THE Health Secretary has defended the delays to a planned new North-East hospital – insisting he must guard against another “PFI disaster”.

Quizzed by The Northern Echo, Jeremy Hunt said he accepted the “need” for a £300m hospital at Wynyard Park, near Billingham, and that the public supports it.

But he refused to say whether a decision would be made before next May’s general election, despite the application having been on his desk for one year.

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And he pointed to previous private finance initiative (PFI) schemes that had backfired at enormous expense to the taxpayer as the reason to tread cautiously.

Speaking at Westminster, Mr Hunt said: “I know what’s going on there, but I can’t say any more than to say it is under very close consideration.

“What I will say is that we are very careful about the business case for new hospitals now, because of the disasters we had with PFI under the last government.

“We ended up with a £73bn debt overhang in the NHS, a lot of which were very badly negotiated deals, so we really want to make sure the business case stacks up.”

Asked if a decision would come by the election, Mr Hunt said: “I’m very well aware of the need and of the popular support for that project. I can’t tell you an exact timescale, but we are on the case.”

Earlier this week, many of the region’s MPs sharply criticised the department of health (DH) for the way in which the issue was “dragging on and on”.

The planned hospital at Wynyard Park is designed to replace outdated facilities at the University Hospital of Hartlepool and University Hospital of North Tees.

North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Trust is seeking £100m of ‘public dividend capital’ – a form of Government loan – to set alongside its PFI deal.

It is now four years since ministers dramatically axed an earlier, £464m proposal for a 600-bed hospital at Wynyard Park, in the first round of Coalition cuts.

Ironically – given Mr Hunt’s comments yesterday (June 17) – that would have avoided the use of PFI, but was deemed unaffordable because of the “shocking” state of the public finances.

However, ministers later conceded that continuing to run the ageing general hospitals in Hartlepool and Stockton will cost around £200m more, over 35 years.

Last month, the go-ahead was given for a new £420m hospital in Brighton – to be funded entirely with Government cash, rather than loans or PFI.

Alex Cunningham, the Stockton North MP, said: “There can be no doubt we need an up-to-date hospital, given the health inequalities in this part of the country.

“To say it’s only under consideration, four years after the first project was scrapped, strikes me as a little complacent at best.”