Shropshire Birth Centre Closures – Making a Mockery of Consultation

“One of the great strengths of this country is that we have an NHS that – at its best – is of the people, by the people and for the people…we need to engage with communities and citizens in new ways, involving them directly in decisions about the future of health and care services.” (NHS Five Year Forward View) (1)

Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital NHS Trust (SaTH) are repeatedly closing the Ludlow Birth Centre, as well as the Bridgnorth and Oswestry Birth Centres. The closures – for between 12 hours and several weeks – happen without notice, and seem to be stepping stones towards permanent closure. This is a rural area, with long distances to travel from scattered homes to hospital, meaning that the Shropshire MLUs are essential services for the entire maternity journey, providing antenatal, birth and postnatal support to women and their babies without them having to make long, expensive and stressful journeys.

Maternity services are the most commonly used health (as opposed to illness) services provided by the NHS, and they need to be treated like all heavily used services – easy access in the place where people are living. We are not asked to travel to hospital to see the GP or a dentist, and rightly so, as to do so would lead to stress, costs and hospital acquired infections. Yet pregnant women, whose immunity is already lowered by the natural effects of pregnancy, are being asked to travel for miles for regular midwifery appointments and expose themselves and their babies to dangerous bugs. Public transport is very poor, and in some places non-existent. With no local point of contact for midwives, the other option is for midwives to spend hours driving to women to do home visits. New proposals from Shropshire CCG will resolve this issue by simply cancelling postnatal support at home! Meanwhile, SaTH is already reducing access to antenatal and postnatal care during periods of MLU closure.

For some women, the direct effect of this situation is that they are unable to access care, and this disproportionately affects low income women –  a huge irony given that the NHS was created in huge part to ensure that everyone, no matter their financial position, can receive medical attention. “Free at the point of care” is of no use to those who cannot reach the point of care. Some women limit the number of antenatal appointments that they go to, as getting to them is just too hard. Others are unable to travel to hospital during labour, or the midwife is unable to travel to them – so women end up birthing at home without a midwife present. There have been five BBAs in Ludlow alone since May last year. Postnatally, parents who do not have the resources to reach hospital out of hours and who are worried about what may (or may not be) a mild issue with themselves or their baby are waiting until the buses are running again, with the risk that what seems to be minor was actually very serious.

Closing the regional Midwife Led Units means that women and their babies are being put at risk. Women NEED the regional MLUs to be able to access the care that they need. MLUs are safer for women and babies who are at low risk of complications (2) and MLUs are suitable for all women to access routine midwifery care before and after birth.

SaTH claim that they have consulted on some (but not all) of the closures, and claim too that women prefer to birth in hospital, but this is simply untrue. Their strategy has been to regularly close the MLUs, leaving women no choice but to “choose” hospital birth. In fact, engagement carried out by Shropshire CCG found:

“During the engagement work of the CCG, rural women have been adamant that their MLUs are needed and must remain.

Women say they need to reach their intended place of birth quickly and easily. This is to be ended.

Women say they value being cared for by the same midwife, or one of a team of midwives, through antenatal care, birth and postnatal care. This will go, as rural women are to be required to give birth in an unfamiliar setting with staff they do not know.

Women have repeatedly praised the postnatal care available in rural MLUs, and this has been recognised by the CCG as ‘exceptional’. This, too, is to end.” (Shropshire Women Speak Out) (3)

Women and their babies are being put at significant risk of harm, and we call upon the CCG and Trust to implement the directives of Better Births, as well as fulfilling their obligations to providing safe care, by re-opening and supporting the Midwifery Led Units across Shropshire.








Freestanding Midwifery Led Units in Shropshire: at the sharp end of the debate

Notes from ‘Questions at the Shropshire CCG Board meeting’ 13th December 2016

Those who know me well will understand the commitment of turning out before 8am to drive somewhere (and back) on my own for the first time – I got lost with the help of two SATNAVs today but just managed to slip in on time to the Public Board Meeting of the Shropshire CCG.  I was there because the brilliant Gill George campaigner for the Ludlow Maternity Unit and small hospital had encouraged mothers and others to attend and ask questions:  she wanted a commitment from the CCGs to ensure their contract with the Shropshire and Telford Hospital Trust (SaTH) maintained the freestanding midwifery units (FMU) and all the maternity care they provide to local women in a large county.

The front row was taken by a cluster of Mums with their babes and toddlers – giving a dour meeting a lightness of touch and sense of humour that was much needed.

The first part of the meeting was questions from the public, and the first part of this (clearly planned) were questions from the Mums.  The first Mum stood up saying she represented a small fundraising charity for local midwifery units and all the Mums in the area as there were concerns that the maternity services at the Midwifery Led Units (MLUs) were going to be cut and indeed threatened.  They wanted the Midwifery units to be open 24/7 and offer the postnatal care and breastfeeding support they currently do.  SaTH have announced they will close the MLUs – of which there are three – Ludlow, Bridgnorth and Oswestry – at night, this will also end Postnatal stays and 24 hour breastfeeding support.

Her actual words were that the Units were going to be turned into Birthcentres – clearly implying this was a bad thing.  It is a shame that such a term in this area has become synonymous with cuts to the very services that Birthcentres represent to many of us in other parts of the country.

She described her own ordeal of being transferred by ambulance across Shropshire to hospital but not making it and having to give birth in a layby en route.  She believed that this would happen more often if the services of local MLUs were reduced so women had to travel significantly further during labour.  We know that the least safe place to birth is at the road side.

She described how in just a few days her Save Ludlow Maternity Unit Facebook page had got 1100 members and that there was a successful march in Ludlow on 3 rd December.

