Sir Leonard Fenwick - Keeping the North East at the forefront of care and innovation

Jesmond-born Sir Leonard Fenwick is the longest serving NHS hospital chief executive. He speaks to Francesca Craggs about approaching 50 years in the health sector and his commitment to protecting and preserving Newcastle’s Town Moors

Sir Leonard Fenwick CBE
Sir Leonard Fenwick CBE

When it comes to the Freemen of Newcastle, there are few aspects of its colourful history Sir Leonard Fenwick CBE can’t recall.

His enthusiasm for the ancient organisation is clear to see, as is his passion for preserving and improving the 1,200 acres of Town Moor that surround the city.

Despite his 37-year full-time role as chief executive of The Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, Sir Leonard has also dedicated 27 years to being at the helm of the Freemen of Newcastle. He took over as chairman in 1987, at the unusually young age of 40. Such a title, he says, is normally adopted by those with retirement in their sights.

And unlike his many other honorary accolades, science degrees from Newcastle and Northumbria universities and a Showman’s Guild membership, his Freeman right is one he duly inherited through his family’s shipbuilding past. Today, the Freemen’s fundamental role is the ongoing care and development of Newcastle Town Moors.

Having grown up with The Hoppings on his doorstep, and even worked on the travelling fair as a teenager, Sir Leonard, 66, is pleased to see its return to the Town Moor this week.

Part of the moor’s history for the past 131 years, the event was cancelled last year due to a reputed disagreement between The Freemen and the Showmen’s Guild of Great Britain about rent and pitch terms. According to Sir Leonard however, it was the Great British weather that proved the overriding spoiler.

He said: “The underlying issue was the weather. With all the good will in the world there could not have been a fair ground on the moor in 2013. Over the past two years, the Freemen have invested £150,000 to improve drainage on the moors, using methods that go back 200 years. There is more work to be done, but we can only do so much at a time.”

Now Europe’s largest travelling fair, The Hoppings is an important part of the city calender, according to Sir Leonard.

“For around 500 years, there’s been a tradition of gatherings on the Town Moor. And when I was a young lad, the fair signified the school holidays. It’s also a great boost for the local economy.”

Like any organisation, Sir Leonard has been keen to ensure the Freemen of Newcastle move with the times. One of the most significant developments being the inclusion of women, with the first Lady Freeman sworn into the Freelage in 2010.

Sir Leonard, who lives in Gosforth, said: “We took the initiative nationally, ensuring women had unequivocal rights. Particularly because it’s hereditary.

“We felt it must be made a right and we went to law to achieve that. Lady Freeman are proactive and challenging and all to the good. It’s been significant and I think as the clock rolls on they will be in the majority. It’s been a tremendous refresh and it’s come at the right time.”

The Freemen’s complete social structure is its strength, says Sir Leonard.

He said: “There’s no social barrier and Freemen come from all walks of life. They have a common purpose. They are guardians of Newcastle Town Moor. Without the Freemen of the city, the Town Moor would not be there. And if the cattle do not graze, there would be no Town Moor.

“We’ve seen improvements to the footpaths, highways, lighting, cycleways, and drainage. We could sit back and say our overriding responsibility is good pasture for the animals.

“But we’ve moved on. It’s working with others in the community to ensure the moor is not just sustained as a moor, but also it’s improved in relation to facilities.”

Sir Leonard’s greatest success however, is undoubtedly his 50 year career with the NHS. Born and bred in West Jesmond, Newcastle, his aspirations growing up veered towards a job in geological sciences. However an opportunity to join the NHS as a management trainee at the age of 18, would be the start of a long and illustrious career.

His first post was at the Royal Victoria Infirmary in 1965, followed by an administrative officer’s role at the new Hull Royal Infirmary at just 20 years old.

Sir Leonard said: “That sounds impossible now, but there was more confidence then.

I applied speculatively to join the NHS training scheme, and was offered the opportunity. A bird in the hand. By that opportunity I probably gained three or four years advantage over my peers.

“The sponsorship and the training was challenging, on occasions unforgiving, however there were some real dragons who did wish to see young people succeed and that rubbed off. You were stretched with responsibility and really pushed. I was thrown in at the deep end. You either did 50m across the pool, or you drowned.

“That, combined with a little bit of right place, right time, right opportunity.”

Sir Leonard returned to Newcastle in the Seventies and was involved in the planning and design of the dental hospital and school. He then became commissioning manager for the former Freeman Road hospital, before being made chief executive of the newly founded Freeman Group of Hospitals NHS Trust in 1977. A major merger of the three teaching hospitals in Newcastle led to the establishment of the Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Trust.

Sir Leonard is now the longest serving NHS hospital chief executive.

He said: “I’ve seen some huge changes and there are more to come. Key milestones have to be the successful opening of the Freeman Hospital in Newcastle, which involved the closure and transfer of 10 hospitals and clinics.

