IT was built eight years ago for use mainly by foreigners, but the facilities at the HCI hospital in Clydebank could soon be available to help reduce waiting times in Scotland.

The Scottish Executive is believed to be set to buy the hospital so that its facilities can be exploited to cut waiting times for patients, particularly those with heart disease and cancer.

However, the move brought criticism from the opposition SNP and Tories.

Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP shadow health minister, could not believe that the executive was considering buying a private hospital after reducing NHS beds by 650 since Labour came to power.

Mary Scanlon, Tory health spokeswoman, said ministers were afflicted by the politics of envy and there was no point in buying a private hospital which was already available to everyone.

When HCI opened after years of controversy during its planning stages - and fierce opposition from NHS unions - it offered treatment for wealthy foreigners as well as Mediterranean and North African patients funded by their own health care systems.

Lately, that market has come under pressure. Greece is now enticing the NHS to send patients over to its newest hospital.

Since devolution, the Labour-led executive has been frustrated in its efforts to reduce waiting times and lists.

Ministers are said to have concluded a simple takeover is the obvious solution, but there are complicated negotiations ahead. Malcolm Chisholm, health minister, will also be under pressure not to be seen paying too much, given the hospital's history of accepting generous state assistance.

Just how a publicly-owned HCI would fit into the needs of the NHS is another factor being considered. There are no national figures for the number of NHS patients treated so far at HCI, although it is known that Glasgow alone has sent 360 patients there for treatment this year.

Ms Sturgeon said buying a publicly-subsidised private hospital after cutting NHS beds suggested the executive did not know what it was doing.

''There are many questions to which I want answers,'' she said. ''One, how much will the executive pay for this hospital, given the amount of public subsidy which has been poured into it over the years? Two, who will run and staff it when we already have shortages of consultants in Glasgow?''

The hospital has been surrounded by controversy since its opening in 1994. The project promised 1800 jobs, but the hospital and its adjoining hotel went into receivership just 110 days after opening at a cost of (pounds) 180m - much of it from the taxpayer.

The Abu-Dhabi Investment Company took over ownership and relaunched it as HCI International Medical Centre in 1995.

Boston doctors Angelo Eraklis and Raphael Levey were the brains behind the original project, Healthcare International, and were backed by (pounds) 37m of Scottish Office and other public sector funds.

The project was eligible for financial support on the same basis as any other commercial venture offering the prospect of new investment and employment in an assisted area. The application for Regional Selective Assistance (RSA) was appraised on the same basis as any other application.

The Scottish Industrial Development Advisory Board (SIDAB) recommended in April 1988 financial assistance of (pounds) 12m. However, as a result of developments including a European Court of Justice ruling which produced an extra VAT liability on the construction of hospitals, agreement was reached with the Treasury that the offer of RSA grant should be increased to (pounds) 22m.

A formal offer of this amount was made in March 1990 and RSA provided the major element of public sector assistance. When the company went into receivership, (pounds) 18.6m of RSA grant had been paid.

More controversy arose recently when HCI signed a deal to carry out bypass operations for up to 240 NHS patients from Liverpool. The executive had refused to sign any long-term contracts with HCI and was accused of putting ideology before patient need.

Opposition politicians demanded to know why patients in Scotland could wait for up to 12 months for surgery while patients in Liverpool could be travelling to Clydebank for treatment if they were waiting longer than six months. In fact, says the executive, the average wait for heart surgery in Scotland is two-and-a-half months.

Dr John Garner, chairman of the Scottish Council of the BMA said: ''The BMA welcomes the news that the Scottish Executive is to buy the HCI hospital in Clydebank. This represents a great opportunity to increase capacity within the NHS in Scotland. It allows the potential to develop another centre of excellence for the treatment of cancer or heart disease.

''It may prove to be a positive and creative move by the Scottish Executive. We are keen to see that this hospital be wholly integrated within the NHS, offering the staff who work there the benefits of being employed by the health service such as the NHS superannuation scheme.''