THE battle to keep the Horton Hospital under local control has been lost.

Now campaigners in Banbury fear a major shake-up after the Government agreed to switch management control to Oxford.

Health minister Alan Milburn last night announced that the Oxford Radcliffe Trust would take over the Horton on April 1.

The hospital is £1.2m in debt and NHS officials claim its overheads are too large for a small trust.

The merger will save an estimated £500,000 a year, with £375,000 coming from salary reductions as senior managers - including chief executive Dr Louise Wallace - lose their jobs in a £1m redundancy payout.

Oxfordshire Health Authority has vowed to stick to the findings of a 1996 inquiry which recommended basic services remained, including the 24-hour accident and emergency unit.

Sue Edgar, of pressure group Banbury Health Emergency, said the argument that job cuts would only affect administrative staff was "a lie everyone seems unprepared to address".

Mayor Steve Kilsby, who led marches against the merger, said: "We thought the minister might give a commitment to keeping services. Residents will be watching carefully to see if the fine words of the Radcliffe Trust translate into action."

John MacDonald, chief executive of the Oxford Radcliffe, said: "This decision offers the best way to preserve a strong and comprehensive range of services."

Dr Wallace said: "I hope this decision will draw to a close two years of uncertainty."

The Government will write off the debt and cover redundancy payments. The Horton will become a clinical centre of the Oxford Radcliffe.

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