A PIONEERING healthy living partnership launched in Wear Valley is a model that could be put in place throughout the UK, Health Secretary Alan Milburn has said.

The Advertiser's sister paper The Northern Echo teamed up with Wear Valley District Council, Durham Dales Primary Care Trust, and Northumbrian Water to extend the award-winning A Chance To Live campaign into the community.

The community partnership aimed at getting people walking, running and taking more exercise, could help communities all over Britain reduce the death toll from coronary heart disease, said Mr Milburn.

At the launch event at Bishop Auckland Town Hall on Friday, Mr Milburn praised the campaign partners.

He said: "What you are doing here is in many ways setting the pace for other parts of the health service, local government and private sector organisations.

"If we can learn lessons from this, we will apply them elsewhere." The Northern Echo originally aimed to reduce waiting times for heart patients after the death of Darlington father-of-two Ian Weir, the newspaper's deputy chief photographer.

Mr Weir, 38, a friend of the Darlington MP, died of a heart attack three years ago after waiting seven months to see a consultant to discuss the date of the heart bypass operation he urgently needed.

The Health Secretary said good progress had been made and he praised Durham Dales Primary Care Trust for setting a local target of no heart patient waiting longer than six months for surgery.

The emphasis of the new campaign is heart disease prevention, by encouraging more people to take daily exercise. Wear Valley is the target area because its residents have one of the highest death rates from heart disease in England.

Andrew Kenworthy, chief executive of the Durham Dales Primary Care Trust, outlined the daunting task facing the partners in the Chance To Live campaign. "We cover 540 square miles and almost 90,000 people.

"Within that area you have a 47 per cent greater chance of dying from heart disease than the average person. That is completely unacceptable

"Our common aim is a desire to stop people in the Durham Dales dying from heart disease.

"We aim to give local people the facilities and the knowledge to make healthy choices for themselves," said Mr Kenworthy, whose organisation recently won national awards for heart disease prevention in general practice.

During 2003, a series of events - including the revived Great North Walk - will be promoted under the campaign banner. The programme will also feature other activities, including the Auckland Castle 10k Road Race, The Weardale Triathlon, and The Walking The Way To Health series of walks.

Geordie superstar Brendan Foster, who also attended the launch, and Mr Milburn have both agreed to lead by example by promising to take part in The Great North Walk