“I was also involved in the first wave pioneering NHS Trust in 1990, and then Foundation Trust in 2006 which is a public benefit corporation.

“Also the ongoing redevelopment of Newcastle hospitals, that involves community-based clinics, right through to internationally established high specialised services.”

And this week the Trust unveiled plans for a £30m development of heart services at The Freeman Hospital in Newcastle.

Planning permission has been sought for the development of the hospital’s Cardiothoracic Centre, which is a regional and national centre of excellence. The move comes at a time when uncertainty surrounds the future of heart services in the region.

Sir Leonard said: “Our history and quality will see us through. Newcastle is in the international top five.

“The new centre is an expansion to the current services. It’s to provide more modern, sustainable conditions, high technology, intervention care environment for children, to build upon what already exists.

“The spur for us is to continue to innovate and ensure that there are good outcomes.”

With 13,500 staff and almost a billion pound turnover, Sir Leonard’s role is undoubtedly a challenging one.

He said: “My day to day job is to ensure public expectations are met, consistently. Also keeping pace, ensuring investment and change, and innovation in healthcare delivery.

“It’s about sustaining good governance, day by day, in everything that we do. And keeping a close eye on the quality of outcome of service, as well as income and expenditure and related investment. And we continue to grow.”

Research and innovation are key, according to Sir Leonard.

“Together with Newcastle University, it’s one of the largest clinical research organisations in the country. Our aim is to keep pace and provide, with a range of partners, education and training which again does benefit the North East economy.”

Sir Leonard was knighted for his services to the NHS in 2008.

“It was a proud moment, but I personally saw it as an acknowledgement of the calibre of staff that work in the health service in Newcastle and their commitment. It’s second to none.

“The Newcastle Hospitals staff stand up and be counted, they go the extra mile, they innovate, they don’t back off.”

Like any business, the Trust faces key challenges within the sector.

“The Trust has to continue to diversify and further broaden the service portfolio. People are living an extra 10 years. You can’t place all frail and elderly people in hospitals. The modus operandi has to be able to reach out into the community by working with the third sector, and by better educating and supporting families.

“It’s going to be more about what’s happening outside the hospital walls, than within the hospital walls.”

Despite the current debate about privatisation within the NHS, Sir Leonard says it does have a role to play, particularly within the care industry.

“I’m delighted to stand side by side with the private sector and also in face to face competition. If the tax payer is to receive a better, more cost-effective, high-quality facility and delivery from the private sector, so be it.

“That’s a spur for a Foundation Trust to do better. For me it’s what’s best for the tax payer. There’s a lot of joint working in partnerships and it’s not hidden away. It’s explicit.”

With a seven day working week, Sir Leonard doesn’t have much spare time for hobbies. Apart from his passion for the moors environment, he has a penchant for ageing motor cars and owns a 1963 Morgan Plus 4.

He said: “The Morgan is a dangerous machine and ridiculously fast. I’ve got a bit of a weakness towards ageing motorcars from my father. He had the first driving school in Jesmond in the 1920s and also owned Grosvenor Works Garage.

“I also had a psychedelic Mini which I purchased from a painter and decorator in Hull for £50.”

So what drives Sir Leonard after 50 years in the sector?

“Every day is different. There’s a great deal of innovation and so much more to be done. It’s playing an active part in that. It’s in my home city. Newcastle has so much to offer.

“It’s a small city with great people and lots of pride. But woe betide if you don’t meet expectations. That’s the spur.”

Sir Leonard Fenwick CBE
Sir Leonard Fenwick CBE

The Questionnaire

What car do you drive?
Mazda CX5

What’s your favourite restaurant?
The Waterfront, North Shields Fish Quay (best fish and chips)

Who or what makes you laugh? 
Cringe more likely – the current Speaker of the House of Commons

What’s your favourite book?
John Brand – History of Newcastle upon Tyne

What was the last album you bought?
Lionel Ritchie

What’s your ideal job, other than the one you’ve got?
Construction Clerk of Works

If you had a talking parrot, what’s the first thing you would teach it to say?
Onwards and upwards

What’s your greatest fear?

What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received?
Listen, research then make your own mind up – stay focused, do not be deflected by ringside commentators

And the worst?
Scale back the scope of capital investment in the Newcastle Hospitals and relocate the Royal Victoria Infirmary on a brown field site away from the city centre – obviously not a runner

What’s your poison?

What newspapers do you read, other than The Journal?

How much was your first pay packet and what was it for?
13 shillings (newspaper delivery round)

How do you keep fit?
Shamefully very little endeavour in this regard

What’s your most irritating habit?
Talking across people

What’s your biggest extravagance?
Nothing comes to mind!

Which historical or fictional character do you most identify with or admire?
Kingdom Brunel

How would you like to be remembered?
Having made a positive contribution in sustaining Newcastle as a great city of which we can all be proud


David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer