Hospitals in north Cumbria are nearly £250m in debt, after an explosion in borrowing in the last five years.

The North Cumbria University Hospitals Trust, which runs the Cumberland Infirmary in Carlisle and the West Cumberland Hospital in Whitehaven, owed the government just over £247m in the financial year ending in April 2019.

This is more than 40 times the debt owed by the trust in 2014/15, when it was just under £6m - but hospital chiefs insist the Trust is now managing its money better.

With the debt climbing in the last five years, today's financial challenge for the two north Cumbrian hospitals is unconnected to the historic, much smaller, but still ongoing PFI debt repayments.

For the past five years, the trust has been running an annual deficit - meaning it owes more in debt than it receives in funding. Jumping from £16m to £62m in 2015/16, the trust has since managed to curb the deficit to £30m in 2018/19.

Figures on the trust's debt and deficit were uncovered by a Freedom of Information request submitted by the Labour Party in Carlisle.

The city's Labour MP hopeful Ruth Alcroft described the debt faced by the trust today as "massive".

"The FOI request shows a massive debt that will never be paid off," Mrs Alcroft said.

"Last year this cost the trust £3m in interest which was paid to the government.

"Cumbria has two major hospitals. Our total population suggests we need only one whereas our geography demands two. The funding does not recognise this.

"What we need is for the government to write off the debt, as previous governments - including the Labour government - have done."

But Carlisle's Conservative MP John Stevenson described Mrs Alcroft's demand as "naive".

"Ruth Alcroft is demonstrating a naivety and an unrealistic understanding of what government is about," Mr Stevenson said.

"There is only so much money and it is important that each public service lives within their budget.

"[The government] gives the NHS a substantial amount of money. We have never cut the NHS budget throughout the nine years in government, even though it has been very difficult economically."

Mr Stevenson praised north Cumbria's hospital bosses for their recent efforts in bringing their finances to heel.

"It is encouraging to see that the deficit is reducing, while the actual performance of the trust is improving."

An NHS spokeswoman said the explanation behind the trust's debt lay in the fact the money needed to run hospitals in Carlisle and Whitehaven has been more than that provided by the government.

"The Trust’s running costs have been above the funding made available and so it has borrowed from Government to deliver the services our population need," the spokeswoman said.

"The majority of hospital trusts are now running with annual deficits.

"However, the Trust’s overall financial performance has improved over the past three years."

The spokeswoman explained that a combination of national issues, such as staff shortages, and local issues, such as how spread out Cumbria's population is - all contribute to the financial challenges faced by the trust.

"National staff shortages, the increasing needs of our population and increasing costs of drugs and treatments are areas that increase our costs.

"We are focused on reducing our staff agency bills by recruiting more permanent clinical staff."

A key part of the trust's cost-cutting strategy is the merger, happening on Tuesday, between the Hospitals Trust and the Cumbria Partnership Trust, which runs community health services throughout the county.

The NHS spokeswoman added: "By working together rather than competing for scarce resources, we are able to reduce some overhead costs as well as run our services with a more integrated approach which is better for our patients and our staff."

Current projections suggest the combined income of the two trusts - which from next week will be one - is to be about £380m in 2019/20.

The spokeswoman continued: "At the start of this year the combined running costs are expected to be about £401m if we achieve the increased income and efficiency improvements we are aiming to."

The finance director of both trusts, Michael Smillie, said: “We are continuing to work with our national colleagues around the issues associated with running services in our rural and dispersed geography and we working to be as efficient as possible, with our limited resources going to frontline services.

"I am proud of the way our staff have taken on the challenge to be more efficient alongside our efforts to improve our services.

"By working more effectively within our current resources as well as bidding for more resource, we are improving our financial position for the future."