She gave 4 reasons for keeping the MLUs:

  • Research shows that most women labour during the night (Thank you Alison for that painstaking work over decades!)
  • Most Midwives live a significant distance from the MLUs, so there could be delays if women arrive in full labour at the unit before the on-call midwife can make an appearance.  And what if more than one woman births on the same night?
  • What would be the impact on breastfeeding rates if the units reduce their care?
  • Finally, she described how constant threats to the service and lack of investment in it reduced midwives’ morale.  Good midwives will leave the service was her message.

A second Mum stood and spoke.  She quoted the NICE  Intrapartum Care Guideline reminding the CCG board that planned birth for low risk women in an obstetric unit raised the rate of C-Sections in this group. That MLUs reduced instrumental delivery, raised normal birth rates and so on.

She also described the important role in breastfeeding the MLU in Bridgnorth had provided.  She described how they supported her breastfeeding and she only went home once she was confident.  She had found this invaluable.

Gill George then stood up and asked some incisive questions demonstrating she knew the politics and financial situation in detail.  She along with the Mums asked the board for the same thing:

We want the CCG to commit to funding for continuation of the current rural maternity service and units (Bridgnorth, Ludlow and Oswestry) and to get this written into their contract with the hospital trust – due to be signed by 23rd December. (We also want them to guarantee consultation before they allow any change to the service – but mostly we oppose the cuts!).

I always say that asking the question is more important than the answer you receive.  On this occasion it really was not the case.  The CCG iterated its position that safe good quality maternity services were a priority.  The dire financial position of the Hospital Trust and the CCG was stated but we were told that SaTH had not approached the CCG about reducing or changing its maternity structures. This was a significant point because SaTH have already announced that they are closing the MLUs at night in effect changing the service provision.

The speaker pointed out that there was an issue that women were choosing to birth at Hereford and have their postnatal care at Ludlow – but the tarrif money for the postnatal care had not been retrieved.  I recalled a similar difficulty between Calderdale and Bradford and decade or two ago!

Gill George pressed for rural maternity services to be in the contract signed on 23rd December and that there would be public consultation before any changes were made.  And what would be the chances of this being signed off on 23rd?  ‘Optimistic’ came the sad faced reply.

Here I am inserting Gill George’s notes of the answers to her questions at this point which she kindly sent to me on reading this blog:

Q: Will rural maternity services be in next year’s contract with SaTH (the hospital trust)?
A: Yes.
Q: At the current level of service?
A: We’re in discussions with SaTH.
Q: Are you expecting this to be possible?
A: I’m very optimistic.

This was from the Head Honcho of Shropshire Clinical Commissioning Group, in a meeting this morning. It’s possible that we’re getting there. We also got something that came very close to a clear commitment that would be consultation on any ‘substantive change’ to maternity services.

The floor was opened to further public questions – most of which were about cuts to services.  This is clearly a well rehearsed session with the players all knowing each other and their roles.  There is a sense of frustration from the public side as they fight to keep valued health services and exasperation on the board side desperately trying to balance books with one of the lowest budgets per head of population in the country.  There is a massive deficit and the prognosis is £15 million pounds worth of cuts to be found in 2017/18 by the CCG.  There was a short stunned silence at that point: there is no choice was the message we will have to cut valued services – there is no money.

The chair of the board said at one point to the public – you are the electorate you need to elect a Government that provides money for the NHS you want.  This said in a county that returns Conservative MPs and has the lowest financial settlement per head of population.

Finally I stood up and as light relief invited the board and everyone present to the SaTH supported conference – Implementing the National Review in Rural Areas:  Better Births in Shropshire and beyond #SaTHFMU

I mentioned its impressive speaker line up (including Baroness Cumberlege, Prof Dennis Walsh, Cathy Warick and Kathryn Gutteridge).  I left programmes on the table and the response was that someone from the board would probably be there.  Listening to the discussion it could be a good thing.  Here is the link if you want to join us:

Meanwhile in the foyer the local reporter was interviewing the Mums about what they said.  No opportunity wasted by these Mums to ensure the survival of their community maternity care.

A CCG with no money, with services costing more than their budget, a Hospital Trust with no money and running at a deficit (as are the majority of hospital trusts in England): the quality of all health services are threatened – A&E waiting times grow, dementia and other care is not getting the investment needed, Maternity care in rural areas threatened.  There are no easy choices here for the CCG Board and I would not be in their shoes for half of all England with no power but to dispense the national Government agenda of cutting heath service costs to this population – dressing it as efficiency does not wash.

In this context it can feel easier to cut low tech low cost services to protect the high cost, high tech, highly qualified services.  But as Alan Brace points out in my blog : Why is it so Difficult to Implement Continuity of Carer, it maybe the low cost services people actually need and it won’t save money to funnel more people into high cost services who only needed a low cost service.  This is the case with Maternity care in special degree – why send healthy young women across a vast county to birth in a high cost obstetric unit when they can more cheaply and safely birth at home or in a midwifery led unit? But if you have made a capital investment in a new Obstetric unit as SaTH has done – it has to be paid for by a higher throughput of women.  Read Belinda Phipps analysis in my blog: One to One Midwifery: How things can Change, of why Trusts may not save money by promoting midwifery led care.  In Austerity NHS, medical-based evidence may come second to a real terms reduction in NHS budget and whoever shouts loudest wins – so shout!

To support those campaigning locally for Shropshire MLUs join the Facebook group :

To join in a positive discussion about Freestanding Midwifery Led Units in rural areas and implementing the National Maternity Review for rural populations come to the fantastic Conference Chaired by Baroness Cumberlege 13th February for just £35 at the Shropshire Conference centre.  More info here: