A NEW engineering centre of excellence for the North-East would be a catalyst for ramping up skills and apprenticeships, an MP has said.

Phil Wilson, MP for Sedgefield, says plans for the region's first university technical college (UTC) in Newton Aycliffe, County Durham, would be a massive boost for the North-East's manufacturing sector.

The Northern Echo exclusively revealed yesterday (Wednesday, March 19) that the University of Sunderland, Hitachi Rail Europe and car parts maker Gestamp Tallent have revived a bid for the facility.

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Original proposals for a UTC on Newton Aycliffe Business Park were snubbed by the Department for Education (DfE) in January, but bosses are re-submitting the proposals and hope to open the college in September 2016.

The college would train up to 600 students a year, plugging a forecast regional skills gap, with 8,500 engineers expected to retire by 2016.

Hitachi, which will start building trains in Aycliffe in 2016, wants workers for its 730-jobs plant, while chassis maker Gestamp plans to create 320 posts.

Mr Wilson, who played a pivotal role in Hitachi choosing Aycliffe as its base, said a UTC would be vitally important in bolstering the region's manufacturing strength.

He said: “We need something that is going to act as a catalyst to improve skills and apprenticeships in the area.

“These plans will be a way forward to do that.

“If the UTC approved, it will be the first in the North-East, and it could pave the way for more.

“We need increase skills and knowledge and the UTC has my full support.”

The original proposals, which the DfE turned down, had attracted backing from Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin and Transport Minister Stephen Hammond.

The Northern Echo understands DfE ministers were not convinced the bid was ready.

However, Darren Cumner, Hitachi's Aycliffe plant manager, told The Northern Echo: “We have worked on our bid and hope it will satisfy the DfE’s requirements.

“We are looking at all options to encourage young people to choose a technical career, and for us, a UTC is an additional route to do so.”

UTCs are modelled on 1940s technical schools, providing extended work placements and core GCSE subjects to improve skills.

In March last year, the Government approved 13 new UTCs, nine of them in the South, and the coalition Government has backed 45 in total, though the Aycliffe centre would be the first in this region.