SWEEPING changes to maternity care will be introduced in Huddersfield within 18 months.
Hospital chiefs today revealed that the stand-alone midwife-led birth unit at the Royal Infirmary will be here by April 2008.
But they pledged that consultant care and special care services will be in place at both the Infirmary and Calderdale Royal Hospital for the next 12 months, before the controversial changes are introduced.
The details came as hospital bosses moved to reassure Huddersfield women they will still get first-class health services in the town.
Diane Whittingham, chief executive of the Calderdale and Huddersfield NHS Foundation Trust, gave the assurances after the Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt backed trust plans to move maternity services to Halifax.
She insisted there would be first-class services available for pregnant women in Huddersfield, despite the move which will leave only a midwife-led unit at the Infirmary.
However, Mrs Whittingham was unable to answer fundamental questions asked by the Examiner, after the completion of a review by the Independent Reconfiguration Panel.
* What are the transfer times you are looking at? Are these door to door times or ward to ward?
* Won't pregnant women stop going to the HRI and opt to go to Halifax, leading to the eventual closure of the HRI maternity facility?
* How will you feel if a woman or baby dies while being transferred from the HRI to Calderdale Royal Hospital?
In a statement Mrs Whittingham said: "It has been a difficult process for everyone but we have a decision now which helps us to go forward and implement the changes which we believe will guarantee high quality, safe and sustainable maternity services for the women of Huddersfield.
"We would reassure women who are currently pregnant that this decision will not impact on them as they will take time to implement.
"We shall keep everyone up-to-date with all developments as we move towards the new service.
"People in Huddersfield can be assured there will be top quality local medical services which include a first class midwife-led unit and consultant-led unit.
She added: "I appreciate concerns about transport and, in line with the IRP's recommendations, the trust will be working to improve the links between our hospitals and working with the ambulance services to ensure safe, efficient transfers."
* MEANWHILE, a call for NHS services to come under local control was made today after the decision to move vital maternity services from Huddersfield to Halifax.
Lib-Dems on Kirklees Council said the switch went in the face of massive opposition.
The 40,000 people who signed petitions opposing the switch had simply been ignored, claimed the party.
Clr John Smithson, deputy leader of the council's Lib-Dem group, said: "The decision was taken long before the consultation started and, in my opinion, was directed by the Government.
"The whole thing has been a charade, a pretence and a kick in the teeth.
"It's is time that local health services came under local democratic control.
"By that I mean Kirklees Council, which is a democratically-elected body and accountable to the electorate."
The chorus of protests is continuing after Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt's go-ahead for the move.
Kirkburton Conservative councillor Adrian Murphy expressed his disbelief.
Mums-to-be face a long journey from his area to reach Calderdale Royal Hospital in Halifax.
Clr Murphy said: "This is a dreadful and sad decision for the people of Huddersfield and I fear it could have tragic consequences particularly in rural areas such as Holme Valley, Denby Dale, and my own Kirkburton ward.
"There has been overwhelming objections from so many people to these changes, and I find it unbelievable that the changes are going through.
"I genuinely believed that the panel who rubber-stamped this decision would have taken note of the overwhelming evidence that these changes were dangerous and there were genuine transport concerns.
"The gridlock caused throughout Huddersfield by an accident on the M62 the other week only serves to highlight the transport issues that I and many others have raised."
He went on: "It grieves me to say that lives will be lost because of these changes, but I don't know what more people could possibly have done to stop these changes going ahead.
"The words sham consultation and done deal have been used by many throughout this farce. They will get no pleasure from being right."
Greens on the local council joined in the condemnation.
Their leader Clr Andrew Cooper said: "It is unbelievable that a decision has been taken by the Secretary of State against the advice of all local MPs, every party group on the council, an all-party scrutiny panel and most importantly against the overwhelming views of the people of Huddersfield.
"The decision itself and its implications are worrying enough, but the damage that this has done to people's faith in politics and the democratic process will be far reaching."
Councillors from Kirklees and Calderdale who sat on a scrutiny panel which examined the changes said they were disappointed.
Calderdale councillor Peter Coles, who chaired the committee, said: "We took our responsibility to scrutinise these proposals very seriously and carried out a thorough, evidence-based review which considered a mass of evidence and opinion."
Royal College of Midwives Northern Regional Manager, Pat Gould, said: "The RCM is delighted that births will continue in both Halifax and Huddersfield because we realise that maternity services need to be provided as locally as possible.
"The decision shows that people spoke up because they really value the excellent quality of care midwives give to women in Huddersfield and the Independent Reconfiguration Panel has had a very difficult job to try and balance that with the financial situation.
"The RCM will hold further meetings to discuss with the midwives affected the implications of the recommendations, so that we are able to assure women and their families that the care which they have cherished at the Huddersfield hospital will continue in the period as it moves towards a Midwife-Led Birthing Centre."