Just nine babies were born at Hartlepool hospital’s birthing centre in the whole of last year, adding to fears for its future.
The unit at the University Hospital of Hartlepool has seen a huge drop in the number of town births since it switched from consultant to midwife-led nine years ago.
The figures come as councillors are to examine maternity services in Hartlepool amid fears the birthing centre could close as a result of potential changes to local NHS services under controversial Sustainability and Transformation Plans (STPs).
Fresh fears for the midwife-led maternity unit at the University Hospital of Hartlepool have been raised by Hartlepool Borough Council’s Audit and Governance Scrutiny Committee.
It decided to investigate the use of the birthing unit and also whether the hospital’s operating theatres are being used to their full potential as its topic for scrutiny for this year.
Chairman of the committee Councillor Ray Martin-Wells said: “One of the proposals that I’ve been made aware of is the possible closure of the midwife-led maternity at Hartlepool and even the closure of the maternity unit at North Tees as it is at the minute.
“That concerns me deeply.”
He said Hartlepool births have fallen significantly in recent years since the transfer of consultant-led maternity services to the University Hospital of North Tees in Stockton.
Figures obtained by the Mail show that since maternity in Hartlepool became midwife-led in June 2008, town births have plummeted from 452 in 2009 to just 34 in 2015 and only nine in 2016.
Coun Martin-Wells said: “I’m astounded and extremely disappointed. It’s even worse than I had ever feared, but this is exactly what I predicted would happen.
“Eventually you are going to get to a situation where the trust will just turn round and say it’s not clinically safe because the midwives based there will not be getting the experience necessary.
“In my mind, it is just another way for them to close down a unit.”
Coun Martin-Wells said new mums are being “frightened” into giving birth at North Tees, where there is support in case of any complications.
North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust says mums-to-be are given the choice of giving birth at Hartlepool if they are classed as ‘low risk’.
Coun Martin-Wells added: “I believe new mums are being unnecessarily frightened by certain people in the medical profession, who say if there are complications they will have to blue light them to North Tees.
“Understandably, most new mums aren’t going to take the risk. As a result, we have seen a massive reduction in births in Hartlepool.”
Councillor Brenda Harrison, who is also on the audit committee, said: “I think the topic we have is about trust – the public trusting us to do the job of sorting out things and holding people to account.”
And Coun John Tennant said: “I think it is the best choice for this year.”
The draft STP, which covers Hartlepool and surrounding areas, states maternity is one area where there is insufficient workforce to safely operate current numbers of sites.
A spokesman for the Better Care Programme, which forms part of the local STP, said: “Safe and high quality maternity services are a key part of the Better Health Programme.
“We are continuing to work with our clinical staff and CCGs across the area to come up with solutions that will provide the best possible care for patients.
“We will continue to engage with the public, local councils and key stakeholders as the plans are developed over the coming months.”
Regarding the use of Hartlepool’s theatres, Coun Martin-Wells said: “It’s a massive hospital which is vastly under utilised with some of the best kitted out theatres in the North East of England.
“Why aren’t they being used to their maximum capacity?”
Change in where mother’s give birth
Hartlepool’s midwife- led Cameron Birthing Centre opened in June 2008 after a £5million refurbishment.
It was part of a shake-up of maternity services which saw the transfer of consultant-led maternity services to the University Hospital of North Tees, in Stockton.
A spokesman for the North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust said: “In 2007, an Independent Reconfiguration Panel recommended that consultant-led services for maternity should be centralised on one site at North Tees, and that a midwife-led maternity unit should be provided at University Hospital Hartlepool until the opening of the new proposed hospital.
“The midwifery-led birthing centre at the University Hospital of Hartlepool opened in 2008 as part of the planned reconfiguration of the maternity services within North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust.
“Initially there were over 400 deliveries a year in the unit and this figure decreased to fewer than 300 deliveries.
“The further decrease in the numbers of deliveries at the centre between 2008 and 2014 was a result of a regional trend in the reduction in births of around five per cent, coupled with a gradual shift of women choosing to deliver at the maternity unit at the University Hospital of North Tees.
“Women are offered the choice of a delivery in the birthing centre at the University Hospital of Hartlepool if their pregnancy, labour and delivery are classed as low risk. This means that the chances of needing an urgent transfer if complications develop are reduced but they cannot be eliminated completely.”