A hospital's consultant-led maternity unit has been spared the axe after Health Secretary Alan Johnson supported the findings of an independent review.

East Sussex Primary Care Trust proposed a consultant-led maternity unit at the Conquest Hospital in St Leonards and a midwife-led unit at Eastbourne District General Hospital (EDGH).

But its decision was challenged and referred to Mr Johnson by East Sussex health overview and scrutiny committee, which is made up of East Sussex county councillors.

The Independent Reconfiguration Panel then reviewed the proposals on behalf of the Health Secretary. It ruled both hospitals should retain their consultant-led maternity, special care baby services and in-patient gynaecology.

Dr Peter Barrett, panel chairman, said: “The needs of local women and their families were at the heart of this review.

“Having considered all the evidence available, visited both hospitals and met a wide range of local people, we concluded that women’s access to, and choice of, services would be seriously compromised if the proposals were implemented.”

The panel’s decision was based largely on the risk to expectant mothers who needed to make the long journey between the hospitals during emergencies.

East Sussex PCT wanted to make a single consultant-led centre of excellence to develop staff training but it has now accepted the panel’s decision.

Vanessa Harris, interim chief executive, said: “The panel’s advice contains some very useful observations and I confirm that we accept its recommendations.

“We are determined to provide the very best services for mothers and children and we will now work up a model of care that ensures the continuation of consultant-led maternity services.”

Scrutiny committee chairwoman Sylvia Tidy, who referred the PCT’s decision to the Health Secretary, said: “This announcement is a fantastic result for East Sussex and confirms the value of the committee in its role as a watchdog, holding local health bodies to account on behalf of local communities. We called in the Secretary of State because we, as local councillors, were unconvinced by the proposals. The committee felt an independent review was necessary.”

Eastbourne MP Nigel Waterson, who helped lead the Save The EDGH campaign, said: “This is an amazing result for people power. Local people were convinced that these proposals posed risks to babies and mothers and they have supported our campaign magnificently.

“They have marched, signed our petition and contributed generously to the legal challenge. I could not be prouder of my constituents.”

Lewes MP Norman Baker, whose constituents use the EDGH, said: “This is a brilliant decision and a major victory for all of us who have campaigned so strongly. It is particularly good news for my constituents in Seaford, Polegate and Alfriston who were facing the prospect of a long trek to Hastings or to the already overwhelmed Brighton hospital.”

West Sussex campaigners were encouraged by the decision. West Sussex PCT wants Worthing Hospital to be the area’s main hospital and has announced cuts at St Richard’s in Chichester and the Princess Royal in Haywards Heath.

St Richard’s would still have maternity care but it would be midwife-led rather than overseen by consultants. As well as losing inpatient children’s services and emergency surgery units, the PRH may be left with no maternity unit.

Serena Tierney, Lib Dem parliamentary candidate for Mid Sussex, said: “It is interesting to see the minister rejected the PCT argument that concentrating maternity services in Hastings would be safer. He also placed considerable weight on reduced accessibility. These are the same factors that affect the proposals to downgrade the PRH unit. I have written urging him to reject the PRH proposals on the same grounds.”