The North East needs a million more people if it is to build a successful economic future, one of the region’s top business figures has said.
Metrocentre creator Sir John Hall called for the region to “start thinking big” and bring in thousands of highly skilled young people to develop hi-tech industries in the region.
The North East is currently the country’s smallest region with a population of around 2.6m, with official projects seeing that rise by around 200,000 in the next 18 years.
Plans put forward by the region’s various councils for house building to cope with that much smaller level of growth have been racked with controversy, however, with plans to build on areas of the green belt being strenuously opposed in Northumberland, Tyneside and County Durham.
But Sir John said the North East should “think like the Victorians” and put in place ambitious development plans that would transform the regional economy.
His comments were met with incredulity by a leading MP in the region, however, who said Sir John’s call was not the answer for the North East.
Speaking at the annual chairman’s dinner of the Entrepreneurs’ Forum - an organisation formed in the North East to foster business growth - Sir John said: “In large parts of the area there are more sheep than people.
“I cannot give a precise figure, because I am not an economist, but I would like to suggest that a further one million people are needed in the region over the next 30 years; this will help to change the economics and culture of the region.”
Sir John said that the North East lacked leadership in the private sector and action was needed to kick start the region’s ambitions.
“Much is and has been done, but we need to think like the Victorians. They were ambitious entrepreneurs and thought big,” he said.
“We need to look to other parts of Europe to bring in educated and qualified people for the industries of the future. We need the infrastructure of course, and more new towns and cranes on the skyline. People have confidence when they see progress, change and investment.”
Sir John’s comments will interest many given the way he transformed Tyneside in the 1980s and 1990s with the development of the Metrocentre in Gateshead and the Wynyard Hall estate on Teesside.
At the end of last year he clashed with Labour politicians when he said the region lacked political leadership. The developer has for many years been a prominent Conservative supporter and has given large donations to Tory candidates at this year’s General Election.
Councils in Tyne and Wear, Northumberland and County Durham have drawn up plans that would see their populations grow by around 100,000 over the next 18 years - way short of Sir John’s 1m target.
But even those targets have met strong opposition from people saying that the associated housebuilding needed would destroy large areas of the green belt and is not necessary.
Newcastle East and Wallsend MP Nick Brown said: “This unhelpful generalisation largely misses the point. If the conurbations of Teesside and Tyne and Wear were joined up we would be the fourth largest conurbation in the UK. Connectivity within the region is important.
“We’re struggling to find jobs for our existing population. What we need is a broader, deeper and more sustainable base for the private sector in the North East. The way to achieve that is for the Government to take regional policy seriously and drive up the private sector base in the North East, creating high skilled, well paid jobs so we can enjoy the level of prosperity as the south east.”