A NORTH-EAST steel maker has warned the Government must appoint a manufacturing minister to stop a widening North-South divide.

Tata Steel, which employs about 1,500 workers in plants across the region, says the Coalition must give manufacturing a stronger presence in Westminster.

Dr Karl-Ulrich Koehler, Tata's European operations chairman, says the move would champion the UK's foundation industries, such as chemical, glass, metal and cement makers, and galvanise the UK economy outside the South-East.

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However, Business Secretary, Dr Vince Cable, has dismissed the notion, claiming such a move would be a token gesture.

Dr Koehler said the presence of a new minister would also help combat increasing energy costs, which could force some firms out of the UK, and tackle a worrying skills shortage.

The warning comes after a report from PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) highlighted the North-East as one of the UK's largest foundation industry employers.

The foundation industry sector, which employs about 500,000 UK workers and accounts for £69bn turnover every year, contracted by about a quarter in the recession.

Dr Koehler said: “This report makes clear how important foundation industries are to the UK.

“Much of the innovation seen in parts of UK manufacturing and construction in recent years wouldn’t have been possible without home-grown foundation industries working hand-in-hand with them.

“If the Government is serious about re-balancing the economy and creating sustainable jobs in the regions, it must recognise the importance of the UK’s foundation industries.

“We’re not asking for hand-outs, but we deserve a level-playing field and an equal seat at the table.”

The manufacturers' organisation, EEF, has also backed the calls, saying the longer ministers remain stagnant on energy prices, the more likely firms are to leave.

Terry Scuoler, EEF chief executive, said: “If firms become uncompetitive as a result of high energy costs, we will see more of them disappear from the UK as emerging economies thrive.

“It's not realistic to think we can exist without these industries, which would be a disaster for the UK.”

Dr Cable said the sector didn't need an industry specific minister, but did acknowledge energy costs were a problem.

He said: “This industry wants substance and engagement, and they have got it.

“There is a difference between tokenism and real engagement.

“Industries like metals, chemicals and glass make a significant economic contribution and help drive the success of high-performing sectors like the car industry.

“The Government is investing in hundreds of projects to get our economy going and create jobs outside London through the Regional Growth Fund.

“We do have to address the problem of energy though.”

Tata is the world's 11th largest steel producer, and operates the Teesside beam mill, in Redcar, which rolls and finishes construction steel sections, and the Hartlepool pipe mill, which supplies pipes for energy projects.

The company also has a plant in Skinningrove, east Cleveland, where it provides steel for track shoes on earthmoving vehicles, and runs a research and development centre near Redcar.