A NEW public hospital in the northern New Territories will come too late for people who already have to travel long distances for treatment, said legislator Leong Che-hung. Work on the 618-bed North District Hospital in Fanling is expected to start early next year and open in early 1998 after the Hospital Authority agreed to manage the project for the Government yesterday. The new hospital comes in response to a territory-wide review last year which identified a shortfall of beds in the New Territories, particularly in the north. The authority's Director of Operations, Dr Yeoh Eng-kiong, said: ''Demand is being met overall but there is an imbalance of facilities, with too many beds in urban areas and not enough in the New Territories. ''The new hospital will serve to meet the shortfall of beds in the northern part of the New Territories and take facilities to the community rather than expecting the community to come to us.'' But Dr Leong, the convenor of the Legislative Council's health services panel, said although the hospital was a step in the right direction it should have been built much sooner. ''The lack of medical facilities in the New Territories has already created a big vacuum, with many people having to travel miles for medical care. ''There is a great need to redistribute beds and so this hospital is very necessary. It is better that it is being built late than not at all,'' he said. The hospital, which has a budget of just under $1.3 billion, will include all major specialities, including a 24-hour accident and emergency department. Ambulatory care will also be provided through a specialist out-patient clinic, day centre, psychiatric day hospital and geriatric day hospital. The population of the New Territories is expected to grow from 418,000 to more than 550,000 in the next five years, but Dr Leong said the hospital would probably be big enough given the out-patient and day facilities. ''Nobody knows how the population might shift after 1997 but this hospital is needed irrespective of any movement to serve the communities in the area.'' The Hospital Authority will act as a government agent for the first time to devise and manage the project, with a government steering committee set up to monitor and control the scheme.