Upgrades to a Northumberland mental health hospital have been given the go-ahead, despite residents' fears of patients escaping.

The application by Cumbria, Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust (CNTW) sought permission for an extension plus internal and external remodelling of the existing low-secure mental-health hospital at Ferndene, in Prudhoe, to provide both low and medium-secure clinical units.

The bid was approved by 14 votes to zero, with one abstention, at the Tuesday, June 2, meeting of Northumberland County Council’s strategic planning committee, in line with the planning officer’s recommendation.

The proposals attracted 27 objections from neighbours, although the meeting heard that part of the concerns related to the part-upgrade to a medium-secure facility, given that patients have ‘escaped’ in the past.

However, planning officer Callum Harvey explained that this aspect doesn’t require planning permission, as the site remains in the same planning use class, plus the works would improve security at the site.

This scheme is part of a major £72 million project, known as the CEDAR programme (Care Environment Development and Re-provision), by the mental-health trust to upgrade its estate.

Back in January, the committee gave the green light to plans for a £60million overhaul of Northgate Hospital in Morpeth, alongside a bid for more than 130 homes to help fund it.

Another £8.4million is earmarked for Ferndene as well as £3.2million for St Nicholas’ Hospital’s Bamburgh Unit in Gosforth.

The planning meeting was the first held since the coronavirus restrictions came into place and the usual public speaking slots were replaced by a council officer reading out written submissions.

Objector Nathan Harold highlighted public protection/safety fears in relation to the medium-secure designation, highways and parking concerns, and the visual impact, criticising a proposed ‘prison-style’ 5.2-metre fence.

“While this will add new security measures, nowhere in this application does it say there will be no risk to the public,” he said. “The safety of children and the public must come first.”

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The applicant’s submission described the application as the ‘final piece of the jigsaw’, given that the Northgate and St Nicholas schemes have already been approved.

The trust said there had been no complaints from the public about the facility, which has been rated outstanding twice by the CQC.

The statement added: “Ferndene is already a modern, welcoming facility where young people can address their problems safely and with dignity.”

There were a significant number of questions from councillors on various issues before Coun Jeff Reid moved approval, saying: “I’m quite happy to propose this, because at least we have some control at this point.

“If we refuse this, there isn’t any way we would win the appeal, so we should accept that the officers have done a good job and that the NHS will manage it properly.”

However, Coun Gordon Stewart, the local ward member who called the application in for a decision by councillors, said: “This isn’t the biggest application to come before the committee, but it’s a massive one for Prudhoe.

“The residents and I are huge supporters of the NHS, but this is really just in the wrong place.”