Upbeat message from affluent visitor

OUTLOOK ... Sir Merrick with Chris Sayers, BT North East regional director, left, and Coun Iain Malcolm at Harton Staithes.

OUTLOOK ... Sir Merrick with Chris Sayers, BT North East regional director, left, and Coun Iain Malcolm at Harton Staithes.

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A LOCAL government supremo brought an upbeat message for the future of South Tyneside on his first visit to the borough.

Sir Merrick Cockell, chairman of the Local Government Association (LGA) and leader of the affluent Royal borough of Kensington and Chelsea in London, paid a fact-finding visit to South Shields yesterday.

He took a stroll along the coastline, met staff in the BT centre at Harton Staithes and visited the site of a new swimming pool under construction on the town’s foreshore.

Sandwiched inbetween, Sir Merrick – a passionate advocate of the arts – met council and business leaders at the Customs House theatre complex on the Mill Dam, saying he was impressed at South Tyneside Council’s ambitious regeneration projects, and drawing comparisons between our borough and the wealthy constituency he represents.

And he told our local civic figures that they weren’t alone in facing up to cuts in government funding, with South Tyneside needing to make £20m of savings in the next year.

Sir Merrick, knighted in 2010 for his services to local government, said: “We need to look at different and innovative approaches to providing public services in a difficult economic climate. Despite the challenges, I sense a positive mood.

“There is a sense of liberation that we have been freed up to work in different ways.

“There are a number of wealthy people in Kensington and Chelsea, but there are also highly deprived areas too and we are working with a 28 per cent grants reduction.

“We are working in partnership with our neighbouring authorities to provide joint services. By doing things together, we are not reducing our sovereignty in any way.

“My borough is small, just five square miles, and I know South Tyneside is not that large either but I was pleased to see the regeneration working going ahead. I saw the new leisure centre that is being built, just as there is in my own borough.

“South Tyneside is also working successfully with its neighbours in North Tyneside, Gateshead and Sunderland to provide services and with its strategic partner BT South Tyneside. It’s facing up to the challenge of working with less money and looking at other ways of doing things while still getting the right results for its residents.”

The LGA is a voluntary organisation that is seen as the ‘voice of local government’ in England and Wales. Sir Merrick has been its chairman since 2008.

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