THE bulldozers have moved in to start work on the long-awaited new community hospital in Sedgefield.

Prime Minister Tony Blair cut the first turf to mark the start of building work on the £8m project last week.

Contracts for the project have now been signed and staff and patients will be able to move into their brand new accommodation within 12 months.

The new 42-bed hospital will replace the old hutted wards, which date back to the second world war.

The modern one-storey building is being built on the outskirts of the village and will be surrounded by gardens and secluded courtyards for both patients and visitors to enjoy.

As well as the services currently provided at the old community hospital, the new facility will have an extended x-ray department with an ultrasound service.

Current outpatient and other services such as two day hospitals, physiotherapy, occupational therapy, dietetics and foot health will also move into the new building.

Paul Trippett, chairman of South Durham Health Care NHS Trust, said: "Staff at Sedgefield Community Hospital work very hard caring for patients in less than ideal surroundings but very soon that will all change and the quality of the facilities will match the quality of care provided."

Cutting the first turf, Mr Blair said: "People in Sedgefield have long needed a modern, well-equipped hospital and it is good news that we are able to deliver that new hospital."

The hospital is being built under the Government's Private Finance Initiative. The Trust's partners are Normanby Healthcare Projects Ltd, a consortium consisting of Clugston and The Royal Bank of Scotland plc.

John Clugston, chairman of Clugston Group Ltd, said: "We are delighted to be able to start work on this new facility and turn the plans for this long awaited hospital into reality."