A formal merger could be on the cards for two health trusts in a move that would bring many of the area's hospital, community and mental health services under the same organisation.

The North Cumbria University Hospitals NHS Trust and the Cumbria Partnership NHS Foundation Trust have confirmed that they are exploring options to formally join together.

If agreed, the amalgamation is likely to happen next year.

It comes nine months after hospital boss Stephen Eames was appointed as joint chief executive of the two organisations.

At the time he stressed that it was not a merger or takeover, just that they would be working more closely together.

Since then, a joint management team has been appointed and many of the trusts' support services have been joined up.

Bosses now say the time is right to look at a more formal structure, describing it as a "natural progression".

They say their vision is to see the two organisations, and the broader system, join up healthcare and reduce bureaucracy.

It comes just weeks after the North Cumbria Health and Care System was included in a national NHS pilot to do just that.

Mr Eames said that since the two trusts started working more closely, they have collectively saved £18m and improved care.

“We have quite quickly taken a number of steps to join up our work where it makes sense to do so and we are already starting to see the benefit of these now," he said.

"Exploring ways to formally join our organisations now is natural progression that will fully remove organisational boundaries to make it easier for our staff to work together for the benefit of patients.”

Mr Eames said they would be exploring ways to unite using guidance from NHS Improvement.

It is not yet clear whether this would be a merger, takeover or use another mechanism to join together.

However, as the Cumbria Partnership already has foundation trust status - meaning it has more freedom to make decisions and control its own finances - it is likely that its structure would form the basis of any new organisation. The existing trust governors would, however, have to be satisfied that it was in its best interests.

The trusts have stressed that there are no plans to make redundancies as a result of closer working, however in future some support staff posts may not be filled if they become vacant.

Mr Eames, who is also the leader of the new North Cumbria Health and Care System, said he hopes that the move will pave the way to join up all services in north Cumbria on a larger scale.

“It is our ambition to join up all health and care services provided across Cumbria and ensure we provide more care in our communities through our integrated care communities," he said.

"We know that there is national confidence in our plans. I know there is still a lot to do but I’m confident that this is the next step to moving towards our vision of a happier, more healthier population."

Although health services are being focused across the north Cumbria footprint, the Cumbria Partnership still provides a number of services, including mental health, on a countywide basis.

Although the Cumbria Partnership has already started to look at the future of these services, Mr Eames added: "We will only make changes to this if it is the right thing to do for our patients.”

Mr Eames, who was already chief executive of the North Cumbria trust, took over as head of the Cumbria Partnership following the departure of former chief executive Claire Molloy last summer.

She left to take up a new role at Pennine Care NHS Foundation Trust.

The changes followed the controversial Success Regime consultation on health services in north, east and west Cumbria - including bed closures and the centralisation of some key hospital services - which saw the new vision for local healthcare start to take shape.