HEALTH bosses are planning to spend £124,000 doing up a mental hospital which is earmarked for closure.

The Pierremont Unit, in the grounds of Darlington Memorial Hospital, is due to be shut within three years as part of modernisation plans.

But County Durham and Darlington Priority Services NHS Trust is to invest £124,000 to meet the Department of Health's deadline for abolishing mixed sex facilities.

Because the trust could not afford to meet the estimated £600,000 bill for providing separate facilities at all its mental health units, it has been given a special cash injection by the Northern and Yorkshire NHS Executive, to cover the full cost of improvements.

A total of £193,000 will be spent to improve facilities at the County Hospital, as well as £129,000 for work at the Allensford unit.

While there is some unease about spending scarce NHS funds on a worn-out facility, trust officials say at least the changes will provide better facilities for patients in the few remaining years of the unit's life.

Health chiefs also say they have no alternative because of Government rules.

Mental health officials in County Durham have declared that the Pierremont Unit is unsuitable to deliver modern-style care.

In order to improve care to patients with mental health problems the trust plans to close the Woodland Road unit by 2004 and move across Darlington to a new, purpose-built mental hospital.

The new hospital will form part of the multi-million pound Faverdale redevelopment.

The Government says it is committed to phasing out all mixed sex hospital accommodation in 95 per cent of health authority areas by 2002.

Official guidance says that NHS staff should take steps to "ensure the safety, privacy and dignity of patients".

Recent guidance specified that all hospital units should have "discreet male and female areas with separate washing facilities".

Chris Parsons, director of facilities management at the Priority Services trust, said: "We had to ask the region for help because we do not have a vast amount of money. The changes we plan to make will give patients at least three years' worth of better privacy and dignity."

Despite concerns that the unit may be disposed of within a few years, Mr Parsons said he supported the investment being made.

A spokeswoman for Darlington Memorial Hospital said the South Durham trust had no plans to use the empty Pierremont Unit.