ALMOST £5m will be spent on planning a contentious NHS programme in what campaigners and MPs are calling an ‘absolute scandal’.

Figures uncovered by The Northern Echo and Darlington MP Jenny Chapman reveal the proposed Better Health programme will cost the region an estimated £4.7m in planning costs before the end of 2017.

The contentious programme, now in a ‘public engagement’ phase, aims to improve health services and reduce variations in quality of care received by patients across Durham, Darlington and Teesside.

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However, campaigners believe plans to establish specialist centres across the region could result in the downgrading of services including A&E departments and consultant-led maternity units at some North-East hospitals.

Darlington’s MP Jenny Chapman is now leading calls to axe Better Health after figures reveal experts working on the plan and its implementation have cost the public purse millions since 2013.

She believes spending on Better Health represents a “horrific waste of public money” and is urging the NHS to suspend the programme.

Funded by five local CCGs, Better Health – previously Securing Quality in Hospital Services - cost £555,875 in 2013/14; £425,748 in 2014/15; £580,000 in 2015/16 and a startling £3.1m in estimated costs for 2016/17.

The stark rise in costs for 2016/17 has been attributed to a new phase of the programme that involves more intensive work and public consultation.

This year, £1m will be spent in estimated costs on funding the ‘core project team’, who manage the overall programme and its planning.

A further £1m will be spent on ‘finance and modelling’, i.e. engaging with experts and securing “consultancy support” to ascertain the possible financial impact of changes and how services should be modelled in the future.

An already heavily criticised programme of communication and public engagement will cost a further £500,000 while a pot of £100,000 has been earmarked for contingency plans.

The programme’s spokesman was unable to provide a breakdown of spending in relation to another £500,000 categorised as ‘other’.

Earlier this year, Ms Chapman launched the Save Our Services campaign in an attempt to resist any downgrading of services at Darlington Memorial and other hospitals as a result of the Better Health programme.

Last month, she took the fight to Parliament, asking the Secretary of State for Health to reveal the costs of the initiative to date, with The Northern Echo then securing a further breakdown of 2016/17 estimated spending.

Ms Chapman said: “Spending millions of pounds on a programme that may lead to the closure of local health services is unforgivable - this needs to stop and stop immediately.

“It is disgusting to spend this much NHS money and have absolutely nothing to show for it, there is no excuse.

“How many nurses, doctors, physiotherapists, midwives or health visitors could have been employed instead?

“Patients, staff and all tax payers will be appalled – those responsible need to apologise and suspend this programme immediately.

“They need to consider what really matters to local people.”

Fellow campaigner and Upper Dales North Yorkshire county councillor John Blackie believes potential changes could leave people in the Dales having to travel up to 60 miles to access some hospital services.

He echoed Ms Chapman’s concerns and criticised spending on public engagement, saying the process had been flawed and failed to consider those living in areas including Hawes.

Cllr Blackie said the budget represented an “absolute scandal” and said he would be “manning the barricades” in the face of any threat to hospital services.

He said: “It is completely and utterly outrageous and has been a complete waste of money.

“I’d far rather that money is spent on maintaining front line services and question how it has actually been spent – I know it was not on meaningful and thorough public engagement.”

Alex Wild, research director of the TaxPayers’ Alliance said while reorganisations were not always a bad thing for the taxpayer, costs should be controlled when budgets are tight.

He said: “Half a million pounds is a huge amount to spend on ‘comms and engagement’ and surely this money could have been better spent on front line care.”

However, a Better Health spokesman said funds were being spent on vitally important work, with recent increases necessary to “take forward the work of our consultants and GPs” and look in detail at the issues facing medical services.

He added: “The increase in our budget reflects the detailed financial modelling, stakeholder and public engagement and other, more detailed work.

“This is vitally important work when addressing potentially significant strategic change.

“The Better Health programme has been a piece of work led by senior clinical staff looking at how to reduce variations in the quality of care received by patients across Durham, Darlington and Tees by meeting national standards and guidance.

“The costs relate to support the NHS has funded to help these clinicians in their work.”