MENTAL health bosses have defended a decision to delay plans to replace an obsolete hospital.

Officials agree that the County Hospital, near Durham's railway system, no longer meets modern requirements for psychiatric care.

But they argue that the current priority is to improve facilities for residents with learning disabilities.

Sandy Taylor, chief executive of County Durham and Darlington Priority Services NHS Trust, predicted that a modern replacement for the run-down County Hospital could be built within two and a half years.

"It is likely to be similar to the new hospital we are building at Darlington, although it will only be about half the size of that development," he said.

Trust bosses have agreed to delay plans to replace the County Hospital for one year to allow the learning disability project to go ahead.

Similar proposals to redevelop Earls House Hospital site, on the outskirts of Durham City, have also been put on hold for a year.

Mr Taylor said more than 50 residents with learning disabilities are being moved from outdated villas at Earls House Hospital.

By the summer, all the residents should have been transferred to more modern accommodation in specially- adapted housing.

The priority services trust has also commissioned a £20m privately-financed mental hospital in Darlington.

The new West Park hospital will replace out-of-date accommodation at The Pierremont Unit, in the grounds of Darlington Memorial Hospital.

Mr Taylor said the "favourite solution" to the question of where the new North Durham hospital should be sited was probably the Earls House site.

He said that efforts were being made to upgrade facilities at the County Hospital in line with national requirements.

"We spent £150,000 on the County last year and we are putting in another £80,000 this year," said Mr Taylor.

Separate male and female wards had been established to improve privacy for patients, he added.

Improvements to the entrance and reception were also in the pipeline.

Dave Woodhead, chief officer of North Durham Community Health Council, said: "The County is not suitable for modern health service needs.

"While we want to get the learning disability reprovision process right, we would like to see the County replaced sooner rather than later."