Sunderland Council debate raises many questions about the ‘State of the City’

The State of the City debate at CitySpace, Sunderland University.
The State of the City debate at CitySpace, Sunderland University.
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WEARSIDERS got the chance to grill the city’s movers and shakers at the State of the City debate.

Hundreds gathered at Sunderland University’s landmark CitySpace building to put their questions and get updates on the big issues facing Wearside.

Council Leader Paul Watson speaking at the State of the City debate at City Space, Sunderland University, on Wednesday night.

Council Leader Paul Watson speaking at the State of the City debate at City Space, Sunderland University, on Wednesday night.

Sunderland City Council leader Paul Watson said: “I stand here with a degree of trepidation but I really do enjoy it.

“Myself and the other councillors genuinely want to hear your views, concerns and aspirations for Sunderland.

“While there are many other opportunities to have your say, this event is one of the most important in the city’s calendar.”

Coun Watson (pictured) was joined on the panel of the Question Time-style event by the council’s chief executive Dave Smith; Dr Ian Pattison, chairman of the Sunderland Clinical Commissioning Group; Shirley Atkinson, deputy vice chancellor and deputy chief executive of Sunderland University and Chief Superintendent Kay Blyth of Northumbria Police’s Sunderland area command.

The theme of the 10th annual State of the City debate, hosted by BBC North East’s political editor Richard Moss, was People, Place and the Economy.

The panel took questions on health services, the environment, key regeneration projects, the state of the city centre, plans for the seafront and key regeneration projects among other topics.

The event was also streamed live on the Your City, Your Say website and to four of the city’s electronic village halls.

Before the event, Wearsiders had been asked to vote for their top three questions on the website.

Users opted to ask about plans to improve the city’s transport infrastructure, including extending the Metro, reopening the Leamside line, boosting the Port of Sunderland and the future of the landmark new Wear bridge.

Second on the list was what improvements and developments are likely to take shape in the city over the next 20 years, including the Vaux site, Holmeside and the A19 corridor Enterprise Zone.

Third was whether or not the £1.5million allocated to regenerate the seafront at Roker and Seaburn was enough.

Both Coun Watson and Dr Smith stressed the need to use public money wisely while striving to attract private investment to make improvements during the challenging economic times.

The panel also highlighted Sunderland’s successes, including the high number of new business start-ups in the city, and the fact that the city’s Nissan plant now accounts 1.4 per cent of the UK’s manufacturing output.

One man in the audience said Sunderland needed to do more to highlight its successes, including celebrating such high-profile companies as Rolls Royce having an operation in the city.

Coun Watson agreed, and said too often Sunderland was portrayed as the poor relation when this was very much not the case.

Dr Smith said at the last State of the City debate he had voiced his optimism that the Vaux site would soon be in public ownership, and faced justifiable scepticism – but since then the site has been bought from Tesco.

He added: “I expect that we will see a significant amount of development in the city centre over the next period of time, but it would be stupid of us not to recognise the scale of the problems and challenges we face.”

One delegate complained that Sunderland was seeing businesses such as TJ Hughes pull out of the city while staying in Tyneside, claiming Newcastle’s retail centre appeared to be more resilient.

Dr Smith disagreed and said Tyneside had suffered the same and it was “swings and roundabouts”.

He added: “The problems we face are not created in Sunderland, but we need to take action in dealing with them.”