HEALTH chiefs' plans to close a ward for elderly patients could sound the death knell for a small community hospital.

The County Durham and Darlington Acute Hospitals Trust is to carry out consultations on shutting the 20-bed Holmside Ward at South Moor Hospital, near Craghead, Stanley.

It is used to accommodate patients who have had an operation or illness in an acute hospital, and are awaiting a move to a nursing or residential care home.

The hospital also has a small outpatients department that is open five times a week, a foot clinic and an X-ray machine and offices for backroom staff.

The ward was closed temporarily from August until the end of January, because it had been less than half full following a change in regulations to speed up discharges from acute hospitals, and difficulties in staff recruitment and retention.

The outpatients and X-ray facilities are to move to the health centre planned to open in Stanley in 2008-9, along with the foot clinic.

A report to the trust board said there were "concerns about the sustainability'' of the X-ray service, because the equipment needs replacing and radiographers were concerned about working alone in an isolated part of the hospital.

Hospitals at Shotley Bridge, Chester-le-Street and University Hospital, in Durham, could absorb South Moor's work and backroom staff and health visitors based at South Moor would be moved elsewhere.

The board also heard that the hospital needs £500,000 of maintenance.

Head of corporate affairs Edmund Lovell said: "The trust no longer requires the beds at South Moor Hospital because of the success in cutting discharge delays, where someone is ready to go home but cannot for reasons beyond their control.''

He added that closing the beds would "have implications for the sustainability of other services'' at the hospital.

But he said that the trust could not make a decision about closing the hospital until consultation on the ward closure had been completed and a decision made.

While the consultation is being carried out, the trust will make contingency plans for relocating the services due to go to Stanley while the health centre is being built.