THE failure to bid for an engineering centre of excellence could see a town’s firms face a skills shortage as workers move to a major rival company, it has been claimed.

Councillor Heather Scott said Government approval for the region’s first university technical college (UTC), at Newton Aycliffe, County Durham, was an opportunity lost for Darlington.

The South Durham University Technical College will open in 2016, specialising in engineering and advanced manufacturing, and could train up to 600 students a year.

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Three years ago, the Conservative group in Darlington put forward plans, backed by the Baker Dearing Educational Trust, for a UTC in the town, which were not taken up.

Coun Scott, Conservative group leader, said the UTC would have opened next year and been well placed to feed people into Hitachi’s 730-job Aycliffe train assembly plant, as well as helping firms who may lose staff to the Japanese company’s potentially superior wages.

At the time, Darlington Borough Council and Darlington 14-19 Partnership, a coalition of the school and college heads, ruled a UTC wasn’t the best way to improve youngsters’ employment chances.

Coun Scott said: “We have been told for the last five years there is a major skills shortage, and a UTC in Darlington would have helped to fill that gap.

“If we had been given the go-ahead, we would have been in a position to open next year.

“We have got a critical situation.

“When Hitachi starts at Aycliffe, it will be good for the area and they will be paying good wages.

“But some of the companies may lose skilled staff because of that, which would bring problems.

“The decision was down to fear of competition from some people, but if we had the support, we would have got the UTC.

“Students from Darlington will be able to access Aycliffe, but we really should be doing the best we can for Darlington.”

However, Councillor Chris McEwan, the council’s cabinet member for economy and regeneration, said it was fully committed to increasing skills, and pointed to schemes such as Foundation for Jobs, which aims to tackle youth unemployment.

Foundation for Jobs, a joint initiative between The Northern Echo, Darlington Borough Council and the Darlington Partnership of private firms and public sector organisation, has worked with more than 2,500 school pupils.

Coun McEwan said: “UTCs are part of the solution.

“At the time, the 14-19 Partnership had a view, but what is clear is that to improve skills requires a number of players and inputs, such as businesses, schools and colleges and the Foundation for Jobs programme.

“We have got businesses and schools engaging together, which has never been better.

“That includes things like Foundation for Jobs, where companies such as Cummins and Modus, which has a partnership with Darlington College in the C-State Subsea Training and Education Centre, are working with youngsters.

“There is more that we can do and will be doing.”

The Aycliffe UTC will be led by the University of Sunderland, with support from Hitachi and Aycliffe-based car parts maker Gestamp Tallent.

The Northern Echo understands the development will be based close to Hitachi’s plant.

The Government also approved a bid for a UTC in Scarborough, which will focus on advanced engineering.

Prince Charles, who founded The Prince's Trust, which aims to help unemployed young people into work, added: "It's vitally important we inspire our young people to become the engineers of tomorrow.

"That's why I'm so heartened by Scarborough's splendid initiative."