BUSINESS leaders are today calling for the Government to save the North-East's manufacturing heritage.
Industry bosses say the sector could face potential disaster unless ministers give it a stronger presence in Westminster, fearing companies could be forced out of the region.
The calls come after Tata Steel's Dr Karl-Ulrich Koehler said the North-East's economy would be revitalised by championing foundation industries such as chemical, glass and metal makers.
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Dr Koehler, European operations chairman of the steelmaker, which employs about 1,500 workers in the region, said foundation industries need fairer treatment.
He said a new minister would be a visible figurehead able to fight rising energy costs and tackle a worrying skills shortage.
However, Business Secretary, Dr Vince Cable, says the suggestion would be a token gesture.
Dr Koehler's message comes as the Confederation of British Industry reveals the UK's manufacturing sector benefited from its strongest orders since April 2011, with the North-East renowned as one of the UK's largest foundation industry employers.
Mike Matthews, European operations officer and managing director at Nifco UK, backed the calls for a manufacturing minister.
The firm, based in Eaglescliffe, near Stockton, employs about 350 staff and makes plastic parts from door handles to bumper brackets for manufacturers including Nissan, Ford, Honda.
He said: “If we don't have these foundation industries, we risk increasing imports, which puts us at significant disadvantage.
“After the credit crunch, we saw a lot of the UK's capacity mothballed, and that capacity has never been turned on even though the economy is recovering.
“We have a fantastic chance to balance the economy and it shouldn't be shrunk by an unfair advantage.
“I can't recall the last time someone was pumping up support for UK industry.
“We don't hear enough about the role of manufacturing as a major element in re-balancing the economy.”
Andy Tuscher, regional director (North) at manufacturers' organisation EEF, told The Northern Echo he feared companies would leave the country unless the Government acted swiftly.
He said: “Manufacturing and the wider economy is reliant on our foundation industries.
“If, as a result of high energy costs or other burdens, they become uncompetitive, we will see 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, and the Government must support this vital part of our infrastructure.”
The Unite union has also urged the Coalition to take action.
Tony Burke, Unite assistant general secretary, said: “Momentum is already building because the UK needs an interventionist manufacturing strategy with direction and substance.
“Having a minister for manufacturing, with a seat in the Cabinet to facilitate manufacturing growth in the UK, would be a major step forward.”
Mark Stephenson, North-East Chamber of Commerce policy and research manager, said the region would benefit from added support to retain its long-held reputation for manufacturing.
He said: “Manufacturing and engineering have been the cornerstone for the regional economy for decades and anything that would help our businesses would be welcomed.
“Manufacturers, whatever sector they might be in, face some real challenges, most notably from energy pricing and regulations and skills shortages.
“These all must be addressed if we are to strengthen the economy and help our business achieve their potential.”
However, Grant Shapps, Conservative Party chairman, told The Northern Echo any moves to create a manufacturing minister were distant.
He added: “The kinds of things Tata do are highly important, and there are ministers who do specific jobs to look after that part of the economy.
“Business as a whole has benefited hugely from this Government and so have ordinary people because 1.6 million new private sector jobs have been created.”