HEALTH planners yesterday took a further step towards the closure of one of Glasgow's three remaining maternity hospitals.

Greater Glasgow Health Board was told the projected decline in the birth rate would leave the city with 20% more capacity than it needs for deliveries within two years.

The need could be reduced even further by increasing bed use, a possibility that has already caused misgivings among doctors and patients. Confinements currently average two-and-a-half days.

But even on the current level of bed use - an average of 55 deliveries a year - the health board could expand either the Queen Mother's Hospital or the Southern General maternity unit, and close the other.

The future of the third, and largest, maternity hospital in the city, the Royal, is assured - its new home is already under construction at the Royal Infirmary.

When the possibility of a closure was first revealed in The Herald nearly two years ago, the future looked bleak for the Queen Mother's, whose 33-year-old building was regarded as in need of replacement.

Although plans for a new building on the Yorkhill site have been put aside, staff there are pinning their hopes on the existing building being capable after all of being upgraded to meet future needs. Capital spending would be required to either hospital to cope with the increased deliveries it would have to perform.

The arithmetic is that last year there were 11,935 births in the existing three hospitals, together with Rutherglen until it closed. By the year 2001, according to the Registrar-General's projections, this will drop to 11,700.

When the new Royal Maternity opens, the city will have space for 13,600-14,900 births a year.

The alternative - planning for the closure of one unit - was presented in a report by the board's maternity strategy review group, which the board endorsed yesterday.

Director of commissioning Catriona Renfrew said keeping all three open would cost #5.482m a year in estate and capital charge costs. The opportunity for savings could be as high as #1.206m.

A board spokesman said any plan would be the subject of wide public consultation.

The merits of the two candidates for closure will centre on three factors: the cost of expanding one or other to the 5000 births a year capacity that would be required; the politics of geographical location - closing the South Side's only maternity unit following Rutherglen's demise would be particularly sensitive; and the competing claims for the Queen Mother's co-location with the Royal Hospital for Sick Children - an advantage for babies born with conditions needing urgent attention - and the Southern's location on a general hospital site, regarded as safer from the mother's point of view.