A retired GP has spoken of his “utter dismay” after it emerged that a Highland community waiting 20 years for a new hospital will face further delays.
Plans to replace the “functionally inadequate” and dilapidated Belford with a new single-bed hospital in Fort William by 2026 were agreed by NHS Highland in December last year.
The health board has now pushed back the completion date to 2028, saying design and construction of the net-zero hospital will take longer than anticipated.
Belford was built in 1965 and is now the last of Scotland’s six rural generals to be replaced or upgraded.
A recent health board report found that “nearly every aspect of the hospital” does not meet modern construction guidelines, which has led to “significant deficiencies” in areas including infection control.
Constituency MSP Kate Forbes, currently on maternity leave from her government role as finance minister, acknowledged that 2026, the initial date given, “seems a long way off”.
A motion was debated in Highland Council yesterday, tabled by Lib Dem Councilor John Grafton, calling on the Highland Council to put pressure on the Scottish Government to speed up funding for the new hospital for this parliamentary term. The cost has been estimated at between £120 and £140 million.
Maxine Smith, an independent councilor for the Cromarty Firth, questioned what message the 1960s-dated building was sending to tourists in an area known as the UK’s outdoor capital.
She said, “Disappoint Fort William.”
A majority of councilors voted in favor of an amendment, tabled by SNP Councilor Sarah Fanet, who said the motion was “premature” given NHS Highland’s revised completion date.
The council agreed to lobby the health board for regular updates on the business model “which is key to securing funding for the project”.
Dr Michael Foxley, a former Highland Council leader, said that even if government funding came forward, the health board “would not be ready”.
In a letter to NHS Highland leader Pam Dudek, she writes: “We were very dismayed to learn that the completion date had been pushed back two years to 2028.
“The end date in 2018 was 2022.
“Basically, we know that the NHS Highland administration wasted given years while building new hospitals in Aviemore and Broadford, as well as the National Treatment Center in Inverness.
“We don’t yet have a draft clinical model to discuss, a housing schedule, or a site plan for the new hospital and associated parking lot.”
He added: “Locally, we have been lobbying senior members of the SG to come forward with funding only to find that the current stage of their work will not allow this.”
John Hutchison, one of the community stakeholders, has asked NHS Highland to make Belford a “much higher priority” to achieve the above timeline.
There are approximately 10,000 A&E attendances each year at the Belford with a high proportion related to mountaineering in the UK’s renowned outdoor capital.
Kate Forbes, SNP MSP for Skye, Badenoch and Lochaber, said: “Everyone wants to see a new Belford hospital built as quickly as possible, and it has been talked about since the Liberal Democrats were last in the ruling administration in the Scottish Parliament: Something the proponent of this motion seems to have forgotten.
“I agree that 2026 seems a long way off, but the bottom line is that plans are progressing and it will take time to build a new hospital and complete the budget process.”
The health board is proposing to rebuild the hospital on an alternative site in Blàr Mòr on a site purchased by Highland Council seven years ago.
Former chief surgeon David Sedgwick says that when he took office in 1992 he was assured that a new hospital would be built in Lochaber within 10 years.
A spokesperson for NHS Highland said: “The Scottish Government has advised that construction funding cannot be secured before April 2026, however, with their support and agreement, we will move forward with design work on the hospital and continue to develop our business case to be ready to proceed should funds become available sooner.