A NEW hospital to treat Gwent's sickest patients WILL be built - but work is unlikely to begin until late 2013.

The future of the long-awaited, much-delayed Specialist and Critical Care Centre (SCCC) project, earmarked for the Llanfrechfa Grange Hospital site near Cwmbran, is reaffirmed by Assembly health minister Edwina Hart in a letter to Assembly Members.

But its cost will be slashed by almost a quarter to £230 million and, though no details have been announced, its scope in terms of beds and services will be reduced.

The SCCC remains the flagship of the ambitious Clinical Futures project, launched eight years ago to modernise Gwent's hospital services.

Clinical Futures proposed a network of Local General Hospitals supporting a single, centrally located SCCC to take on all emergency and complex treatments.

The original £300m SCCC was to have up to 450 beds, but was conceived in a brighter economic climate.

When the downturn began to bite, planning work on the SCCC was suspended, late in 2008.

It was resurrected early last year, with Aneurin Bevan Health Board charged with determining the viability of a phased project. This was feasible, but a 10-year phased programme would have put up the cost to more than £360m.

No details are available on the impact on the project of the cost reduction. Ms Hart's letter however, mentions the benefits of the new Ysbyty Aneurin Bevan at Ebbw Vale and the soon-to-be-completed Ysbyty Ystrad Fawr at Ystrad Mynach, an indication that SCCC bed numbers are likely to be reduced.

Budget constraints may have scuppered the SCCC project completely, but Ms Hart said she recognises the need for improved hospital services in Gwent. But she warned: "Even at the reduced cost of £230m this will place a huge strain on the capital programme, particularly between 2015 and 2018, and would significantly impact on other health boards' plans for investment and modernisation during this period.

"Also, the SCCC will not entirely resolve hospital infrastructure problems in Gwent, and further resources will have to be found for a new Local General Hospital for Newport, and for upgrading work at Nevill Hall Hospital."

This indicates that the Royal Gwent will likely be retained in some form for several years yet, while the original plan to replace Nevill Hall will not proceed.