George Osborne accused of 'secret' visit to Berwick to avoid 'hostile' North East voters

Tory Chancellor announced £22.5m Rural Growth Network fund in Berwick as long-serving Lib Dem MP Alan Beith prepares to retire

George Osborne is charged with hiding from “hostile” North East voters after jetting in to the region to announce a £22.5m fund to boost rural business.

Soon-to-retire Berwick Lid Dem MP Alan Beith accused the Chancellor of revealing “last-minute” he would visit a business in the heart of his constituency.

Simpsons Malt, at Berwick’s Tweedside Trading Estate, played host to the Tory power broker when he flew in from Liverpool on Thursday to trumpet funding which could create as many as 266 jobs in rural businesses.

It comes as Mr Beith prepares to vacate the seat after almost 42 years and all parties scramble to secure Northumberland votes before the General Election in 2015.

Mr Beith welcomed the funding announcement, and added: “But you have to wonder why the Chancellor of the Exchequer had to keep his visit a secret until the last minute – as the man in charge of the Tory election campaign was he worried he might meet too many hostile north east voters?

Scott Dickinson, Labour’s parliamentary candidate for the marginal Berwick seat, was not made aware of the visit.

He said: “We were heavily involved in the bid for funding with the NELEP (North East Local Enterprise Partnership) and we weren’t made aware that George Osborne was coming or indeed what it was about.

“Protocol was totally missed in terms of the council and the sitting MP. This was a little bit of electioneering, it seems.”

The Chancellor meanwhile released details of his new programme, which will see cash reach rural businesses in County Durham, Gateshead and Northumberland.

The Rural Growth Network cash - available over five years from 2015 - is aimed at developing workspaces, including refurbishing existing buildings, bringing redundant buildings back into use, and new developments.

Enterprise hubs for rural business will also be created and the cash will also focus on investment in tourist attractions, accommodation and new equipment.

The money is made up of £6m government funding, private sector investment of £9.5m and £7m of European funding.

Mr Osborne said: “Backing small businesses here in the North East is a key part of this plan which is why we are creating this new fund for business communities in Northumberland, County Durham and Gateshead, totalling over £22m. By supporting these business hubs across the region we can create a more balanced, resilient economy.”

Paul Woolston, chair of the North East Local Enterprise Partnership, said: “The rural areas of the North East are critical to a balanced economy and through this funding we will be able to continue to support vital enterprise activity.

“The Rural Growth Network, which is managed by Northumberland Council on behalf of the LEP, is already working closely with businesses to boost local aspirations and job creation. The funding will build on this to drive economic prosperity in our rural communities.”

Mr Dickinson, however, said it was not clear how the funding would be distributed and questioned whether the cash would do anything to close the wealth gap between North and South.

He said: “The devil will be in the detail.”

Speaking after the announcement, Mr Osborne added he would consider reviewing business rates.

He said: “What I want to do is make sure we have low taxes for small businesses in particular and you have seen already the action I have taken to eliminate the jobs tax for the first £200,000, that bill has just come in this year.

“Next year, we are going to eliminate the jobs tax for employing someone under the age of 21 so I have taken real strides to help small businesses because they are the life blood of the economy and helping on business rates is part of that.”

 
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