Controversial plans to centralise maternity and children’s services in West Kent have been given the go-ahead by health secretary Andrew Lansley.

Mr Lansley has agreed that consultant-led births and inpatient children’s services can move from Maidstone Hospital to the new Pembury Hospital, which is in the final stages of construction. However, he has asked for the level of specialist paediatric input at Maidstone accident and emergency department after services move to be reconsidered.

The plans had been originally agreed in 2004 but the county council’s overview and scrutiny committee asked former health secretary Andy Burnham to think again earlier this year.

He asked the Independent Reconfiguration Panel to investigate but it said the plans were not suitable for a full review - highlighting the investment already made to enable the new hospital to deal with services transferring from both Maidstone and the existing Pembury Hospital. Mr Lansley accepted the IRP recommendations in July but asked NHS South East Coast to produce an additional report on the changes.

That was seized on by the Conservative MP for Maidstone Helen Grant and other campaigners, who tried to reopen the original decision to move services 15 miles from the county town. Some local GPs were also unhappy with the loss of services and there was public concern about the length of time patient transfers would take. 

Mr Lansley’s announcement on Tuesday – which follows a meeting with local GPs and hospital staff - would seem to end the uncertainty over services.  The Maidstone services are now expected to move to Pembury in September, with a midwife-led unit opening at Maidstone Hospital two months earlier.

But Mr Lansley has suggested that if, in the future, GP commissioners feel there is “unmet need” at Maidstone they could commission services differently. Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells trust has always said that the difficulties in staffing two women and children’s units – especially with specialists in new-born babies – has been one of the drivers for centralisation.

NHS West Kent chief executive Marion Dinwoodie said: “We welcome this decision and can now move forward with implementing the plans. We recognise there are still some concerns about the changes, and we are committed to continuing to address these and give local people the confidence they need in their women and children’s services. We look forward to engaging further with local people as the implementation progresses.”

Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust chief executive Glenn Douglas said: “These important changes make the very best use of the skills and expertise that exist within our clinical teams for patients and maintain the highest and safest standards of care for women and children throughout the south of West Kent.

Candy Morris, chief executive of NHS South East Coast said: “We very much welcome the decision of the health secretary that plans to centralise specialist inpatient women’s and children’s services at the new Pembury hospital should go ahead.”

A spokesman for Ms Grant said that she was seeking “clarification” over the announcement.