The next person to land the region’s top economics job with control over £1bn worth of investment should be appointed by the business community directly, it has been said today.
Entrepreneur Jeremy Middleton, a board member of the North East Local Economic Partnership (LEP), has said rate payers should vote in the new chair of the organisation when current post-holder Paul Woolston’s second term comes to an end in 2017.
Radical changes are needed to the appointment structure to avoid decisions being made ‘behind closed doors’, added Mr Middleton, a former deputy chairman of the Conservative Party.
The LEP is responsible for bringing in national and European funding to the North East and delivering an economic plan to boost growth and jobs.
He said: “The LEP is business-led. They either directly spend or influence the spending of very large amounts of money in the North East. The chairman is the pivotal person.
“It would make most sense to have somebody who is elected by businesses in the North East. Businesses are barely aware of the LEP, and this would encourage engagement as people would be making a choice.”
But taking the chairmanship to a vote has been criticised by South Tyneside Council leader Iain Malcolm, who said it was a diversion from a greater conversation around a genuine devolution deal for the North East.
Coun Malcolm, also sits as an LEP board member, said Mr Middleton’s connections with the Conservatives mean his thoughts on widening participation to the businesses is nothing more than party rhetoric.
He said: “I respect Jeremy Middleton tremendously as a very valued member of the North East LEP, but this is a Conservative ploy and we get it from Chancellor George Osborne all the time – talking about structures rather than real devolution.
“What he appears to be doing in this process is trying to have an argument about how do we engage the LEP more with the region, where the argument I want is what kind of devolution is the Government trying to give – not just to the LEP but to the new Combined Authority.”
He said Paul Woolston’s appointment had been made in consultation with various business organisations, including the North East Chamber of Commerce (NECC).
NECC policy and research manager, Mark Stephenson, said: “Businesses in the North East LEP area will doubtless be eager to support the LEP further and it is heartening to see this emphasis being placed on the role the business community can play for the LEP looking ahead.