Sunderland is Britain’s most successful exporting city, new research released today shows.
Wearside exports were worth nearly £5billion in 2014, according to economic thinktank Centre for Cities - the equivalent of £40,650 per job in the city.
London was the biggest overall exporter - bringing in a whopping £127billion - but the Capital’s far greater population means that figure is the equivalent of less than £24,000 per worker.
Sunderland-born Centre for Cities economist Paul Swinney said today’s report highlighted how dependent Sunderland was on the automotive industry, which accounts for 80% of the city’s foreign business.
"Four-fifths of all our exports are cars - if you didn’t have Nissan and the supply chain, Sunderland would be the 12th lowest exporter, rather than the highest," he said.
Sunderland was not making the most of its export success because of the comparatively low-skilled jobs in the automotive industry across the city. "What Nissan does is great and should rightly be celebrated, but from a point of view of productivity, Sunderland is below the national average," said Paul.
"At first glance, that doesn’t seem to make sense, but it is because of the types of activity that are going on in the plant, as opposed to what Nissan does elsewhere.
"The Qashqai was designed in Paddington and engineered in Cranfield. It is just assembled in Sunderland - all the high value stuff is being done elsewhere.
"Sunderland gets credited with the export, but all the value that has been put into it did not happen in the North East."
The announcement that Nissan is to build new versions of the Qashqai and X-Trail on Wearside was welcome but the city could not afford to rely on the car industry alone. "For Sunderland and the North East, that is great news, because it keeps the plant here, but we need to be thinking more about what are we going to do in the long term," said Paul.
"We can’t rely on Nissan. We need to make sure we are creating high quality jobs for the people who live in and around Sunderland.
"At the moment, all the high quality stuff is happening in the South East. The challenge for Sunderland is how do we bring these high quality jobs in?
"Attracting people like Nissan has been fantastic, but we now need to be doing something different.
"Over the last ten years, the plan has remained the same - 'how do we attract low-skill jobs to the edge of the city? rather than how do we bring high-quality jobs in?'
"That is what makes Vaux critical. It is the centrepiece of what the city needs to be doing in terms of creating these high quality opportunities for Wearsiders.
"And you have got to partner that with high quality skills training. If you create these vacancies, but you don’t have the workers to fill them, that is going to be a problem too."
Centre for Cities chief executive Alexandra Jones said the report also highlighted the importance of the UK’s Brexit deal, with the EU the main export market for 61 of the country’s 62 cities.
The Liberal Democrats said Prime Minister Theresa May must protect North East jobs by remaining in the Single Market.
Lord John Shipley, Liberal Democrat Brexit spokesperson for the North East, said: "These figures show exports to Europe are absolutely critical to great manufacturing cities in the North East like Sunderland."
Jonathan Walker, Head of Policy and Campaigns at the North East England Chamber of Commerce, said: "This report shows just how crucial exports are to both Sunderland and the wider regional economy. We must seek to build upon this success by securing more support for exporters, maintaining a mutually beneficial trading relationship with the EU and compete for the best international talent to build a truly global North East."
Sunderland City Council leader Coun Paul Watson added: "Developing a strong skills base to boost innovation and growth across the North East is key to the health of our future regional economy.
"The International Advanced Manufacturing Park offers a fantastic opportunity for Sunderland’s position as the UK’s leading automotive and advanced manufacturing hub to continue to grow not only through this generation of businesses, but through future generations.
"We are proud of our links with the university and college, which have created new learning opportunities.
"With the right skills, we can attract international companies. Growing digital and creative industries demand the specialist skills our universities provide. We have also worked to update traditional manufacturing skills to suit today’s needs."