THE former head surgeon at Scotland’s busiest rural general hospital has urged health chiefs to "future proof" its long-awaited replacement.

NHS Highland has committed to building a new hospital in Fort-William for the Lochaber area to replace the crumbling Belford, which is Scotland’s main centre for mountain trauma. Campaigners hope the project is finally gathering pace after years of slow progress. 

A meeting was held earlier this week where clinicians gave an overview of their preferred clinical model, which is still to be finalised but is expected to expand surgical and orthopaedic capacity and renal dialysis facilities.

HeraldScotland:

The new hospital is to be build on vacant land that was acquired from Tesco around five years ago at a cost of £2million. The initial agreement for the business case will be presented to the Scottish Government in November.

READ MORE: Doctors' pressure group welcomes plan to replace crumbling Highland hospital after 18-year delay 

David Sedgwick has said that when he took up his surgical post in 1992, he was assured by health leaders that a new hospital would be in place “in the next ten years”.

He described the latest meeting of the project’s steering group as “positive”.

“I think there is progress," said Mr Sedgwick. "They are talking about increasing surgical capacity which is a really important step.

HeraldScotland:

“We argued and argued with them about two theatres and now it’s accepted that there are going to be two so we are making progress.

“We hope that the project team will incorporate the aspirations of the staff and the community to provide a healthcare facility that is future proofed to provide appropriate services for the inhabitants of Lochaber and the visitors to Lochaber.

“We are going to build a facility that is not just for 2023 or 2024. We want something that is going to be useful 50 years on. The problem with the old Belford is that they made plans to develop it and to increase the size of it but building regulations changed and they couldn’t then do it on the site.

“They realised that in 1995 and that’s when they had the option appraisal and said they would make a few minor changes - a new A&E etc  whilst they were then making a decision on the definitive option which was either nine years of disruption on the local site building onto a cramped site or to take a greenfield site on the Blar Mhor.

“But that didn’t happen, which is why we are where we are at this point. It needs to be future-proofed so that you can add on or develop and it’s not going to be a cramped site.

He added: "Hopefully we will learn from the challenges that were in the old design.”

READ MORE: Letters: The community is as determined as ever to fight for a new hospital 

Doctors say the hospital, which opened in 1965, has excellent and well-trained staff but is not fit-for-purpose. It has one operating theatre and routine operations can be postponed if there are emergency cases.

Services have gradually been eroded and patients must travel to Raigmore hospital in Inverness for the majority of specialist clinics.

Mr Sedgwick said he also hoped to see a ‘place of safety’ created for patients with mental health disorders who require intensive support.

“It’s a sore miss because we rely on the police and ambulance service to ship these patients to appropriate services, usually in Inverness.”

Scottish finance secretary, Kate Forbes,  MSP for Lochaber, Skye and Badenoch has said previously that she has been frustrated at the lack of progress by NHS Highland in progressing the plan.

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. 

READ MORE: Anger over hospital delay as doctor brands health board "Inverness-centric"

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.

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.

Mr Sedwick said no timescale was given for the completion of the project.

He said: “The next meeting is in six weeks which is a long way away and we need the momentum."

Louise Bussell, NHS Highland’s Chief Officer said: “I am very grateful to all of the clinicians for giving their time to allow members of the steering group to gain a better understanding of the future clinical model in Lochaber. 

 “We know there is much work still to do but it is encouraging to see how plans are coming together across services such as the renal unit, outpatients department, our support services and A&E. 

“The presentations provided a lot of detail as to how services will adapt and develop along with the wider redesign in the area to ensure we continue to deliver high-quality, patient-centred health and social care to the people of Lochaber. “