EARLY closure of the "outdated" Ebbw Vale Hospital has been made possible in great part by successful development of community-based health services in Blaenau Gwent, say health watchdogs.

Townspeople led by county borough councillors want closure plans halted and public consultation on the issue.

But Bob Hall, chairman of Gwent Community Health (CHC) Council's Blaenau Gwent area committee, said health and safety issues, and improvements in moving people out of hospital into more appropriate care environments had hastened the closure option.

The CHC, as health watchdog, inspected the hospital in June and, said Mr Hall, "from our independent perspective it was clear substantial expenditure was urgently needed to improve the patient environment, and even with this investment, it would be difficult to deliver modern standards of care.

"Gwent Healthcare Trust is faced with a backlog maintenance bill of £2 million, and health and safety standards for patients in hospital cannot be compromised. Is it really a sensible use of public money to spend such sums on a hospital with a future of only four years?"

The hospital was originally due to close by 2009, on completion of the £35m Blaenau Gwent Hospital, also in Ebbw Vale. Closure is now proposed in December.

Councillor Don Wilcox said people do not object to closure in 2009, but are worried at a service gap being created in Ebbw Vale for four years. He said people have also been expressing concerns about the difficulty and expense of transport to Blaina and Tredegar Hospitals.

Mr Hall said fewer than two dozen outpatients a week are seen at Ebbw Vale, in poor clinic facilities without appropriate access to diagnostic equipment. Not all of them are from Ebbw Vale and could be seen in a better environment at Blaina Hospital.

The minor injuries unit, meanwhile, has "poor decoration and ventilation and a lack of storage space", and the two or three patients attending daily could be accommodated at Tredegar Hospital.

Mr Hall said success in developing community-based alternatives to hospital and in reducing bedblocking should be celebrated.

"Let us invest in new services for the future.

"The (closure) issue is not one of principle, but of timing," he said.