A 'WHITE elephant' building in Taunton that has soaked up millions of pounds and counting of taxpayers' money could finally have an occupant.

The Zenith Fire Control Centre at Blackbrook Park Avenue, which was supposed to be used as a regional centre to handle 999 calls, has never been used and has remained empty since it was built in 2007.

It has haemorrhaged money in the ensuing years, with rent, security and maintenance costs hitting well over £20 million so far - and the final bill estimated to be double that when the contract expires in 2028.

Taunton and Somerset NHS Foundation Trust, which runs Musgrove, has submitted a change of use planning application to enable it to create a diagnostics centre on the ground floor, with offices on the first and second floors.

It would be used to carry out CT, MRI and ultrasound scans and x-rays as part of a partnership with Rutherford Diagnostics Ltd.

The space is needed to cope with growing demand for diagnostic services at the hospital, whose location restricts its expansion on the existing campus.

A statement with the application says: "For the last four years, the trust has experienced a continuing increase in the number of patients requiring diagnostic tests as part of their referral pathway.

"The trust’s latest activity forecasts suggest that even at the lower estimate of three per cent per annum growth in demand, their diagnostic provision is already running at or near capacity.

"Should this growth be more in line with the expected eight per cent per annum, the trust will face significant challenges to meet this demand.

"In addition, the trust is located on a landlocked site, which means there are limited options for on-site expansion."

The trust does use mobile services, but that is seen as a short-term solution to the lack of space at Musgrove.

The application adds: "It is therefore the trust’s view that the delivery of a new diagnostic centre and imaging service will be part of a longer-term system-wide approach to provide a sustainable solution for the population of Somerset, delivering improved value for money, patient experience and national access standards."

The centre would be extensively remodelled, predominantly on the ground floor, and would serve the needs of NHS and private patients.

"The centre will use the latest technology to supplement and support existing healthcare infrastructure, attracting high end specialist employment to the area and meeting an urgent clinical need," says the application.

If the trust moves in, it will cater for a maximum of 25 patients at any one time, which appointments lasting between 15 and 30 minutes.

David Shannon, Director of Strategic Development and Improvement for Somerset NHS Foundation Trust, said: “We are delighted to enter into a partnership with Rutherford Diagnostics to provide diagnostic services to the population of Somerset.

"Rutherford Diagnostics will provide those diagnostic services from a new diagnostics facility.

“This contract, for five years with an option to renew for a second five years, will support us to deliver real improvements to patients in Somerset. We want to ensure that we have access to timely, state-of-the-art diagnostics and to provide the best possible experience for our patients.

“Across the NHS more patients are being referred for specialist diagnostic tests. In an effort to keep pace with this growing demand, we have recently invested in MRI and CT scanners at Musgrove Park Hospital and continue to use mobile scanners and outsource some tools and reporting.  

“Even with these measures, our provision of scanning will not keep pace with demand in the future. Our waiting times for some diagnostic tests are too long and we are not achieving the national six week diagnostic target. We want to do better for our patients and believe that we will achieve this by entering into this contract with Rutherford Diagnostics.

“Our partnership with Rutherford Diagnostics is for them to provide MRI, CT, ultrasound and X-ray services, which they will do from a stand-alone facility at a site in Taunton. We are very excited by the opportunity for our patients to receive their diagnostic tests at a modern facility away from the Musgrove Park Hospital site. We have also agreed with Rutherford Diagnostics that that there will be exciting opportunities for our colleagues to work at the new centre while maintaining their employment with us.

“We look forward to working with Rutherford Diagnostics to improve our patients’ access to diagnostic tests and in developing our partnership further to support improved healthcare services for the people of Somerset and the surrounding area.”

Taunton Deane MP Rebecca Pow, who has long pressed to find someone to move into the building, said: "Finding a solution for this redundant building which is tied into a contract signed off by the previous Labour government and costing the taxpayer significant sums annually simply to exist, would be welcome.

"I look forward to hearing the outcome, but obviously cannot get involved in individual planning applications.”