£500m fund hope to boost ‘engine room’ of the city

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SUNDERLAND could benefit from a £500m fund to improve the city centre and create jobs, according to a new report published today.

Think tank Centre For Cities says mid-sized cities like Sunderland have to make their centres more attractive to businesses in order to improve their local economy.

In recent years, the Coalition Government has struck deals with larger cities to supply much-needed development funds.

Now, Centre for Cities is calling on the next phase of the city deals programme to focus on places like Sunderland, and advises a minimum £500million fund to help “reconfigure” the ailing centre.

Paul Swinney, from Sunderland, is an author of the report and said the potential exists for the city to perform well economically.

He said: “Within the Government’s approach to economic development, there’s a lot of focus on places that are performing well, but what about those cities that aren’t performing so well?

“The goal of the report is to suggest policy tools you could create to help these cities, and looks at what a city deal might look like for Sunderland.”

Paul says that Sunderland did well economically in the decade prior to the 2008 financial collapse, but notes that of the 105 new businesses in the city at that time, only three had come to the centre.

“The city centre is meant to be the engine room of the local economy,” he said. “But if you’re a large firm looking to relocate to Sunderland, you’re going to go to places like Doxford.”

This, says the report, is down to a lack of large office space in the centre, as well as other issues, such as parking.

There was a blow to the city centre recently, as more than 300 jobs were moved from HM Revenue and Customs centres at Gilbridge House and Shackleton House. Many were relocated to enterprise parks on the outskirts.

The pot of money to reverse this trend would be drawn from European funds from 2014 onwards, as well as other regional funds and private investors.

Paul said: “This isn’t something that can happen overnight, it will be a 10 to 15 year period.

“A short-term boost would be pointless. It’s about getting the general business environment right to secure the future of Sunderland’s economy and to bring prosperity.

“Ultimately, we want to see city centre growth, with higher-value jobs in the economy, increasing the opportunities for people in Sunderland.”

The report has been welcomed by Gary Hutchinson, chairman of the Sunderland branch of the North East Chamber of Commerce.

He said: “Any stimulus for Sunderland, where we have had problems with the city centre, is a good thing.

“We have an excellent record of attracting employers but he haven’t always been able to do that in the city centre.”