Campaigners fighting for a new hospital have been given some hope after a hospital trust announced it could receive tens of millions of pounds more funding than it was expecting.

West Hertfordshire Hospitals NHS Trust was told last September by the government that it would have £400 million to spend on its facilities.

Many people have called for a brand new hospital to be built in a location central to Watford, St Albans, and Hemel Hempstead - but the trust has always maintained that building a new hospital would exceed its budget.

Instead, the trust is focussing on spending the bulk of the £400 million on refurbishing an ageing Watford General Hospital in desperate need of upgrading - with some investment at Hemel Hempstead and St Albans City hospitals.

Watford Observer:

Watford General Hospital

But in a stakeholders meeting on Thursday, bosses at the hospital trust confirmed it may be able to bid up to as much as £590 million funding from the government - which Hemel Hempstead MP Mike Penning believes is a major boost for new hospital campaigners.

He told the Observer the potential of an extra £190 million was the "first positive step" since the A&E in Hemel Hempstead closed in 2009.

Sir Mike, who has been a prominent campaigner for a new hospital, added: "This is fantastic news; it means that a new hospital on a central site is really affordable. Numerous new hospitals are being built across the country on similar budgets.

"The trust can no longer hide behind the ‘there is not enough money’ excuse to reject the new site option.

"It is obvious that a new site would be easier and quicker than any disastrous attempt to renovate the crumbling Watford General Hospital whilst trying to keep it operational at the same time.

"Quite simply, this is a great opportunity and the trust would be foolish not to grasp it."

Watford Observer:

Hemel Hempstead MP Sir Mike Penning

Fellow campaigner Ron Glatter, from the New Hospital Campaign, said: "We are very pleased that more money may become available though we note it's not guaranteed.

"£590m should certainly be sufficient to build a brand new state-of-the-art hospital in a central location.

"Crucially, it would be a far better use of those funds than rebuilding a part of Watford with the rest to be completed in the future, meaning both a larger total cost and much higher maintenance and running costs over time as well."

Sir Mike and Mr Glatter may believe £590 million is enough for a new hospital - but a presentation by West Hertfordshire NHS Trust last year suggested a new hospital could cost between £750 and £800 million.

And in potential further blow to new hospital campaigners, in a statement today, the trust's deputy chief executive, Helen Brown, explained what £590 million could do for Watford General Hospital.

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Ms Brown said: “We are pleased to share the news this week that the Department of Health and Social Care has said that we could look at options that would require more than the £400m we had previously been told might be available.

"It was confirmed that an option with much more new build at Watford General Hospital, including replacing rather than refurbishing the main clinical block could be one of the options we consider. This would cost approximately £590m.

"However, there is no guarantee at this stage that this funding is available.

"Our intention is to find the best solution that also meets the criteria that we are developing, with input from our newly formed stakeholder reference group.

"We are aware that the mention of potential larger investment is of interest to those who want to see an all new hospital on another site.

"This option will be part of our longlist and will be subject to the same rigorous process as the other possibilities we will be looking at."

The hospital trust is currently consulting with stakeholders ahead of putting together a business case for the funding.

A decision is expected to be made by February next year - with the government hoping the six trusts chosen to receive a share of nearly £3 billion will have new facilities by 2025/26.

The other five trusts which have been selected to receive government funding, which comes in the form of public dividend capital, have all put forward cases to build new hospitals.

Watford's MP, Dean Russell, has said he is "100 per cent supportive" of investment at Watford General Hospital.

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During the peak of the coronavirus pandemic, a critical incident was declared at Watford General Hospital due to its oxygen system running at maximum capacity.

The Guardian reported that in the days earlier, hospital bosses had "pleaded" with the government and NHS to "urgently approve" works to the hospital’s oxygen system.

The only other hospital to have declared a critical incident during the pandemic was Northwick Park in Harrow due to the high number of Covid-19 patients.

In the early hours of June 4, ambulances had to be diverted away from A&E in Watford after a pipe burst.

The trust said this incident was another example of its "ageing estate".