EXCLUSIVEBy Patrick LowmanA SENIOR county councillor has said she expected a hospital threatened with closure on safety grounds will stay open.Suffolk County Council executive committee member Kathy Pollard said a senior fire inspector from Suffolk Fire Service had told her the 68-bed Walnuttree Hospital in Sudbury could be made perfectly safe until the town's long-awaited £20million replacement is opened in 2007.
By Patrick Lowman
A SENIOR county councillor has said she expected a hospital threatened with closure on safety grounds will stay open.
Suffolk County Council executive committee member Kathy Pollard said a senior fire inspector from Suffolk Fire Service had told her the 68-bed Walnuttree Hospital in Sudbury could be made perfectly safe until the town's long-awaited £20million replacement is opened in 2007.
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She claimed the inspector had said he thought an independent report had overpriced and overstated the amount of work needed to make the hospital manageable.
Ms Polldard added the official had told her work could be carried out at the hospital at a much lower cost than that suggested in an independent fire assessment commissioned by West Suffolk Hospitals Trust.
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The trust has said it would be forced to close the hospital if the independent assessment concluded the 168-year-old hospital was a high risk.
But on Friday the trust board seemed to make an about-turn by voting not to decide on future of the hospital until it had consultated Suffolk Fire Service.
At the board meeting Ken Hancock, from Aims, which carried out the independent assessment, said the hospital had serious deficiencies and posed a high fire risk.
The report suggested it would cost more than £3million and take up to two years to make the hospital fully compliant to safety regulations.
But Ms Pollard said: "The senior fire officer told me there is absolutely no need to close Walnutree and, as I understood it, indicated work could be carried out to make it perfectly safe until 2007.
"I discussed the findings of the independent report with him and I was told the level of work and costs it suggested seemed to be exaggerated.
"I was told there is work that could be done much cheaper to make the hospital manageable in the short to medium term and there is no need to make it fully compliant."
Ms Pollard added she had been told most of the risks at the hospital could be solved by the installation of a sprinkler system, which could be done at a reasonable cost.
"I am very concerned because it seems to me that the unrealistic figures in the independent report will be used to justify closure," she said.
"It seems the costings and the amount of work needed has been inflated when in the opinion of our own fire experts there are other much simpler and cheaper options available."
Suffolk Fire Service carried out an inspection at the hospital in 2003 and concluded the risk could be safely managed until 2006, then the predicted opening date for the new hospital.
Campaigners fighting to say Walnuttree Hospital said they were confident the fire service would now suggest it was still manageable until 2007.
The trust's chief executive, Chris Bown, said: "The duty of the board is to see whether we can continue to manage the risk and that is why we must liaise with the fire service. We need to see what level of compliance we need to take to Walnuttree."