The future of Hinchingbrooke Hospital is now in doubt - bizarrely because it is a first class and efficient hospital but did not make foundation status. IAN MacKELLAR reports. DESPERATE to reduce the spiralling budget caused by public demands for the finest healthcare whatever the cost, the East of England Strategic Health Authority is set to launch a review to decide whether district general hospitals, such as Hinchingbrooke, are really necessary. The alternative is for patients to use excess capacity in Cambridge and Peterborough - if there is sufficient slack and they can get there in time. Such a review - expected to produce an initial report next month - is a bit late. Hinchingbrooke opened its \u00A322million treatment centre a year ago to deal with the 80 per cent of operations that require a stay of less than 24 hours. Revamping its accident and emergency department cost a further \u00A36.5million, and a \u00A37.5million children's centre, funded by the primary care trust, is due to open early next year. The treatment centre was built in the expectation of more patient referrals from elsewhere in Cambridgeshire than actually happened because other PCTs were also so strapped for cash. And patients that could have been sent from, for example, neighbouring Northamptonshire and Bedfordshire have not materialised because, being in other strategic health authority areas, there are plans for competing treatment centres in Kettering and Bedford. Such a lack of joined-up thinking seriously worries non-executive board members at Hinchingbrooke, who are fiercely proud of the hospital's clinical record. Yet, as recently as last July, Huntingdonshire PCT reported that "assurance cannot yet be given that Hinchingbrooke's information systems are now more robust". Hinchingbrooke has identified savings of \u00A34.3million a year, including up to 220-plus redundancies, but these look like a drop in the ocean against the projected deficit of \u00A323.8million if things go well - including selling staff accommodation to social landlord Luminus - and \u00A333million if they don't. Councillor Peter Downes, Liberal Democrat leader on Huntingdonshire District Council, said yesterday: "What is the use of having a vibrant town centre and all these new houses in Huntingdon and the surrounding area when they are thinking of shutting the one thing people really need - a good and local hospital? "The Lib Dems will be fighting for the hospital to stay open. Millions have been spent on improving the facilities and building work is still going on. "It is outrageous even to consider closing the hospital. "What is the point of spending millions to build a guided bus lane to Hinchingbrooke if the hospital is not going to be there? "Can you imagine the pressure on Addenbrooke's or Peterborough if all Huntingdonshire's seriously ill people have to go there? "Think of the extra traffic. Think of the time delay in getting to hospital in an emergency. "Brampton will soon be at the junction of even busier traffic arteries when the new A14 and expanded A1 are built - there are bound to be accidents. "How many victims will die on the way to treatment?