THE latest battle in the fight to save Southampton’s worldrenowned children’s heart unit was due to begin today.

Health chiefs who led the controversial review that put the centre’s future at risk were due to appeal against a High Court judge’s ruling that the process was “unlawful”.

If their appeal is successful then the crucial decision over the future of the Southampton General Hospital-based unit is expected to be made in the spring.

But if their bid fails they will be forced to run a second public consultation, which will not take into account the 250,000 signatures collected by the Daily Echo’s Have a Heart petition.

London’s Royal Brompton Hospital won a legal challenge to quash the four-month consultation that is looking at reducing the UK’s 11 child cardiac units to six or seven last November after the judge ruled it to be “flawed”.

The Joint Committee of Primary Care Trusts (JCPCT), which led the review, rejected the outcome and was granted the right to appeal.

Campaigners, who fought tirelessly during the public consultation last year to show how vital the Southampton unit is, are hoping the appeal is successful so that the 250,000 voices backing the centre will be heard.

Sam Prior, mum of nineyear- old Aaron, who was born with a serious heart c o n d i t i o n , believes the unit is in a much stronger position now thanks to the campaign.

She said: “It would be a travesty if the appeal fails because everybody worked so hard during the first public consultation and a lot was achieved.

“The JCPCT made a lot of progress and listened to the arguments we had to make so I believe Southampton is in a much stronger position now.

I think it is best for everyone if a decision is reached sooner rather than later.”

Jeremy Glyde, of the JCPCT said he was pleased the appeal would be heard.

He said: “We respectfully believe the consultation was carried out lawfully and the decision-makers stand ready to consider the 75,000 consultation responses and other evidence should the initial verdict be overturned.”