CAMPAIGNERS in Okehampton are stepping up a fight to get inpatient beds back at the town’s hospital after fears that its future could be hanging in the balance.

It comes after plans by NHS Devon to return wards which have remained empty since 2017 to its property landlord NHS Property Services, saving £200,000 a year on rent.

NHS Devon, which is facing a £40 million deficit, wants to reduce spending on empty space, but the move has raised fears that the hospital, said to be underused by health officials, could be further scaled down and closed.

As well as losing beds, the birthing centre has been closed for many years due, the NHS says, to a lack of midwives.

Representatives from Okehampton Hospital were among people protesting to save Devon hospitals at County Hall recently, urging Devon County Council to put pressure on the NHS to recognise the importance of community facilities.

Cllr Jan Goffey of the North Dartmoor Health Initiative and an Okehampton Hamlets parish councillor has instigated a petition with fellow Liberal Democrats in West and Central Devon, asking the NHS to consider opening beds at Okehampton.

She said frail and elderly patients are being sent all over place to recuperate when they come out of the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital and is asking that Okehampton Hospital be considered as a special case because of its rurality.

“It takes five hours to get to Sidmouth and back by public transport and Tiverton is even longer. The stress that causes for an elderly spouse juggling bus times, train times and visiting hours, is immense.

“The wards at Okehampton need to be used but the rents are London prices and the costs to the NHS are ridiculous. We could have utilised the wards to assist the healthcare of our communities if the cost were more realistic to local funding.”

She said when the hospital was built in 2004, it had 36 community beds and a maternity unit and £250,000 raised for equipment by local people. Since then the population had increased from 6,000 to more than 9,000.

“We have a sizeable population that is increasing all the time and this hospital could cater for many of their health needs. We have 50 clinics here but they are not promoted by the NHS. I know there have been assurances to some of the medical practitioners that the hospital is safe but I don’t believe it.”

She added that a second medical practice, dental practice or children’s centre could be incorporated into the hospital if it was feasible economically.

Mark Wooding, Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate for Central Devon, said with hospital waiting lists at over seven million and bed-blocking an endemic problem it was hard to argue current policy against cottage hospitals is working.

NHS Devon says the ward at Okehampton closed in 2017 following a full public consultation.

It said the cost of bringing the beds back into use would be “significant”.

“Based on local discussions and our experience, we do not anticipate that local voluntary, community and social enterprise organisations would be able to take on the ward space,” it said.

Meanwhile, space in the rest of the hospital is “significantly under-utilised” and it would widen work with local partners to improve the use of space in the rest of the hospital to get better value.

Central Devon MP Mel Stride said: “I understand the concern to see the hospital used effectively and I continue to be in close discussions with the relevant parties.”

Alison Stephenson