Highland MSP Kate Forbes has said she will join a mass protest by constituents who have reacted furiously to further delays to a new hospital already overdue by 25 years.

Health boards have been told by the Scottish Government that no money is available for new construction projects for two years.

The freeze will delay plans to replace the crumbling and 'functionally unsuitable' Belford Hospital in Fort William, which was expected to be replaced by 2002 and is Scotland's busiest rural general.

Plans for the new £160 million hospital are at an advanced stage, with preparatory ground works carried out at the site, which was purchased nine years ago.

Work is also progressing on the full business case, which is due to be submitted by October and NHS Highland was preparing to release 'first look' images to the media in December.

The Herald: Belford Hospital: Former head surgeon David Sedgwick was promised a new hospital by 2002Belford Hospital: Former head surgeon David Sedgwick was promised a new hospital by 2002 (Image: Colin Mearns/Newsquest)

A day of action is planned in Fort William on March 16.  The last time a mass protest was held over plans to downgrade the hospital in 2003, removing emergency services, more than 2000 people turned up. 

Kate Forbes SNP MSP for Lochaber, Skye and Badenoch, has said she will join the marchers.

The politician has been praised by local activists for her efforts to progress the long-awaited rebuild.

She said:  “The people of Lochaber have waited 25 years for a new hospital, since it was first promised in the 90s.

"Over the last couple of years, progress has finally accelerated with extensive support for new plans.

“To suspend planning and design work now, after such progress, would waste years of finance, work and energy.

"I will be marching alongside the local communities and I hope this will demonstrate the strength of feeling on why NHS Highland must proceed with the planning and design.

"This is the only way to maintain momentum, preserve community support and keep the hope alive that we will one day see a new Belford."


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She said it was encouraging that the new Health Secretary Neil Gray had "acknowledged the merit" in progressing with plans.

NHS Highland has said it intends to proceed with initial designs, which will take the project to Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) Stage 2.

A spokeswoman said: "Thereafter, development work will be paused, though we will continue working to produce the Outline Business Case in-house in order to be ready to pick up the project again as soon as capital funding resumes."

However, former Highland council leader and GP Michael Foxley, part of a stakeholders group, has written an open letter to Mr Gray, politicians and NHS Highland calling for the plan to be advanced beyond this stage.

He writes: "The news from the SG that further detailed work by NHSH was to stop came as a huge shock. 

"Further design work must continue to take the project to RIBA Stage 3, which will allow discussions  to start with the planners in April, as we were advised by the architects at the December meeting. 

"We want NHSH to be funded by the Scottish Government to continue with external consultants to allow the Outline Business Case to be completed by October as scheduled."

"We want the Cab Sec for Health to authorize NHSH to continue this work to get to that sensible stage."

In an exclusive interview with The Herald in Fort William last month, clinical lead Dr Steve Gilbert, said staff morale had "taken a big hit".

He said most people would be surprised to see the hospital's "tiny A&E waiting room and handful of emergency cubicles" given the volume of patients it sees.

The Herald: Steve Gilbert, clinical director of Belford hospital Steve Gilbert, clinical director of Belford hospital (Image: Colin Mearns/Newsquest)

The 34-bed hospital deals with around 10,000 A&E cases a year, including mountain and road accidents on the A82 as well as routine emergencies including heart attacks and strokes. Numbers spike during the Summer months when there is a huge influx of tourists.

"We want to be able to offer the same care as a hospital in Glasgow," said Dr Gilbert, who is also a consultant in anaesthetics and pain medicine.

"We've got to nearly the end of planning the new hospital and so it was a massive blow that the Government said there is no money left."