Questions have been raised over the influence a senior North East Tory has on the region’s biggest funding body.
Conservative backer and business financier Jeremy Middleton heads up the North East Local Enterprise Partnership business investment section, while also running his own successful venture capital firm, Middelton Enterprises.
Mr Middelton recently announced the firm was hiring the chairman of the partnership, Paul Woolston, to act as its new chairman, prompting concern that the senior Tory has too much influence over a body tasked with spending hundreds of millions of pounds in public funds.
Durham MP Kevan Jones has raised the issue with the cities minister Greg Clark, who has been urged to look into the arrangements taking place at the North East’s most important funding body.
His concern comes after it emerged that former chief executive Edward Twiddy had left the partnership to work for Atom, a digital bank in part financed by a six-figure Middleton investment.
Speaking in parliament, Mr Jones said: “The devolution of finance must not only be seen to be accountable but actually be accountable. What discussions has the minister’s department had about the appointment of Paul Woolston, the chair of the North East LEP, who has now been appointed to Middleton Enterprises, a company run by Jeremy Middleton, a well-known Conservative who is also on the LEP investment board?
“We also learned last week that the chief executive is now working for a Middleton company. Have the Minister or his Department had any discussions about this?”
Cities minister Greg Clark insisted everything was above board at the partnership.
He told MPs: “Of course, I meet the local enterprise partnerships — all of them — regularly to discuss the kinds of deals we are announcing. The honourable gentleman will know that the local authority leaders work very closely together — in fact, his own local authority leader, Simon Henig, is the chair of the combined authority — and that they are democratically elected, and I know that they make sure that taxpayers’ money is wisely spent.”
It is thought there has been a further informal discussion on the issue following the debate,
Mr Woolston has taken the position at the £50m investment company as it aims to build its role supporting growth within the region.
He previously said he has taken the opportunity to learn more about the work of fellow board member Middleton, with whom he originally worked at PwC.
Middleton Enterprises Ltd, a private investment company, has made a substantial contribution to the North East’s economy by investing in and providing business advice to entrepreneurial businesses.
The North East partnership declined to comment on the debate.