• Ben Houchen has written to Northern powerhouse minister to request powers to run health services
  • Had previously said he “wouldn’t want to touch health” because “whole system would fall over”

A combined local authority in the north east is seeking a Greater Manchester style devolution of powers over health and social care, in a bid to “reintroduce” services to one part of the region.

Tees Valley Combined Authority mayor Ben Houchen, a Conservative who is seeking a second term in May’s elections, said a big motivation was the loss of services from Hartlepool University Hospital and he promised to make the region a “centre of excellence” for healthcare services and Hartlepool a UK-wide lead in elective and orthopaedic care.

He revealed he has written to Northern powerhouse minister Jake Berry to request the necessary powers to run health services for the 700,000 people who live in Teesside, Darlington and Hartlepool.

However, at the Conservative party conference last October, Mr Houchen told a fringe event he “wouldn’t want to touch health” because “the whole system would fall over”.

Mr Houchen, who was credited by Mr Berry recently with paving the way for the Conservatives’ recent general election success in former Labour heartlands, said another priority would be tackling health inequalities which mean Stockton-on-Tees has the UK’s biggest gap in life expectancy, with men living in the town centre expected to live to just 64 compared to 85 in Billingham West a few miles away.

“The fact there’s a 21-year disparity in life expectancy between two places just a few miles apart has been allowed to develop over recent decades is an absolute disgrace,” he said. “With the devolution of health and social care we can address these issues and reintroduce the required services to make real improvements in peoples lives.”

A spokesman for the mayor confirmed to LGC Mr Houchen was seeking powers similar to Greater Manchester where a partnership board oversees the conurbation’s £6bn health and social care budget. So far, other metro mayors have been reluctant to follow suit, with communities secretary Robert Jenrick telling the same fringe event Mr Houchen spoke at the government wanted to wait to see “how successful that has been in Greater Manchester before extending it”.

Asked about the mayor’s change of heart, the spokesman said his combined authority had “matured since its inception” and decisions were best taken locally.

He said the local clinical commissioning groups had not backed the plans so far.

“This is an election pledge from Ben and those discussions will start in due course. We are not blind to the fact it will take a very long time to introduce [health and care devolution], possibly all of his next term,” the spokesman added. 

Hartlepool University Hospital is part of the North Tees and Hartlepool Foundation Trust where accident and emergency services or maternity have been centralised at the trust’s site in Stockton.

Mr Houchen said: “There’s a sign at Victoria Park [the home of Hartlepool United FC] that says ‘Poolies are born not made’ and unfortunately because of short-sighted decision making, next to no babies are born in Hartlepool anymore. As someone with strong links to the town I find this very sad.

“Those in London are too remote from our area to understand the local healthcare priorities across Teesside, Darlington and Hartlepool.”

Hartlepool and Stockton, and South Tees CCGs, which are responsible for commissioning most health services in the area, have been contacted for comment.