their “main place of work” in the area the health board serves.

But Mr Houston lives in East Ayrshire, and while he does hold a non-executive director post with Hibs, it is understood that the role is advisory.

It was not a requirement that the new chairman should have past experience in healthcare, but it is understood that Mr Houston’s lack of expertise in the area has caused concern internally among some at the health board.

Senior sources at NHS Lothian moved quickly to insist that the new chief had made an excellent first impression and pointed out that heads of health boards are often chosen for transferable skills they have gained in other areas.

But Labour MSP Jackie Baillie, shadow health secretary, raised questions over the Scottish Government appointment.

She said: “Given the difficulties that NHS Lothian is facing, it would seem a strange decision to bring in someone with no obvious health background and with no obvious roots within Lothian to drive through the dramatic changes needed.”

One NHS Lothian insider said they believed the appointment was “very strange” and questioned whether Mr Houston had the knowledge to lead the organisation, which employs 24,000 staff and looks after 800,000 people.

However, other NHS Lothian sources backed the appointment of Mr Houston, who is to embark on an extensive tour of health facilities throughout the region to meet with staff. One said: “This guy has massive experience. If there are doubts, he’ll win people over very quickly.”

Hibs were unable to say today how much time Mr Houston spends in Edinburgh on club duties, although it is understood he was born in the Edinburgh region, where he has lived for a significant part of his life.

Health board chief executive Tim Davison said: “He has international experience of planning and directing major organisational change which is exactly what we need at this time within NHS Lothian.”

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said Mr Houston had met the criteria for the role.