Sunderland City Council leader Paul Watson dies aged 63

Paul Watson.
Paul Watson.

The leader of Sunderland City Council Paul Watson has died, it has been confirmed.

Councillor Watson, who was 63 and had served the Pallion ward since 1997, had been leader of the authority since 2008.

Paul Watson.

Paul Watson.

Born in the city, he worked as a shipwright at Sunderland Shipbuilders until he was made redundant in 1981.

Tributes pour in for Sunderland City Council leader Paul Watson

He went on to be self-employed, also gaining a Honours Degree in Law at Teesside University in 1998.

He took a major interest in the city’s economic development as the City Council worked with regional, national and international organisations to attract investment and re-build the city’s economy after devastating job losses in the 1980s and 1990s.

Paul Watson and the site of the New Wear Crossing.

Paul Watson and the site of the New Wear Crossing.

Coun Watson served as the council’s Cabinet Member for Regeneration before becoming Deputy Leader and then Leader.

As Leader he was the council’s chief political spokesman and a major figure in North East regional politics as well as holding national positions.

He was Chair of the Association of North East Councils, which represented all 12 North East region local authorities.

In 2016 he became Chair of the North East Combined Authority (NECA), while he was also Deputy Chair of the North East Local Enterprise Partnership and a member of the Local Government Association Executive Board.

In 2013, Coun Watson helped found the Key Cities Group, which now has a membership of 26 cross-party medium-sized UK cities.

The group has been influencing Whitehall and Westminster decision-making for better and fairer deals for all parts of the UK and to widen the benefits of economic growth.

Within the city, and aside from his duties as Leader of the council, he was Chair of the Port of Sunderland board, Chair of the Sunderland Economic Leadership Board, Chair of the Sunderland Health and Wellbeing Board, and a member of the Board of Sunderland Football Club Foundation.

In his time as council Leader, he oversaw the council taking ownership of the landmark Vaux site, which had been owned by Tesco for 10 years, and in driving forward the city’s regeneration and economic growth agenda.

This included working closely with major employers such as Nissan and taking a strategic lead on the £100m New Wear Crossing project.

This new bridge and its approach roads, due for completion in 2018, is the first major road bridge over the River Wear in more than 40 years.

It is currently the largest civil engineering project in the North East region.

Recently, he had advocated that Nissan and its work force should receive the Freedom of the City.

He was also a proud advocate of the International Advanced Manufacturing Park (IAMP) project and joint venture with South Tyneside Council to attract 5,000 jobs and bring in more than £300m of private sector investment over the next ten years.

A staunch 'remainer', he had fears over what leaving the EU could mean for Sunderland as EU funding was withdrawn but replacements were not being confirmed from the UK Government.

Recognising criticism and failure in the council’s social services, he pushed for a reforming agenda that saw the creation of Together for Children Sunderland to oversee education, social services and all safeguarding in the city.

Coun Watson spoke of his cancer diagnosis almost a year ago after being told he had the illness in June 2016.

Speaking about a conversation he had with doctors, he said: “I was told ‘if we do nothing, you will have three months.

"With chemotherapy, you will get an extra year’.”

His council colleagues have paid tribute to him.

Deputy Leader Councillor Harry Trueman said: "Paul had many talents and among these were how, unlike some politicians, he could take a long-term view and see bigger and wider strategic points and issues.

"As a younger man he had known the difficult times that so many people had experienced in the 1970s and 1980s when he, like many thousands of others, had been made redundant from his job.

"Unemployment in Sunderland during the 1980s was very, very high and far, far higher in some wards and areas.

"He wanted to see Sunderland’s economy grow, see more jobs created and see that people could fulfil more of their aspirations and have more choice. He, like many, could re-call when jobs, any jobs, were very, very scarce and when unemployment was far more common than now.

"We can never be complacent or stand still on these things and while Paul recognised that Sunderland’s economy had re-invented itself, because all the jobs lost in shipbuilding and coalmining had been replaced, there was always more to do.

"Politically, there’s no denying the Labour Party nationally has been through some interesting times.

"Yet during Paul’s time as Leader of the council’s Majority Labour group it saw its share of the council’s 75 seats increased from 48 in 2010 to 67 seats in 2016."

Cabinet Secretary, Councillor Mel Speding said: "Paul was a passionate champion for the people of Sunderland and the North East.

"As chairman of ANEC and latterly of NECA he fought hard to get the right deal for Sunderland and the wider region and was not prepared to make do with second best. He continued to fight hard for what he believed in to the very end."

As Deputy Leader, Councillor Trueman assumes council leadership responsibilities until further notice.