SENIOR Conservative MP Ken Clarke has warned development bosses he will consign them to the dustbin as he cracks down on the “last arms of John Prescott’s unwanted plans for regional governance”.
In a bullish attack on the £270m regional quango One North East Mr Clarke told business leaders in Tynemouth that the region would have to make a strong case to prove “it really wanted to preserve” the development agency.
In front of agency staff responsible for creating and safeguarding tens of thousands of jobs he questioned whether people across the North East felt any real regional connections, citing his experience which, he said, proved people in Teesside do not like to be told they are similar to Newcastle and the same with Wearside and Tyneside.
In a clear message to quango bosses he warned it was not right for such agencies to continue beyond their original use.
The shadow business secretary went on to tell regeneration bosses it was wrong for them to campaign against being closed down and questioned the wages and bills involved in running large public sector agencies.
Mr Clarke insisted Tory plans to hand development cash over to city groups with elected councillors taking responsibility would be welcomed.
He agreed, however, that if the region presented an argument to save One North East it would be considered by a potential Conservative government.
Addressing concerns that the region would be left with different cities competing against each other Mr Clarke insisted there would still be some overall regional body if a shake-up came and added he thought competition would be good for the North East.
But he added the agency would have to prove it was getting “the most bang for your buck”.
Attending a North East Economic Forum event at the Grand Hotel in Tynemouth, Mr Clarke was told by Bob Coxon, head of the region’s Science and Industry Council not to assume success in creating renewable energy jobs had come to the region “by luck”.
Mr Coxon said: “One North East in particular has played a big role in our growth. The region has shown it can come together and plan for the future.”
A resolute Mr Clarke looked unimpressed when chairman of the Washington-based Canford Group Hugh Morgan Williams added the region has shown “it is at its best when it works together”.
Mr Clarke did not back down from his stance that the starting point should not be to preserve development agencies.
He said: “The key thing is that you have to address if business want them... I’m quite convinced that the best way forward is through local partnerships that are business led.”
Mr Clarke added that he was convinced there were many who did not want a development agency, dismissing them frequently as “what’s left of John Prescott’s regional government”.
He said: “We have all these regional bodies and they have continued to grow. Whenever I came to the North East in the past I always noted that people were eager to explain that Teesside is not Wearside is not Tyneside.”
He added: “Many agencies have to justify their existence. Many quangos are created with chairmen who do a good job but within six months have gone native.
“Some do a very good job but then try and find something else to do ... and that raises a question of public expenditure.”
He later said his experience was that there would be “healthy competition” if cities competed against one another.
Margaret Fay, chairwoman of the One North East, met Mr Clarke’s criticisms head-on when she closed the meeting.
Ms Fay said: “The economy of the North East has experienced difficulties over the last year or so.
“However, I truly belive we face that with well placed confidence. In my six years as chairwoman I have realised we are at our best and have the greatest potential for success when we all work together.
“These partnerships are central to what makes the region different.
“In the past we have joined together too much to bemoan our fate, moaning minnies some dismissed us as, but those days are gone.”