THE potential sale of a Colchester hospital has been thrown into doubt after it emerged a historic contract could prevent its redevelopment.

A 19th-century contract, drawn up by founders of Essex County Hospital, may dictate the site must always be used for hospital services.

At a meeting last month, hospital bosses agreed to transfer health services, including cancer treatment, to Colchester General Hospital, in Turner Road. Although they decided outpatient services would remain at Essex County Hospital for the foreseeable future, it was thought the move would eventually pave the way for the sale of most of the 4.2-acre hospital site and buildings worth about £13million.

However, the hospital trust could now be forced to rethink its plans, after learning of the clause drawn up by the hospital’s founders 190 years ago.

Sir Peter Dixon, hospital trust chairman, said: “We haven’t set out what we will do. We don’t know yet.

“However, the ownership of that site is quite complicated.

“Part of it is a listed building and it’s not clear what its value is or how we would extract that value.

“If there happened to be a covenant that passed across with the ownership to the NHS that says this piece of land can only be used for a hospital, we can’t then sell it off for redevelopment.

“We aren’t activiely looking to find out yet, but we shall.

“It’s perfectly possible we decide it is a good place to continue delivering outpatient services with the idea of taking some things out of the hospital.”

The hospital opened in 1820, after eight local worthies put up £1,181 to buy the south wing of an Army hospital at barracks in Hythe Hill which was being sold off by the Government.

They bought land at Lexden Road to rebuild the hospital and local historians believe this is when they drew up the covenant to protect the future of the site.

Historian Andrew Phillips said: “This is not a myth – there is a covenant on it.

“My guess is it goes back to the foundation of the hospital.”