FLAGSHIP hospital projects such as those planned for Caerphilly and Blaenau Gwent, are likely to benefit from a trebling of Assembly spending on NHS buildings and equipment during the next three years.

Health minister Jane Hutt yesterday stopped short of committing cash to specific projects - these and others in Wales are still at the planning stage - but listed the two proposed Gwent hospitals as examples of those which will reap dividends from the funding increase.

investment in NHS buildings and equipment will increase from £107 million this year to £309m in 2007/08, the "biggest prize" in the health budget announcement, according to Mrs Hutt.

Money will also be available to back improvements in primary care premises like health centres and GP surgeries, vital "if we are going to build and support primary care and reduce the pressure on our hospitals," she said.

A particularly bullish Mrs Hutt declared at a budget briefing that the NHS in Wales is set for three years of strong growth and improvement, with spending to increase by £1.8 billion during the next three years. One of the more immediate results of this will be a further £1 reduction in prescription charges, to £4, from next April.

The controversial Second Offer Scheme will plough millions of extra pounds into bringing maximum treatment times down to 12 months by the end of next March, still above the English average but a big improvement on recent times.

Bedblocking appears to be easing too, but though figures are down by around 20 per cent across Wales since April, a figure mirrored in Gwent, several hundreds of hospital beds are still occupied by patients who should not be in them.

Mrs Hutt made much of the fact that in 1999 the Assembly inherited a health budget of £2.7bn, less than half of the £5.5bn scheduled for 2007/08, but warned that increased investment must be accompanied by a radical reshaping of health and social care in Wales, recommended by last year's Wanless Review.

Impressive though the figures seem however, she will be well aware waiting times continue to lag well behind those in England.