COUNCILLORS have voted to spend £23,000 backing a protest march against controversial plans to downgrade a hospital’s accident and emergency service.

NHS proposals to centre acute care in Durham and Darlington at the expense of Bishop Auckland General Hospital have been criticised by residents since an announcement in September.

Wear Valley district councillors want to take their objections a step further by staging a protest march in the town in November.

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With support from all parties the march is no longer considered a political issue and could be funded by the authority. Draft costings are about £23,000, but the event, which may mean areas of Bishop Auckland will have to be cordoned off, must be approved by emergency services and legal advisors.

District council leader Neil Harrison proposed the march at a meeting on Wednesday night.

He said: “This council is deeply concerned at any potential reduction to patient care within Wear Valley and surrounding areas. Any planned closure or service reduction of accident and emergency provision at Bishop Auckland General Hospital runs counter to current NHS consultation, which stresses the need for a service which is responsive to local views.

“As this affects us all, and is not a political issue, I call upon all members to support a peaceful demonstration as a reflection of the community’s wishes.”

Several petitions under way in the district are thought to contain 10,000 signatures. A Save Bishop Auckland General’s accident and emergency Facebook group also has the support of nearly 3,700 members.

Councillor David Kingston said councillors must make their voices heard before public consultation ends in December. “This is the last chance we have to make our presence felt,” he said.

Councillors also decided to contact MPs Hilary Armstrong and Helen Goodman and ask them to air concerns in the House of Commons.

Councillor Neil Stonehouse said: “We are dismayed by the proposal to remove acute medical provision from Bishop Auckland.

“This amounts to a serious reduction in the delivery of medical services to the communities of south west Durham.”