New Berwick hospital 'not a substantial change in healthcare'

Berwick Infirmary. Picture by Jane Coltman
Berwick Infirmary. Picture by Jane Coltman

Councillors assessing the impact of the proposed new hospital in Berwick concluded that it would meet the health needs of residents.

The NHS and Northumberland County Council recently announced that they are moving ahead with plans for a £45million integrated health and leisure development on the site of the Swan Centre in Tweedmouth, but while the investment has been welcomed, there are concerns about the co-location.

At a meeting this afternoon, members of the council’s health and wellbeing committee also agreed with health bosses that the new development would not represent a substantial change in healthcare services.

And thirdly, the committee felt that the consultation so far, while it could have been better, had been carried out properly.

Plus, as at yesterday’s corporate services committee which discussed the leisure-centre element, representatives of Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust and NHS Northumberland Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) said they would be ramping up the public engagement moving forward.

Stephen Young, the CCG’s strategic head of corporate affairs, set out the various ways in which people’s feedback had been sought and admitted that there had been ‘mixed feedback on both the integration and the site’.

But he added: “Many people couldn’t really articulate why they didn’t want the integrated development and many of those who took the time to discuss it further at a drop-in session ended up having positive views about it.”

Nonetheless, he explained that the boards of the foundation trust and the CCG had both concluded that this was the best way forward, having weighed up all the options and responses.

Rachel Mitcheson, the CCG’s deputy head of commissioning, underlined that there would be no loss of services in the new hospital, but highlighted two changes.

There would be 16 inpatient beds, down from 20 in the current hospital, in response to the dwindling demand, while the endoscopy service, which was suspended in 2017 but earmarked for a return, will not be reintroduced due to the superior offerings at both Alnwick and Wansbeck.

She listed other advantages too, such as a modern design allowing for more flexibility of use, that it will enable better technology to be used, and the integration itself, as it is ‘a really positive approach to think about intervention within healthcare’.

However, while this was a relatively positive look at the proposals, Coun Georgina Hill, ward member for Berwick East, addressed the meeting to paint a different picture, although she too welcomed the major investment.

She said that there had been a ‘number of serious flaws in the methodology’ of the consultation, not least that there was ‘a lack of independence’ with it being ‘clear that the integrated site and Swan Centre were being pressed’.

Coun Hill continued by saying there was ‘an absence of any honest dialogue’.

“The public are more responsive than you might think on factors like financial limitations and the size of the town,” she said. “What the public do not respond well to is when they feel the wool is being pulled over their eyes.

“When the issues were raised about the lack of detail and problems with the methodology, we were told this was preliminary and there would be a formal consultation.

“It has led to many residents feeling the listening exercise was a sham. It’s clear that Berwick residents want a stand-alone hospital.”

In response to an earlier question about whether a desire for integration dictated which site would be taken forward, it was explained that the trust had always been nervous about developing the current infirmary site due to the need to continue providing services during the construction process.

The Swan Centre proposal – £27million for the hospital/health services and £18million for a new leisure centre – has already been approved by the trust and the CCG.

Following the scrutiny committees’ input today and yesterday, it will go before the decision-making cabinet for approval next Monday (September 10) at a meeting which will be held in the Swan Centre at 10am and is open to the public.

Ben O'Connell, Local Democracy Reporting Service