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City-regions plan faces axe.

Byline: By Zoe Hughes

Plans for Tyne and Wear to drive the North-East's economy are set to be scrapped after a minister suggested the controversial city-regions concept would be abandoned under a Gordon Brown premiership.

Economic secretary Ed Balls yesterday signalled a complete U-turn in regional policy by dismissing calls for city-regions to be the new drivers of economic growth ( and siding with existing regional development agencies instead.

Government ministers under Tony Blair have been eager to promote city-regions as the main way of narrowing the North-South productivity gap.

And the ambitious Northern Way, which aims to reduce the pounds 29bn productivity divide between the North and South, has urged policy to be shaped around city-regions because it was the only way to reap the full benefits of public and private investment and "contribute to the economic transformation of the city region and the North as a whole". Now though Ed Balls ( one of Mr Brown's most trusted allies ( has signalled an about-turn on the issue under a future Brown leadership, saying it was right to "bang the drum for the region".

Writing for The Journal's sister paper in the West Midlands, the Birmingham Post, he said ministers would resist the false choice of city or region, adding: "If we weaken the role of the regional development agencies, the losers would be the cities themselves ( and also the smaller towns and cities who have benefited greatly from the Government's new regional policy."

Backing plans to devolve more power to local communities and councils, he said the region "as a whole needs its fair share too.

"That is why it is more important than ever before for (regions such as the North-East) to have a strong voice and strategic leadership ( banging the drum for the region in the corridors of power".

The Government has never been able to define what a city-region is, with ministers recently admitting the concept could be a travel-to-work area, but also "patterns of travel to shopping centres or entertainment venues or the geographical linkages between businesses and their suppliers".

Leading think-tanks, such as IPPR North, have called for powerful new mayors to take control of transport and regeneration policies in the region ( covering huge travel to work areas stretching from Berwick all the way to Sedgefield.

Researcher Katie Schmuecker, however, said it was right not to choose between cities and regions, adding: "To enable the region and local authorities to really make a difference we also need to see more devolution from central government."

Newcastle city councillor Greg Stone urged Brownite ministers to recognise the importance of areas such as Tyne and Wear and the need to "devolve power to facilitate the improvements we desperately need, such as to transport".
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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Nov 11, 2006
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