PATIENTS will begin to reap the benefits of a new £10m hospital this week after a two-year building project.

Chester-le-Street Community Hospital has been built on the site of the town's former hospital, using Private Finance Initiative cash. It has 39 beds, four palliative care beds, a children's centre, a day hospital for the elderly and a pharmacy.

It also has a full range of outpatient clinics which will be opening next week, including radiology, dentistry, podiatry, speech and language therapy, as well as a physiotherapy treatment unit with gym facilities.

Hospital equipment and patients are being moved to the new site this week.

Emphasis has been placed on making the building light, airy and attractive for patients and it includes a terrace cafe and a courtyard with an ornamental pond.

The hospital replaced a 19th Century building, which was demolished to make way for the development at the beginning of 2001. During construction work patients have been cared for in temporary ward facilities at Highfield Hospital, off Newcastle Road.

County Durham and Tees Valley NHS Strategic Health Authority spokesman Xerxes Setna said: "This week we're starting to transfer inpatients and ward equipment from the old hospital. Next week, the outpatients clinic and centres will open and start operating, although we are not having an official opening until the place is up and running."

Chester-le-Street District Council leader Linda Ebbatson said: "This is very good news for the town. I'm sure both the staff and patients who have been using the Highfield Hospital site will very much welcome the new facilities."

Durham and Chester-le-Street Primary Care Trust and the North East Ambulance Service are also located on the site, with dedicated road access for the two ambulances based there.

As with the old hospital, the centre does not have an accident and emergency unit. But unlike other recently-built, privately financed hospitals, it has not lost out on facilities. The £67m Bishop Auckland General Hospital lost its obstetrics, special care baby unit and paediatric services to Darlington Memorial Hospital when it was rebuilt and the University Hospital of North Durham has come in for much criticism because of a shortage beds.