Sir John Hall has hit out at a “leadership crisis” in the North East which will see the region left vulnerable to a growing Scottish economy.
The MetroCentre developer said the North East has suffered for more than a generation from weak leadership and he says he sees no sign of that changing.
His comments come amid increased concerns that relationships between the two biggest cities in the North East have broken down, with businesses worried that Newcastle and Sunderland are locked in conflict.
Speaking at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester, Tory party funder Sir John said he was worried that there was nothing to suggest the region had the right political leadership.
“We have had politicians more happy to treat this as a Labour fiefdom than on solving the problems we face and increasingly I think we have to take the politics out of this. Business has to come up with a way of showing leadership here, because the politicians have not been up to it.”
Sir John said he remained unconvinced by the work of the North East Local Enterprise Partnership, the council and business body tasked with helping firms grow.
The partnership, Sir John said, was too small to make a difference, and should at least have been merged with its counterpart on Teesside.
“I’m very concerned for the region,” Sir John said. “I wonder where we are going and how we will cope in the future. There have been many, many interventions, many reports, and a lot of money, countless money, and for what? We are still below where we should be.
“Who do I blame? Ourselves really. We have been complacent, we as a region haven’t had the leadership from the politicians here. And we are just a forgotten region here really.”
Sir John said that while the North East floundered with in-fighting and weak leadership, Scotland was preparing to be a major jobs threat north of the border.
“Who would come here if they could go to a Scotland with powers to entice them?” he said. “We will be left as the region which sells itself as a low wage region, and no one wants that, it would be a disaster.”
Sir John was speaking after claims emerged of a difficult last few months for the LA7 group of council leaders from Durham to Northumberland. It is thought a row over skills funding has seen tensions rise, with difficulty even getting two council leaders to meet.
At the same time the region is trying to persuade Government to create a combined authority, a new super council which, while not replacing local councils, would take jointly all major decisions.
Such a show of unity would encourage ministers to devolve cash to the region, but as Newcastle already has a multi-million pound city deal agreed with ministers, if talks were to breakdown Tyneside would still have borrowing powers.
Last night Iain Malcolm, the South Tyneside Council leader who has pushed for a combined authority, said the region had to operate with the structures it was left.
“The Government abolished much of what we had, then gave us a local enterprise partnership which it did not resource properly while at the same time cutting deeply into local government funding.
“I think the combined authority will make a real difference, it will give us the chance to raise funds for infrastructure projects such as Metro expansion, and create jobs.
“So I would say to Sir John that instead of doing his usual trick of criticising everyone for the sake of an easy headline, as he does every so often, he should look to where blame really lies.”