HEALTH chiefs are drawing up a £4.5m plan to transform an ageing hospital site in the New Forest.

The scheme includes a proposal to demolish the main building at Ashurst Hospital - a former workhouse - and replace it with a 70-bed care home.

A two-storey extension to the Snowden Centre - home of the New Forest Birth Centre - is also planned.

NHS Property Services has already approached the Lymington-based National Park Authority (NPA), which has ruled that an environmental impact assessment must be submitted.

A preliminary report prepared by NPA planning officers describes the proposed development as "very significant".

It adds: "The site currently comprises Ashurst Hospital, the Snowden building, a chapel and a former workhouse building and mortuary.

"The workhouse buildings have most recently been used in association with the hospital and as an associated educational facility, although they are now largely unoccupied.

"The chapel and workhouse are considered to be non-designated heritage assets."

The future of the three-hectare site at Lyndhurst Road, Ashurst, has been under discussion for several years. NHS bosses say the older hospital buildings are no longer fit for purpose.

The proposed development includes:

A two-storey extension to the Snowden Centre to provide extra healthcare facilities.

The demolition of the former workhouse, together with the mortuary and adjoining buildings.

A new care home with a maximum of 70 bedrooms on the site of the workhouse.

A new parking area to serve the care home.

The report says: "The site contains several buildings considered to be non-designated heritage assets.

"The Authority's archaeologist identifies that there may be archaeological remains related to the 1836 New Forest Union Workhouse."

The report refers to the "very significant" scale of the proposed development and the "highly sensitive" nature of the landscape.

It adds that the scheme has the potential to harm the character of the site and views from the open forest.

One of the NPA's biggest concerns is the impact of the addition to the Snowden building. It claims the extension would introduce an urban element that would conflict with the rural character of the existing site.

A planning application is due to be submitted next month.

An NHS spokesperson said: "This is a really exciting project that will improve the current healthcare in the local area, with a focus on wellbeing and modernisation that will benefit the local community.

"The nursing home will replace the old workhouse and will cater for the older population while the Child and Family Health and Wellbeing Centre on site will offer new facilities that include a sensory play area.

"The project will also ensure the ongoing provision of maternity services in the local area.

"There will be a wellbeing café on site and we will also be partnering with a number of local charities to further increase the wellbeing offering of the site.

"We are particularly proud of the fact that the project is being funded through capital recycling and that all of the funds raised from the disposal of vacant land are funding 100% of this project."

The birth centre, which opened in 2008, is for women deemed to be at low-risk and who want natural births.

The former workhouse was built in 1836 at a cost of £5,000, with space for 200 inmates. Census records show that 131 people were living in the building in 1841, 77 of whom were children.

Following the creation of the National Health Service in 1948 it was used to provide care for elderly people.