TRANSPORT ministers have thrown their support behind a bid to set up a new North-East engineering centre of excellence for vital skills training.

The Northern Echo has seen a letter sent by Transport Minister Stephen Hammond urging Lord Nash, the Schools Minister to approve an ambitious bid for a university technical college (UTC) in Newton Aycliffe, County Durham.

The letter says that Patrick McLoughlin, the Transport Secretary, also supports the scheme, which aims to train up to 600 engineers a year for Hitachi's new train factory and other local employers. 

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The college, which would be the first of its type in the North-East, is being proposed by the University of Sunderland with endorsement from Hitachi Rail Europe and car parts manufacturer Gestamp Tallent.

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

Hitachi wants skilled workers for its 730 jobs plant, while car chassis maker Gestamp plans to create 320 jobs.

On a visit yesterday to Darlington, Lord Nash declined to say if he agreed with his Government colleagues and said his decision would be announced in the coming weeks.

The team behind the bid had hoped to get the go ahead before Christmas, but it is understood that Lord Nash wanted more time to consider the proposal.

The delay prompted fears that the scheme would be rejected. 

However, pressure from Mr McLoughlin, who recently visited the Aycliffe site where Hitachi will open its train plant in spring 2016, heaps pressure on Lord Nash to show support for North-East engineering and approve the college.

The letter says that the DFT believes the Aycliffe UTC represents "an excellent example of essential investment in the UK rail supply chain and the technical training of young people to support the industry.

It continues: "The success of the new college will ensure that the new factory is able to attract the right employees and that they have the right skills to deliver the impressive, ambitious and exciting things Hitachi want to realise at the site.

"I hope that the Department for Education will continue to work with Hitachi to develop the proposal for the new college and in turn secure the future of the rail supply chain in the UK, as well as support the significant investment in rail the IEP (Inter City Express Programme) represents," Mr Hammond  concludes.