HEALTH leaders have promised to set out plans by the end of the year to replace a crumbling Highland hospital that a consultant surgeon was told would be built 18 years ago.

A pressure group, that includes the former head surgeon at Belford Hospital in Lochaber, said they had been given a "definite commitment" that a timetable to replace Scotland's busiest rural general will be given in December.

NHS Highland also agreed, after a meeting with campaigners, to allocate more senior staff to the project, which has stalled after land was acquired from Tesco in 2015 for £2million.

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The campaign has been led by David Sedgwick, former head surgeon at the hospital which is the main centre for mountain trauma, retired GP Michael Foxley and John Hutchison, formerly of Highland Council, who was made an MBE in 2014 for services to rural communities.

Mr Sedgwick says he was told when he was appointed in 1992 that he “would be working in a new hospital within 10 years”.

It is not the first time the Lochaber community has faced a delay for health service improvements - the current Belford hospital opened in April 1965, almost 20 years after a report had recommended a replacement. 

Mr Sedgwick said campaigners will be fighting to retain surgical capacity and has said the new hospital could be modelled on Orkney’s new £65m Balfour Hospital, which opened last year in Kirkwall.

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Mr Hutchison said the group was satisfied that progress is finally being made. 

He said:  "We now have a definite commitment to increase senior staff resources working on the project and to set a clear timetable by the end of this year that defines the steps leading up to the construction of the new Belford.” 

Kate Forbes MSP said: “I know that progress in building a new Belford Hospital has been slow, but it is good to see a renewed sense of urgency."

In 2004, plans to make major service cuts at both the Belford and the Lorn and Islands District General Hospital in Oban sparked local protests.

An independent report previously recommended that the hospitals either merge, or be downgraded to carry out day surgery only.

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A fifth of the population of Fort William is said to have turned out in protest, forcing health chiefs to put the decision on hold.

Ten years later, hundreds signed a petition calling for ante-natal scans to be re-instated after mothers were  forced to travel to Raigmore hospital in Inverness.

The health board blamed national shortages of qualified staff for the service reduction.

Professor Boyd Robertson, Chairman of NHS Highland, said: “We had a very constructive meeting with the steering group.

“We will meet again before Christmas to discuss plans for a refreshed timetable for both the replacement Belford Hospital and wider service redesign.”