Hope you can do better

The Government was told to "get a grip" last night as the Prime Minister dithered over plans to boost the North-East's economic prosperity.

Tony Blair, Prime Minister

The Government was told to "get a grip" last night as the Prime Minister dithered over plans to boost the North-East's economic prosperity.

Demands for action came from MPs after Tony Blair failed to offer guarantees over the Government's "watering down" of a list of commitments to the region.

Ministers are accused of trying to axe transport funding commitments and scale back employment schemes in a planning blueprint for the region.

The Prime Minister was challenged directly over proposed changes to the regional spatial strategy in the Commons by Durham City MP Roberta Blackman-Woods who warned it could be a "very damaging" document.

"If he has a little more time in a few weeks, will he join us in trying to rectify the shortcomings in that document?" asked the Labour MP, referring to Mr Blair's imminent departure as premier.

But Mr Blair failed to say the mess would be sorted out and only pledged to look "very carefully" at what Dr Blackman-Woods had said. The Prime Minister's comments came despite business chiefs expressing alarm over ministers scrapping a reference to "major investment" in key transport links like the East Coast rail link and A1.

Support for modernisation of the Tyne and Wear Metro has also been watered down in the amended spatial strategy, along with the case for a deep-sea container port at Teesport.

And ministers have replaced the mention of priority schemes for upgrade, including the A1 Gateshead Western Bypass, with a vague need to address issues of such important routes. The Government has also demanded regional transport chiefs draw up a map detailing where road pricing could be introduced.

Proposals for "artificial" limits on housing and employment schemes - including a scaling back of the Netpark hi-tech site in County Durham - have also sparked a furious response.

Last night, Hexham Tory MP Peter Atkinson said Mr Blair knew that he wouldn't be Prime Minister for much longer and questioned whether he would even be MP for Sedgefield after the next election.

"I don't think Blair is in a position to do anything about anything. The Government has come to a standstill and needs to get a grip."

Blyth Valley MP Ronnie Campbell branded Mr Blair's comments a "cop-out" because he would soon be stepping down.

He added it was time for the region's MPs to demand a meeting with Prime Minister elect Gordon Brown to get a better deal for the North-East.

"It's Brown who should have a look at this because we getting fed-up with what Wales and Scotland get compared to regions in England and this document doesn't help us at all. We have got a bad deal," said Mr Campbell.

Berwick MP Alan Beith claimed the document was "planning gone mad" caused by the Government imposing artificial limits on house-building despite demand for homes.

Tyne Bridge MP David Clelland said there were "questions" over changes in the emphasis of support for the Metro upgrading but stressed there was still time to talk to ministers with the strategy out for public consultation.

"I can understand how the Government might want to be cautious when it comes to expenditure but that doesn't mean the region shouldn't have ambitions," he said.

Andrew Sugden, from the North-East Chamber of Commerce, said: "We cannot afford to have a regional spatial strategy that doesn't allow us to deliver on those ambitions."

The Department for Communities and Local Government, which is responsible for planning, said it vital to get such an important document right which was why it had launched an extended public consultation.

A two-stage consultation over the spatial strategy is now in progress, in which the regional assembly and other organisations will be asked for additional information over a 10-week period.

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Revised scheme leaves questions unanswered for North-East

* Scrapping of reference to "major investment" in key transport links such as the East Coast rail link and A1 road.

* Mention of priority schemes for upgrade, including the A1 Gateshead Western Bypass, replaced with vague need to address issues of important routes.

* Demand for regional transport chiefs to draw up a map detailing where road pricing could be introduced.

* Pledge to support modernisation of Tyne and Wear Metro watered down.

* Reduction in support for a deep-sea container port at Teesport

* "Artificial" limits on housing and employment schemes imposed.

* Netpark hi-tech site in County Durham scaled back from an expected 120 acres to 32 acres.

* New Tursdale Freight Depot in County Durham ruled out.

* Fears development is too focused on Tyne and Wear and Tees Valley.

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Ministers face pressure over plans for North

Ministers will today come under fresh pressure over a key regional planning document in a Parliamentary debate.

Bishop Auckland MP Helen Goodman has secured a debate in the House of Commons to underline concerns about the impact of the regional spatial strategy, which has been amended by ministers.

The Labour MP said last night: "I am worried that this will prevent economic growth and development in County Durham." She plans to ask ministers to revisit the planning blueprint because of concerns that limits on the scale of key developments would reduce the scope for new jobs and she will call for higher housing allocations.

Durham North MP Kevan Jones, who plans to speak in the debate, said he fully supported Ms Goodman's debate and warned that the spatial strategy would be disastrous and should be "binned" in its present form.

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