Published: 26/09/2002, Volume II2, No. 5824 Page 8

The community health council in County Durham has accused the Department of Health of 'rubber stamping' changes to acute hospital services.

Under the plans, approved last week, maternity services, gynaecology and child health services will be centralised in Darlington Memorial Hospital.

Bishop Auckland Hospital will lose many of its specialties and provide only 'low risk' maternity services, though a new diagnostic and treatment centre will be built on site.

Plans for a trust merger also received the go-ahead. North and South Durham Healthcare trusts will become the County Durham and Darlington Acute Hospitals trust on 1 October this year.

South Durham and Weardale CHC said it was 'extremely disappointed' by the decision to downgrade Bishop Auckland Hospital, claiming it would rob Sedgefield, Wear Valley and the lower parts of Teesdale of their district general hospital.

South Durham and Weardale chief officer Valerie Bryden said: 'The CHC believes that in the medium term the low-risk maternity unit, paediatric ward, accident and emergency and general surgery will become unsustainable.'

The CHC promised to work with the health authority and new trust to implement the changes.

But Ms Bryden said: 'If, as we fear, this proves the wrong solution, then the health authority and ministers must be prepared to suffer the consequences and the loss of public trust for the NHS across County Durham and Darlington.'

County Durham and Tees Valley health authority said the changes were necessary to balance sustainability of services with access for local people.A spokesperson said: 'We understand the CHC's disappointment at some services being centralised, but must point out that they have strong clinical backing.'

The two trusts also welcomed the change saying it provided better choice for patients.

South Durham Healthcare trust chief executive John Saxby said: 'We now need to spend more time making sure that patients understand the reasons for these changes and that the services that will be provided at Bishop Auckland will be of high quality and will be safe services that they can have confidence in.'